12/14/2012 08:21 EST | Updated 02/13/2013 05:12 EST

Is Your Marriage Counsellor a Home-Wrecker?

Happy couple holding hands looking in the sunset

In many cases, couples' counselling can be the final nail in the marital coffin. Why? Because counselling is a practice that focuses on the self. It stresses self-knowledge, personal growth, affirmation and 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 often magnifies a partner's flaws instead of holding up a mirror to one's own -- is the precise opposite of what struggling spouses need to save a marriage in crisis.

Couples' counselling isn't always a male-friendly experience, either. That's kind of a big deal, since there's usually a man involved in a marriage. Women might feel comfortable expressing their needs, emotions and so on to a counsellor. We're used to talking about our problems. Men may not relish the experience. In fact, many men would rather have a root canal than "emotionally open up" to a stranger, regardless of how many degrees are on the wall.

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 doesn't factor into the relationship advice they dispense. Plus, many 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 party-of-two, which many are not trained for.

As a former divorce mediator and current 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, 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, couples' conflict resolution or mediation-based help is better suited to many marital problems. This is for a few reasons. Mediation is an inherently non-judgemental and reconciliatory 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 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 pathologize 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. It's the whole teach-a-man-to-fish thing.

Most importantly, conflict resolution or mediation helps couples brainstorm 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 nauseum 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.

Take the case of a recently-discovered affair. Many couples find themselves swept up in a tornado of raw, conflicting emotion and, until they can catch their breath, they may benefit from brainstorming a short-term plan to help them survive the first days and weeks post-affair. This may include rules about transparency, ending the relationship with the other person, regular check-ins, sleeping and intimacy arrangements, what to tell the kids and so on. It might also include a framework for how to discuss the infidelity in an honest and purposeful way, so that they can begin to understand why it happened, the effect it has had on both of them, whether they want to re-commit to the marriage and, if so, what changes will be necessary.

This approach encourages spouses to gain mutual insight and forward momentum rather than languishing on a weekly basis about how terrible they feel (they already know that) and re-living every nasty word spoken in anger or hurt. Instead of relying on a counsellor to advise them or "diagnose" their marital issues, couples work together to understand and resolve their problems. This process is part of rebuilding a partnership. If you want to stay married, it has to happen.

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 many situations where psychological problems are not present. Perhaps it's time to do something different.

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