Couples counselling isn't always what it's cracked up to be. In fact, in some ways it's the complete opposite of what a struggling couple needs. Why? Because counselling is a practice that primarily focuses on the self. In fulfilling one's own needs over the course of numerous weekly sessions. Or at least until the insurance coverage runs out.
This "all about me," costly and drawn out approach -- one that prioritizes the self while often magnifying a partner's flaws or mistakes -- is not going to help a person see things from their spouse's point of view or have a larger, objective perspective of their problem.
Couples' counselling isn't always a male-friendly experience, either. Many men would rather have a root canal than "emotionally open up" to a stranger. Many also fear that a counselor is going to take sides or overly complicate matters. That's a legitimate fear, since it can happen.
Although counsellors give marriage advice, they may be divorced, never married or on their third marriage. It's naïve to think that an individual's personal experience with marriage or the opposite sex doesn't factor into the relationship advice they dispense. It certainly does.
Plus, many if not most marriage counsellors are generalists: They may have counselled a drug-addicted teen before seeing you and your spouse. Those in the business of providing professional marriage help should be specialists, not only because marriage provides unique challenges but because there is vast difference between one-on-one therapy, which counsellors are trained for, and managing an angry or emotional party of two, which many are not trained for.
Maybe counselling wasn't the right tool for the job.
As a couples' mediator, I regularly see "counselling drop-outs" and have heard first-hand accounts of counselling gone wrong. Take the case of a marriage counsellor who told a 35-year-old father of three young children that he could never "be present" in his marriage until he explored his unresolved feelings for a high-school sweetheart that had recently looked him up on Facebook.
Or the case of a wife who was told that her husband was "ignoring her needs" by working long hours. Apparently it didn't matter that he was working overtime to pay for the extravagant home she wanted.
Isolated incidents of incompetence, you say? Maybe. Or maybe counselling wasn't the right tool for the job.
I've often wondered why psychological counselling has a monopoly on providing marriage help. While counselling can work wonders in cases of past trauma, abusive relationships, addiction, personality disorders and mental illness, not all people with marriage problems suffer from such ills. And if they don't, applying a bandage soaked in psychology can make the wound worse.
In my opinion, an experienced couples mediator is better suited to many marital problems. This is for a few reasons. Mediation is an inherently non-judgmental and partnership-focused discipline. Its goal has always been to improve communication and understanding, find common ground and maintain a relationship (of some kind) between two or more parties. It stresses open-mindedness, teamwork and seeing a situation from someone else's point of view. Nowhere are these things more important than in marriage and family life.
Mediators are often used when things are at their worst, such as during divorce or family mediation. But hey -- if we can do the job then, why not use our skills before it gets that bad? Imagine what we might be able to accomplish together.
Mediators are trained -- from day one -- to keep their own biases and assumptions in check, and to instead be curious about their clients' situation. Expert mediators may offer insight and information, but they don't take sides, advise or "diagnose" people's problems. As a bonus, mediation is a two-for-one deal. Not only does it help spouses resolve current issues, it demonstrates how to better communicate, interact and collaborate as a couple. Those skills become part of the marriage. That's good, because it's always a risk bringing a third party into your private life -- the sooner you and your spouse can go it alone, the better.
All talk and no action makes people wallow in blame, resentment and - worst of all - hopelessness.
Most importantly, an experienced mediator can help couples brainstorm positive yet workable solutions to their problems. This is a necessary yet very difficult process that many couples' counsellors conveniently sidestep in favour of ongoing talk therapy; however, there's no point talking ad nauseam about how your partner's overspending makes you feel unappreciated if you fail to create a realistic budget in a timely manner. All talk and no action makes people wallow in blame, resentment and -- worst of all -- hopelessness. When spouses feel hopeless about their future together, they tend to dial divorce lawyers.
Remember Einstein's definition of insanity: Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Many people feel that marriage counselling is ineffective, yet it remains the prevailing approach to relationship troubles, even in the majority of situations where psychological problems are not present.
It's time to think outside the box. My Marriage SOS practice offers "crash courses" for issues like affairs, poor communication and miserable interactions, and so on; however, I'm certainly not the only practitioner who provides a professional alternative to counselling. These days, you have options. So do your homework and find the right person and approach for you.
Visit DebraMacleod.com for more into.
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