A recent New York Times article warned people about the potential risks of seeking professional help for their marriages. It cited examples of therapists doing more harm than good to the marriage. In my opinion, most therapists don't offer marriage-friendly therapy. Some even see divorce as a rite of passage. Unfortunately, people in the throes of marital problems aren't always able to recognize that they are being nudged right out of their relationships in the name of personal growth. But it happens.
Nonetheless, it's important not to throw the baby out with the bathwater when it comes to counseling. There are some therapists who really make a difference in couples' lives. Not all therapists are created equal.
Here are some guidelines to consider when seeking professional help to improve one's marriage:
1. Make sure your therapist has received specific training and is experienced in marital therapy. Too often, therapists say they do couples therapy or marital therapy if they have two people sitting in the office. This definition of couples therapy is ludicrous. You can't identify the type of therapy that is taking place by doing a head count. Marital therapy requires very different skills from individual therapy. Individual therapists usually help people identify and process feelings. They assist them in achieving personal goals.
Couples therapists, on the other hand, need to be skilled at helping people overcome the differences that naturally occur when two people live under the same roof. They need to know what makes marriages tick. A therapist can be very skilled as an individual therapist and be clueless about helping couples change. For this reason, don't be shy. Ask your therapist about his or her training and experience.
2. Make sure your therapist is biased in the direction of helping you find solutions to your marital problems rather than helping you leave your marriage when things get rocky. Feel free to ask him or her to give you a ballpark figure about the percentage of couples he or she works with who leave with their marriages intact and are happier as a result of therapy. Although your therapist is unlikely to have a specific answer to that question, his or her reaction will speak volumes. You should end up feeling confident that your therapist's primary goal is to help you work out your problems so that you can remain together.
3. You should feel comfortable and respected by your therapist ‑- and feel that he or she understands your perspective and feelings. If your therapist sides with you or your spouse, that's not acceptable. No one should feel ganged up on. Good marriage therapists understand both sides of the story and help couples negotiate solutions. If you aren't comfortable with something your therapist is suggesting ‑- like setting a deadline to make a decision about your marriage ‑- say so. If your therapist honors your feedback, that's a good sign. If not, leave.
4. The therapist's own values about relationships definitely play a part in what he or she is interested in working on with you. When it comes to being ‑- and staying ‑- in love, there are no universal rules. So if your therapist insists that there is only one way to have a successful marriage, find another therapist.