Three Reasons Some Counselors Are Bad at Marriage Counseling -- Part 1

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Pam and Bob, a fictitious couple but very representative of the many couples I have heard from, turned to a counselor for help in their marriage, but after five unproductive sessions the therapist recommended divorce. In shock Pam said on behalf of both of them: The reason we went to the counselor was to help our marriage. Just because we got really mad at each other during the sessions and totally blamed the other and totally justified ourselves didn’t mean we wanted to end the marriage. That’s why we went for counsel! And, yes, I played the victim and sought sympathy more than Bob, who didn’t go to the third session because he was so ticked at me and the counselor, but we didn’t expect the counselor to throw in the towel for us. How could this therapist miss the whole reason we made the appointments? Fortunately for us, this served as a wake-up call for Bob and me. We told each other that divorce wasn’t an option, only murder. We both started laughing. We then found a counselor who believed in “until death do you part” (which may come soon for Bob, in my opinion). This counselor has been helping us since he sees through our tricks and “poor me” tactics yet respects both of us and has given us the confidence we can succeed.

Unfortunately, what Pam and Bob encountered with their first marriage counselor happens more than we wish to acknowledge.

A Concern Among Experts

Do not get me wrong. My son Jonathan is a clinical psychologist, so I believe in competent counselors.

However, years ago Dr. Bill Doherty wrote an article entitled “How Therapy Can Be Hazardous to Your Marital Health.” His credibility as a professor at the University of Minnesota who trains marriage and family therapists got my attention. He warned couples about the downside of bad therapy: "You’d be interested to know that, according to a national survey, 80 percent of all private practice therapists in the United States say they do marital therapy. And only 12 percent of them are in a profession that requires even one course or any supervised experience. Only marriage and family therapy as a profession requires any coursework or supervised clinical experience in marital or couples therapy. So most people who say they’re doing this work picked it up on the side or not at all."

I do not have statistics to support all of my concerns, but might I say, “Buyer beware," to anyone seeking out marital counseling from a secular professional.

Specifically, I have three distinct concerns toward even the most good willed therapists:

1) the counselor’s individualistic approach

2) the counselor’s bias against males

3) the counselor’s moral neutrality concerning divorce.

#1: The Counselor’s Individualistic Approach

Most counselors have been trained to focus on the individual, while few developed skills to focus on a couple. Thus, the marriage partner who expresses the greatest emotional pain tends to get the attention. Naturally, then, the counselor focuses on the more expressive one and either requests the other spouse to make efforts to relieve that pain, suggests individual therapy for both (not necessarily wrong), or suggests they should go their separate ways since they are causing each other pain.

Focusing on the individual may sound reasonable to many. Even my son Jonathan admitted to focusing more on one spouse during the early years of his counseling practice. However, is it only an individual within the marriage who needs the counseling, or is it both individuals?

Liz and Jason

In the sessions with a female counselor, Liz articulates the personal hurt and offense she feels from Jason. After listening and taking notes on her upset, the counselor turns to Jason and recommends ways to ease Liz’s torment. To the counselor, it makes perfect sense: Liz has a problem caused by Jason, and Jason can solve the problem by making an adjustment. He needs to be closer to her emotionally, more open with her emotionally, better understanding of her womanly concerns, seeking her forgiveness, and treating her as an equal. In the counselor’s opinion, if Jason makes these adjustments, Liz will come alive and respond to him, to which Liz agrees.

However, something happens. Jason angrily blurts out in the third session, “This is exactly how it is in the home. What I do and who I am isn’t good enough. Liz is sad because of me and if I change she’ll be happy. I am sick and tired of this."

Liz breaks down and cries, the female counselor tries to soothe her, and Jason exits the office in disgust. The counselor says to Liz, “I see a serious impasse here. I don’t see how you two can move forward with his narcissistic tendencies. He need only listen to your feelings and express his sorrow and good things can happen. I know how you feel as a woman. If Jason cannot make changes, and it does not appear he will, have you considered divorce?"

The Counselor’s Competencies

The female counselor does not say, "I am incapable. I do not have the skill set to serve you. You need help from someone trained to do couples therapy." Instead, the counselor sees Jason as the reason for the stalemate, believes he will not change, and advocates divorce as the remedy for Liz. Of course, that's like a podiatrist examining a person’s foot while the patient complains of a headache and the podiatrist concludes this is a terminal brain tumor.

Recommends Individual Counseling to Get Through the Divorce

Next, this female counselor offers to meet with both Liz and Jason for individual therapy, which is the individualistic approach the counselor was trained to do. Usually only the wife continues with the private therapy. The counselor helps her get through the divorce and on with life as a single person and parent. Here, oddly enough, the therapist proves to be effective! Of course, that’s comparable to an orthopedic surgeon wrongly amputating a person's leg but then effectively helping the one-legged patient learn to walk with a prosthesis.

Do I overstate things with this example? Do I create a straw woman in this female counselor and then knock her over?

I hope I exaggerate.

I want to be wrong.

Truly, I am not trying to belittle professionals, but I think we all have concerns about couples getting bad advice and being told to consider divorce. And I believe the previous example is true of male counselors as well.

Ask Around for Marriage Counselors

What should couples like Liz and Jason do? In seeking marriage counseling, they need to investigate which marriage therapists have proven effective at helping a husband and wife resolve issues and reconcile hearts. This will be more difficult than one might expect. Marriage therapy is hard work and less pay, therefore there are not many competent marriage therapists in the field.

Marriage Therapy Is Hard Work

Such a counselor must wade into the swamp of two people giving contradictory stories, withholding information, making bitter exchanges, placing blame, and justifying self. The counselor must come out on the other side of the quagmire as a successful referee and coach who helped both parties make true progress. It is exhaustingly hard work because it is a battle. One cannot nod the head nonchalantly and empathically say, “Tell me more” when the other spouse is shouting, “That’s untrue! It didn’t happen that way! You’re pathetic!” It demands staying in control as one brings wise clarification between warring parties and street-wise negotiation that achieves mutual agreement on a plan of action.

Warning: The Blind Leading the Blind

My warning to those of you searching for a marriage counselor is to make sure you do not fall victim to what Jesus described in principle.

He says in Luke 6:39, “A blind man cannot guide a blind man, can he? Will they not both fall into a pit?” I do not doubt the sincerity of the blind person trying to help another blind person. A counselor can have deep love and respect that governs his/her attempt to help.

But when a counselor is blind and the couple is blind (not knowing the counselor is not skilled to see how to help), the counselor and couple are headed for a pit. Isaiah 3:12 states, "Those who guide you lead you astray and confuse the direction of your paths."

Discussion Questions

  1. Do you know of any couples who have had a counseling experience similar to Pam and Bob? Were they wise enough to recognize the need to seek different counseling? If not, what was the result of their counseling experience?

  2. Why do you think most counselors have been better trained to focus only on the individual, rather than the couple as a whole?

  3. Do you feel the Liz and Jason example is an unrealistic exaggeration, or have you seen something similar play out like that in the therapy experience of someone you know?

  4. What makes true marriage therapy much more difficult than individual therapy?

Discussion Questions (for Those Considering Marriage Counseling)

  1. What is more important in your search for a marriage counselor: that he/she focuses on your needs or on your marriage’s needs? How will you find out what he/she is best trained to do?

  2. How would you feel if a counselor put all the responsibility for mending your marriage on you? Is this what you would wish to happen to your spouse?

  3. If you do not know of any specially trained marriage counselors, who can you ask for recommendations?

-Dr. E