It amazes me that most people decide to end their marriages without seeking professional help. The decision of whether to divorce or not is probably the most important decision anyone will ever make. Yet, the fact remains that only a minority of people in the throes of marital problems consult marriage therapists.
Truth be told, seeking professional advice for your marital problems is no guarantee things will improve. In fact, many people have told me that their so-called marriage therapy even made things worse. Most therapists are well-meaning, but not always qualified to do marital therapy. That's why I want to offer some guidelines for you to consider should you seek professional help to improve your marriage.
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 is incorrect.
Marital therapy requires very different skills than doing individual therapy. Individual therapists usually help people identify and process feelings. They assist them in achieving personal goals. "How do you feel about that?" is their mantra.
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 a marriage 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.
Here are a few more tips:
- 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 about the therapist's feelings about the point at which s/he sees divorce to be a viable alternative. Your therapist's response will be very revealing.
- You should feel comfortable and respected by your therapist. You should feel that he or she understands your perspective and feelings. If your therapist sides with you or your spouse, that's not good. No one should feel ganged up on. 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.
- The therapist's own values about relationships definitely play a part in what he or she does and is interested in when working with you. Since there are few universal rules for being and staying in love, if your therapist insists that there is only one way to have a successful marriage, find another therapist.
- Also, although some people think that their therapist is able to tell when a person should stop trying to work on their marriage, therapists really don't have this sort of knowledge. If they say things like, "It seems that you are incompatible," or "Why are you willing to put up with this?" or "It is time to move on with your life," they are simply laying their own values on you. This is an unethical act, in my opinion.
- Make sure you (and your partner) and your therapist set concrete goals early on. If you don't, you will probably meet each week with no clear direction. Once you set goals, you should never lose sight of them. If you don't begin to see some progress within two or three sessions, you should address your concern with your therapist.
- It's my belief that couples in crisis don't have the luxury to analyze how they were raised in order to find solutions to their marital problems. If your therapist is focusing on the past, suggest a future-orientation. If he or she isn't willing to take your lead, find a therapist who will.
- Know that most marital problems are solvable. Don't let your therapist tell you that change isn't impossible. Human beings are amazing and they are capable of doing great things — especially for people they love.
- Most of all, trust your instincts. If your therapist is helping, you'll know it. If he or she isn't, you'll know that too. Don't stay with a therapist who is just helping you tread water. Find one who will help you swim.
Finally, the best way to find a good therapist is word-of-mouth. Satisfied customers say a lot about the kind of therapy you will receive. Although you might feel embarrassed to ask friends or family for a referral, you should consider doing it anyway. It increases the odds you'll find a therapist who will really help you and your spouse.
So don't give up on therapy, give up on bad therapy. You be the judge. There's a lot to be gained from seeking the advice of a third party who can help you find simple solutions to life's complicated problems. Happy divorce busting!
Michele Weiner Davis is the creator of the Divorce Busting Centers.