Couples counseling is an intriguing notion.
Let’s say your marriage is in trouble. Is it sick? Should you send it to a doctor? Do you need the opinion of someone who has studied gross anatomy and has spent nearly a decade doing medical training? What medicine do you think he will prescribe for your ailing marriage?
There is, in other words, something strange about the notion that troubled marriages need medical or even paramedical intervention.
Troubled couples need mediation more than medication. They need to develop better negotiating skills, not to cure their disease.
Therapists are recognizing, Elizabeth Bernstein suggested yesterday in her Wall Street Journal column, that they need coaching more than individual psychotherapy.
Quoting Dr. Howard Markman, Bernstein writes: “… a couples-based approach can be substantially more effective for the marriage than traditional individual psychotherapy, Dr. Markman says. This is because couples therapy teaches practical skills for improving the relationship; individual therapy often focuses on uncovering patterns from childhood and other experiences. Dr. Markman recently started offering relationship coaching on the phone for women who can't get their spouses into counseling.
If Markman is right that uncovering the so-called patterns from your childhood will not improve your marriage or relationship, then why bother?
Bernstein’s column revolves around a slightly different question: how can you counsel a couple when one member refuses to attend sessions?
The answer is: very well, indeed.
While Markman suggests that coaching can be just as helpful if only one spouse attends sessions, it might be more effective under those circumstances.
When both spouses attend counseling sessions they often feel compelled to bring their conflict into their therapist’s office. They believe that it’s the right way to behave in a therapist’s office. How can your therapist treat your troubled marriage if you do not show him all of its symptoms? And don’t you need to justify your presence by showing your therapist the worst aspects of your marriage?
If you visit a doctor and he asks what is wrong you will both show and tell him all of your problems. Unfortunately, too many people believe that the same principle should define couples counseling.
Surely that is one of the reasons why couples counseling has never been especially effective. And then, the people conducting it are experts in science; they have no expertise in mediation or negotiation.
You might have guessed, without reading Bernstein’s article, that if one member of a couple refuses to go to counseling, that member is most often going to be the man.
We know that most therapists consider this to a sign of an unrecognized illness. They find this refusal a symptom of men’s unwillingness to improve their marriages, their refusal to get in touch with their feelings, and their failure to take responsibility for their faults.
To be blunt about it, most men know by now that the therapy business is biased against them. They know that one way or another they are going to be found lacking or at fault. They know that therapy is an extension of today’s American classroom. In it females are right; males are wrong; females are recognized; males are ignored; females are praised, males are demeaned.
Men are increasingly unwilling to play in a game that is stacked against them. Good for them.
It gets worse. If a man holds to principles that derive from religion, he will be mocked and chastised by most therapists.
American men know that therapy has nothing to do with science or objective knowledge. Today, most therapists are women and most of them are feminists. Most often their principles derive more from feminist ideology than from science or medicine.
If any therapist is tempted to complain about how men do not attend couples counseling, he or she need but recall the old adage: Physician, heal thyself.
In any event the best of today’s relationship counseling uses cognitive and behavioral techniques that were first used in coaching.
Coaches are not interested in the griping and the blaming. They do not need to be exposed to the drama. They do not counsel the full expression of feelings.
They want, Bernstein notes, to solve problems, not to create more drama.
How do they do it?
To start, they want individuals to be more respectful. They know that making demands, even to the point of nagging, does not elicit respect.
If a woman is constantly seeing her demands ignored, then she ought to get off her high horse and stop making demands.
She can, the therapists suggest, ask nicely and be willing to take No for an answer.
For the record, nagging means refusing to take No for an answer.
Rather than complain that she is not being respected she needs to ask herself whether or not she is showing proper respect to her husband.
And she will then need to figure out how she can show him more respect.
There’s an old saying, one that does not appear in medical textbooks, but that does appear in every religion. It is: do unto others as you would have others do unto you.
If you want some to be friendlier to you, don’t complain about how they are not very friendly. Reach out a hand of friendship. If you want someone to respect you more, try respecting them more.
You will be showing them how you wish to be treated, not demanding that they treat you a certain way. If you demand and then receive respect, the respect you receive can never be totally sincere.
Human relationships are complex interactions ruled by a principle of reciprocity. All other things being equal most people are inclined to reciprocate. When they do they do not feel like they are caving in to an imperious demand but that they are acting of their own free will.
Is there any guarantee that your positive gestures will elicit positive responses? No, there is not.
Do unto others ... says that when you show, not tell, your spouse how to behave and if you do it consistently, a failure to reciprocate will tell you two things: first, that you are not the source of the problem; second, that your marriage is in more serious trouble than you thought.