I believe in Marriage Counseling. Well, of course: That’s why I do it! But the cynics among you might think, “Yeah, well, she gets paid after all.” Now that’s a good point. I do get paid, as you do for your work. But honestly, if you did your work, whether it was building buildings or neurosurgery or closing real estate deals, how would you feel about it if it hardly ever worked? How would you feel if your job was a lot of work that went nowhere?

You’d come to hate it.

That’s what I thought you’d say.

I’ve been doing this a lot of years and I love it. I don’t expect to ever get tired of it and I don’t plan on retiring. And the reason is that I get a lot of satisfaction seeing that light bulb go on over people’s heads. (Yes, I can just about see it!) I get intense pleasure when a formerly insensitive person turns with tenderness to his or her spouse and says something kind and validating. That’s my best payment.

On the other hand, there is room for cynicism because the stories I’ve heard make me sad. I’d like to see everyone who needs it benefit from marriage counseling, and unfortunately, that is not the case. So I’d like to present you with three possible sorts of situations in which it fails.

If You Were An Abused Child, Now Is The Time To Heal

The first one is that it can’t get off the ground because a person simply is not ready to confront his pain. Here’s the scoop: Let’s take a hypothetical case of a man named Stu. Stu has, for 25 years, blasted nearly everything that Sue says, criticized it or pooh-poohed it, making Sue feel like less than zero in her husband’s eyes. Although she recognizes that her husband is a good man at heart, Sue decides that she has had enough of the put-downs and wants out. She tells him she wants a divorce.

Suddenly the veil lifts from Stu’s eyes. All the complaints Sue had over the years about how he treated her suddenly make sense. In a panic, he starts therapy. But there are parts to the therapy that Stu doesn’t like. He can tolerate being told that he needs to work on his choice of words. He can even tolerate doing those silly breathing exercises to calm down. But the buck stops with examining the pain his father inflicted on him in childhood. He knows it’s there and he’d rather not discuss it.

The problem is that to feel empathy for the way he has made Sue feel—and that is the only antidote to his continuing to mistreat her—he must connect with her pain. To do so, he has to feel pain, and he can’t or won’t. A person who is anesthetized to pain cannot feel empathy. So his therapist returns time and again to his childhood so as to help him connect with his soft and vulnerable center. But he just won’t go there.

For Stu and Sue, therapy might not accomplish anything. Stu will definitely learn new behavioral tools and he will “manage” his anger. But he won’t get to the place where he no longer has the anger and where the least thing someone else does no longer triggers it. He will still be disconnected emotionally from Sue—which means their relationship will go through the motions without intimacy.

If the therapist is capable and Stu connects with her, this problem can be resolved. Stu himself needs to heal from whatever it was in his childhood that created his bad behavior. If the therapist can start the healing process right away with him by teaching him guided imagery, hypnosis, affirmations, recognizing victim thinking, and rooting out abuser values, he can heal at the same time as he faces his pain.

You Have To Want To Give Up Narcissism

A second situation under which therapy probably won’t work is when one partner is selfish. In order for a person to make changes that are meaningful, that person has to care about the effect of his or her behavior on the partner. A selfish person doesn’t care and won’t go through the motions. Although I don’t enjoy giving people diagnoses, the label that shrinks like to put on this is narcissism.

A quick and easy way to tell if someone is selfish is to see what he or she does after the divorce. If this person finds a new playmate rather quickly, it’s a sign that the relationship that was left behind had no depth. There are also people who do not get involved in a new relationship who nevertheless are selfish people, so that is not the only test.

Therapists Need The Right Tools

The third reason for therapy failure is the therapist’s fault and this makes me disappointed in my profession. It is the lack of tools. People who don’t treat their spouses in a way that is conducive to a deep and meaningful relationship just never learned how. They probably didn’t see their own parents doing it right and they are even clueless that they are missing something. No matter what the theoretical orientation, it is incumbent upon the therapist to provide answers to people who are crying out for solutions. When a therapist fails in this, he or she has been derelict in his duty. The solution to this one, however, is easy: Move on and try a new therapist.

Therapy is great. But it is a partnership between you and your therapist. You’ve got to get past your obstacles and the therapist has to provide the means to do so.

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