Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Wasting Time in Couples Therapy

Maybe, it wasn’t all a loss. Melissa Fletcher Stoeltje and her husband learned nothing of value in couples therapy. They both considered it a waste of time, an exercise in futility.

And yet, perhaps it was good that they went there together. The one saving grace was that they found common ground in their view that their therapists were all ridiculous.

The couples therapists Stoeltje and her husband consulted were, frankly, ridiculous. They offered up a mix of mental pabulum, bromides and platitudes, all of which were empty clichés.

It could be that the young couple stayed married because they were smart enough to know bullshit when they heard it, even when it was presented in the guise of professional advice.

Why did they go to a therapist? Stoeltje explains the problem clearly:

I was the one who couldn’t stop yelling at my husband when he irritated me, which was often. And he couldn’t refrain from yelling right back. We knew this wasn’t good for our child.

How did the therapist assess the problem, analyze its components and offer ways to solve it?


“Do you love each other?” the therapist demanded, fixing us with a steely stare. It was the first thing out of her mouth. Mark and I sat speechless in our respective chairs, staring back. Did we love each other? Good question, but wasn’t that what we were there to find out?

The therapist told us that we had landed in her office “just in the nick of time,” but that’s about all I remember from our sessions together, which numbered only a few. She dispensed what we’d later come to find was boilerplate couples therapy advice: use “I-statements” instead of accusations (“I feel bad when you say that” versus “You’re an idiot”), don’t take each other for granted, go out on date nights.

This means that the therapist was not paying attention to what was being said. It was not an auspicious beginning. Think of how many years of study it took for this therapist to become credentialed.

The first couples therapist was not an outlier. The others were just as empty-headed.

Allow Stoeltje to describe some of her other therapists:

The same could be said of the half-dozen therapists we would sit across from in the following years. We’d start out serious and committed, earnestly writing down what we loved about the other, pausing and counting to 10 instead of going on the attack. But by session three or four or six, we’d tire of the energy it took to be relationship paragons and start making fun of the therapist.

There was the young woman in Houston with the incongruous henna tattoos on her hands, still doing her doctorate in psychology. She was shy and quiet, almost pathologically so, prompting me to want to grab her notebook and ask, “What’s the trouble, dear?”

Then there was the dashing doctor in the Don Johnson suit who told us true love was being dependent on your partner without him or her knowing it — pretzel logic that Mark and I could never quite figure out.

He was followed years later by the 20-something woman who’d never been married, who pinned our relationship trouble on my habit of watching “Seinfeld” every Thursday night. She’s the one who counseled us to say “Purpose?” whenever one of us said something hurtful, as a way to unearth hidden motivations. Of course, we turned it into a private joke, spouting “Purpose?!” whenever one of us said something even remotely snide.

Not to forget the little Jewish grandmother who told Mark that he needed to quit bugging me about my drinking. (Man, did I love her!)

How did the couple, now married for thirty years, get through it all? First, Melissa eventually got sober and started attending AA meetings. Both she and her husband went to individual therapy.

Since she does not specify the type of individual therapy she underwent we cannot reasonably comment on it.


Sam L. said...

Nor can I comment, other than it seems good that they have sorted out and overcome their difficulties.

Anonymous said...

I have a couple that are members of my family. I read this blog pretty regularly, and understand the concerns about therapists. However, my sister and brother-in-law have stopped communicating and are on the verge of separation. They have 3 boys. What they need is a referee so they can start listening to each other and begin communicating again. What are they supposed to do? Go see a mediator? It's not a divorce (yet). I think they could go see a good marital therapist and make improvement, at least to get dialogue going. Provided they agree the therapist is good and not a man hater or someone who takes sides. What could be the harm in that? I'm very concerned about them. The husband is getting OCD about a lot of things in his life, and he's shut out my sister. My sister is very fearful and anxious about this and the toll his silent treatment is taking on her and that her 3 boys are watching all this. He has now taken to sleeping at his office. His business is not growing and he's taken to all these distractions. Help!

Stuart Schneiderman said...

The advice that the couple gave was that each one individually went to counseling. So perhaps the man needs to find someone to talk to... on his own.

Anonymous said...

What if he doesn't want to? What if he thinks there isn't a problem?

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Is there anyone he will listen to? In some cases men are more willing to see a coach or a consultant than a therapist. Besides, if he is that confident that there isn't a problem, why not get a professional opinion and shut up all of those who think there is?

Anonymous said...

Good advice. Thx. I suspect he is hiding from himself. It takes two to tango, but he's acting autocratically. That's what my sister is afraid of, that she's being shut out. I'm not sure there's anyone he'll listen to. He's isolated himself. Sad.

Anonymous said...

I-statements or I-messages actually have much communication value:


Of course a person whose parents and culture did not authorize self-assertive behavior is going to discount the value of I-messages because self-assertiveness was probably punished rather than encouraged while growing up.