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July 12, 1999 e-mail e-mail to a friend in need


Couples Counseling Today: A Couch of its Own

Remember, BG is only a superhero, not a professional psychologist. So I put couples on the Couples Counseling List when my best-guess answer to the question "Can This Marriage Be Saved?" (r) is "Perhaps, but it might take BG and Belleruth an hour-long letter once or twice a week." (Or, "Perhaps not, in which case these folks could use some sort of exit interview.") Meaning: when, far as I can tell, behaviors are particularly entrenched, conflicts particularly complex ... but no one's budging. Or at least one is not budging on the "fact" that the other's not.

But right now, many experts are wondering: Can This Profession Be Saved? In a recent USA Today cover story, the University of Washington's Dr. John Gottman -- pop quiz: which Dr. John G. does actual research? -- remarked, "A large part of marital therapy is not working. That is just a very consistent finding in the research literature." (Not to mention the divorce rate. Cheap shot*, maybe, but still.)

And so, while many couples are wondering how to do their partnership better, many couples counselors are wondering how to do their jobs better. According to the same article, last week's conference of the The Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education raised challenges and problems such as:

> Only 13% of the country's over 350,000 mental health professionals have received specific couples therapy training.

> Couples themselves wait too long before going. Therapists have to dive into a deep dark sea and attempt to scrape off centuries of barnacles, not even knowing if the bouillon's still there.

> To what degree can/should the therapist be neutral? Does doing his/her job mean attempting to save a relationship by any means necessary? Are divorce and "successful" therapy mutually exclusive?

> Likewise, when you talk about whether or not such therapy works -- well, depends what you mean by "works." Data on results varies according to, say, whether couples are asked about any benefits at all, vs. lasting, profound change. On the one hand, an AAMFT study found that 75% of therapized couples report a relationship upgrade; other research (particularly the late Neil Jacobson's) suggests that benefits fade over time.

> Some have found that the folks who tend to get the most of out counseling are those who are the least freaked out to begin with and the least bound by traditional gender roles (eg "Martians do not talk about our feelings. Unlike Venutians, who do nothing but.").

So. If you find yourself on my Couples Counseling List (or if putting yourself there is on your list of things to do):

  • Check out the AAMFT website (or that of the National Association of Social Workers). Resources in both places are designed help you find someone with the right credentials on the right shingle, maybe even for the right price.
  • Experts suggest that you "interview" more than one therapist, at least over the phone, to see where you do and don't feel a rapport. Can't have three people not getting along. (Note: deliberately picking an icky one and then saying, "See, it didn't work!" is no fair.) Which brings me to:
  • What if your partner refuses? Marital therapist Michele Weiner-Davis told USA Today that being down on counseling doesn't mean giving up on the marriage; it may just be that s/he's not into letting feelings out to a virtual stranger. She suggests that you "do a 180" in your approach-- as in, either stop nagging, or start. Could trigger an about-face in your partner as well. But no one can be forced, of course. The AAMFT recommends that at very least, the willing partner find his or her own couch and take it from there. This doesn't mean You're The One Who Needs Help, okay? It's a start.

And remember, no couples or individual therapy -- or advice column -- "works" the way, say, Ben-Gay does. You don't just, like, apply, hold your breath, and wait.You work.

*Speaking of cheap shots, "Dr." Laura is currently ranked -- by websurfer vote -- as the #1 relationships-oriented website. And (at press time) guess who is #2!?!? (By a margin of a measly 0.083.) You know, "conscience" is a big thing for the Laurapalooza. I invite you to get over there and vote yours.



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