Many people, if not most, enter couples' counseling with righteous indignation. They are there for a purpose and that purpose is to be the one who was wronged! They fully expect the counselor to see how misguided their partner is and to authoritatively tell him/her about their bad behavior. It is almost as if they expect the therapist to reprimand their spouse.
Meanwhile, the therapist has two patients. The therapist has two people to try to consider and to attempt to give equal attention. The therapist is not there to 'point the finger' nor to decree who's right and who's wrong. The therapist is not there to make a judgment. (Therapists are helping professionals, not judges!) The therapist is not there to vindicate anyone either.
In fact, the counselor really walks a tightrope in marriage counseling sessions, attempting to remain in the middle, not to take sides, and to try to give equal time and attention to each partner. Often one or the other partner will leave a marriage counseling session feeling it was unfair. And, of course, it is impossible to direct each session so that each person gets exactly equal airing of their gripes. Over time, everything can be told. But, the patient needs to be patient!
Often people enter marriage counseling not expecting how very painful it might be. There may be some unpleasant surprises. You don't know, going into counseling with your spouse what they may have to say. It's very personal, very revealing, at times, and neither partner can control what happens.
Another frustration that people new to marriage counseling will encounter is how long it takes, or how slowly it seems to go or how they don't get to say their side in a session. When there are three people in the room-all trying to get a word in edgewise-it sometimes seems like there's 12 times as much happening!
Instead of one therapist focusing in on all the aspects of an individual person and what that person is presenting (as it is in individual therapy), there are not only 2 presenters but, there is also the, sometimes intense, reactions each has to what the other says. In addition to these practical matters, of there only being so much time in each session, there is the question of just how many issues are there anyway? Oftentimes, if a couple comes in, having not done any individual work, and having been inattentive to the issues that came up in their relationship as they went along, there can be quite a backlog.
In addition to being a manager, and a referee, trying to establish a personal connection with each partner, trying to begin to analyze what the source of the problems are, the therapist has to do 2 other things in these early sessions---attempt to give the couple some sort of helpful intervention, some reason to hope and, last but not least, to prevent them from leaving the office feeling shattered. Most initial couples' counseling sessions are quite busy for the counselor. Most counselors are, by necessity, more directive in couples' counseling than in individual sessions.
In individual therapy, the patient is the primary director of the course the counseling takes. It can't be like that, in large part, in marriage counseling simply because so many things can be thrown out by the couple that you would end up with a pile of problems and no movement in the process. A free-for-all would be disastrous for some couples; the therapist must be in charge.
Naturally, every therapist is different in their approach: My own answer to the question of what a therapist primarily does in couples' counseling is to work on defining and then improving the dynamics in the relationship between the two partners. The role of the counselor is like that of a sports coach. The relationship in individual therapy between the therapist and the patient is very important. In couples' counseling the relationship between the couple is the focus.
The good news is that, for people who stick with it, couples' therapy can make a huge difference in their life together. Misunderstandings can be resolved, structures for processing problems can be established, new information can be revealed to each partner, learning happens, the needed-to-be-said gets said, resentments get cleared, and, indeed, changes are made.
One of the most dramatic and gratifying couples' treatment I ever did was one in which the step-dad had developed terrible problems in his relationships with his step-kids and was full of resentment for them. By the time that he and his wife arrived in my office, he had inadvertently put her in the position of choosing between them and him. We worked together for a long time. Eventually, they were each able to see and comprehend the other's position in the difficulty. With the understanding came a change in attitude. With the change in attitude came the gradual relief of a lot of hurt. They were able to begin to relax and finally, to be comfortable and contented with each other. That's putting a lot of work, in many weekly sessions, over several years, in a nutshell, but it was wonderful to see that success and I'll never forget it.
Related posts are titled, Design By Default and, Oh! That First Visit:
Do you have a marriage counseling experience you'd like to share something about here?