By M. Gary Neuman
Stacy and Jorge walked out of the marriage counselor’s office angrier than when they arrived. It was their third session and this last fight over his ex wife wasn’t going away. The fifty minutes embroiled in a detailed outline of the battle only charged up their anger and the counselor’s request to remember how much they love each other wasn’t helping. It would be a week before the next session and both of them were already talking about not returning for therapy. Where did their therapy go wrong? Too many struggling couples never seek therapy. But of the many that do, marital counseling falls short. It’s easy to say that it’s the couple’s fault; they weren’t committed enough, didn’t give it enough time or one spouse never had their heart in it in the first place. Any one of these reasons for therapy failure could be spot on but it doesn’t explain the whole story.
Marriage therapy fails for some clear significant reasons:
The Therapist Has Little Direction. This is the worst problem of all. Many therapists are good listeners, a crucial skill. But marital therapy needs a measure of leadership, and skilled listening has to be quickly and effectively turned into a deeper understanding of each spouse. Spouses in crisis are looking for direction, concrete steps to help them mend their problems. Through listening, the counselor needs to quickly assess what has gone wrong, explain this theory to the couple and chart a course for change. This course doesn’t have to be completely figured out but must include an action plan and a time frame to accomplish these goals. In Stacy and George’s case, they had to be shown that the problem wasn’t his “ex” but rather, the lack of love Stacy was feeling from George causing her to feel particularly threatened by energy spend surrounding his ex. George had to recognize what he needed to change in order to help Stacy feel more part of a team instead of George giving her the feeling of isolation when dealing with his ex. Stacy needed to recognize that her intensity over this issue and poor communication made George feel attacked causing him to get defensive instead of understanding. These are serious issues that they needed to start discussing and learning specific tools to combat. It would have lead them to have greater insight to many other of their issues as well.
Spouses Aren’t Asked to Confront Themselves. It’s helpful and often crucial for each spouse to understand their own relationship to love and marriage. The messages their parents imbued in them through their own model has everything to do with the couple’s expectations and actions in the marriage. There are therapist who believe one should not look to the past to explain or help change the present, but I find it necessary for each spouse to own their perspectives so that each one can reexamine them and choose to change them. We often act illogically and hurt our spouse and marriage when in truth, all we want is happiness and love. Therapy is the place to start understanding the deeper reasons as to why we might choose to behave in ways that don’t bring us all that warm love and fuzzies we say we want.
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There Isn’t Enough Time. I’m often given a preamble of years of marital discord with immense crisis and I’m supposed to follow up with, “Let’s spend 50-60 minutes and get to the heart of this.” The weekly therapeutic hour (this commonly translates to a mere 50 minutes) just isn’t nearly enough time to even begin to really solve and heal intense marital strife. Couples come to marriage therapists as the “expert.” It’s the therapist’s job to assess how much time is necessary to accomplish the goals of therapy. Too many therapists are skittish about sounding too pushy, too self serving, too hungry for client hours, when in truth it’s their job to give it to the couple straight and tell them what is the ideal course. If the couple chooses not to follow that course, the therapist can either decline to help them or agree to try it in the manner that the couple wishes. However, a therapist should not agree to anything that he/she feels doesn’t give the proper time needed to help significantly. My job is to turn his couple’s marriage around with changes that will last. I need to help them understand what I need as far as time and their concentrated energy for me to do that job. I’m always happy to hear their thoughts and change my plan based on their circumstances. But I will commonly decline working with a couple if I feel I’m just not given the opportunity to give them the help they’ve come to me to receive.
Therapy is Costly. It’s a simple fact that therapy costs add up quickly. If the therapy is the tool that saves a marriage and creates a healthier future, any amount of money is worth it. But unfortunately, therapy costs can become an additional stress to an already stressful situation. This is another reason the therapist should be up front about the projected amount of meetings and length of therapy. The couple needs to know the plan and be prepared for the costs involved.
Stacy and George needed a course of action that gave them the confidence that they were headed in the right direction. Recently, I developed Neuman Method: Creating Your Best Marriage, an 11 DVD program complete with a 280 page workbook because I felt so many couples who truly wanted help weren’t offered effective plans for an affordable cost. And I ask a lot of the people I help. FYI: if your marital therapist isn’t asking a lot of you as far as energy and focus, your therapist isn’t working hard enough either.
When considering therapy remember to ask yourself:
1. Is my therapist offering enough clear direction? If you are in the midst of marital crisis, get the right help that gives you the concrete plan you need and deserve.
2. Are each of us being asked to confront ourselves and understand some deeper personal issues?
3. Are we giving ourselves enough time and energy to make a critical difference?
4. What is this going to approximately cost and am I prepared to go the distance with this therapeutic plan? Your marriage has spun out of control. Getting it back will likely start with taking some control over your marital therapy first.
About the Author
M. Gary Neuman is a New York Times bestselling author and licensed psychotherapist. His work has been featured on Oprah over 10 times, Today over 20 times, multiple appearances on Dateline, the View and NPR. He has also been featured in Time Magazine, Redbook, Parents, Wash. Post, and LA Times. Gary is the creator of The Sandcastles Program for Children of Divorce, and Neuman Method, a marriage self-help DVD series. Gary can be reached by email for private counseling or further questions at firstname.lastname@example.org