By Gary Direnfeld, MSW, RSW
Even in the face of rising divorce rates, no couple includes the vow, “And
in 5 years we hope to divorce.” Marriage is seen as a commitment –
for keeps. When distress abounds, couples are faced with a number of survival
strategies. Depending on the issue, some couples will bind together to overcome
adversity. Other couples may run in opposite direction, losing the benefit of
mutual support and others will simply hunker down to ride out the storm. Interestingly,
recent research suggests that of unhappy couples that do hunker down 2/3’s
become happy couples after a period of about five years1.
For those that cannot hunker down or pull together, marital therapy is seen
as strategy to get on track.
Marital therapy is more often provided by persons whose training is primarily
in individual therapy as if to say all therapy is alike. Accordingly, 80 percent
of all private practice therapists in the United States say they do marital
therapy and only 12% of them are in a profession that requires even one course
or any supervised experience2. This leaves consumers of marital therapy at a
distinct disadvantage when looking for a therapist.
Very often the call for therapy comes from only one member of the marriage.
The caller is often distressed and looking for help with the marriage. The caller
may request to see the therapist alone first to deal with their intense feelings,
or alternately they may conclude that their spouse will refuse to attend. A
therapist trained in individual therapy will likely see the caller alone. A
therapist trained in marital therapy will strongly recommend that the couple
be seen together and will explain that beginning alone may increase the probability
of a break-up and that the spouse would reasonably reject coming in later, concerned
for a pre-established bias on the part of the therapist from having met first
with the caller.
Other callers may concern themselves for neutrality on the part of the therapist.
Indeed many styles of individual therapy do call for neutrality and intervention
is based upon passive reflecting of client issues. Trained marital therapists
however, are rarely neutral. A trained marital therapist should be biased in
favor of the integrity of your marriage lest they become the catalyst for its
demise. Similarly, a trained marital therapist should have a stated opinion
on matters of violence or abuse or infidelity and see these as serious issues
to be addressed within the context of the marriage.
Marital therapy is one of the most intense venues for displaying emotion. A
trained marital therapist should be comfortable with emotional intensity and
be able to manage and structure the meeting to provide for the safety of the
couple. Marital therapists can be highly directive or prescriptive. Couples
entering marital therapy should expect the therapist to be active in the process
and provide clear direction to improve the marital relationship.
If you are experiencing marital distress, don’t treat all therapists
alike. Look for a marital therapist who has had specific training, is comfortable
with emotional intensity and will offer clear direction to help resolve identified
problems. Lastly, be sure the marital therapist will respect the integrity of
your marriage and work towards resolving problems as opposed to falling prey
to your conflict or questioning your commitment or desire to remain married.
If in the process you decide to end your marriage, it should be a matter of
your decision, not the outcome of poor therapy. Poor therapy can hurt. Good
therapy can help.