Monday, July 3, 2017
When counselling becomes performance art
A friend of mine is in couples counselling with her husband (after a few years of me nagging her to stop complaining about her marriage and either do something about it or get out). The change, she says, has been remarkable. Her husband is helping more around the house. He's turning off the television and listening to her. They're laughing more. Sharing more. Planning the rest of their lives.
They're also running into something that most of us hit in therapy. Or rather two things. The first is that a genuine desire for help becomes a desire to enlist an ally. Once the worst of the crisis is over and the counselling becomes about negotiating the smaller things, it can too easily slip into trying to use the therapist as backup, sort of "see, she thinks you're being ridiculous too". After all, you think, you're clearly right and your husband is clearly wrong. And surely the therapist agrees.
But a counsellor is not there to gang up on the "wrong" partner. She is there to help you find that place where you can begin to mend some damage, to help each of you see that your point of view isn't so much as a matter of "right" vs "wrong" but to help each of you try to see the others' point of view.
A good counsellor sees his job as teaching a couple to negotiate. A good counsellor should clear the way for you and your spouse to talk to each other and listen to each other. To communicate without someone in the middle. That takes practice for most of us who never learned how to have a healthy respectful conversation in which we listened without agenda, without assumption, without bias.
Infidelity, however, does complicate things.
While it's not the job of the counsellor to pile on the cheater and harp on the pain he's caused, it is reasonable to expect your counsellor to agree with you that what he did was not okay. And counsellors who refuse to condemn the action of cheating, even while supporting the cheater, can do a lot of damage to the betrayed who feels, again, betrayed.
But note that I said it's important that the counsellor condemn the cheating. Not the cheater.
It can feel excruciating to we betrayed wives, however, to have a counsellor who won't beat up our spouse. He deserves it, after all. And especially if we're feeling unheard by our spouse, we want to be sure that he hears LOUD AND CLEAR that what he did means that he's a no-good snake and should worship the ground we walk on because we're giving him a second chance.
If you can both agree that the cheating has caused a lot of damage in the relationship and hurt you deeply, then it's probably time to move onto what you both plan to do about it, how you plan to rebuild. And that's where more typical couples counselling comes into play: How to speak with each other, how to carve out time for each other, how to respond to each other with kindness and respect. Not how to enlist an ally to help you catalogue every dumb hurtful thing your partner has ever done.
This can also morph into a second issue that can arise in couples counselling: using the counsellor as a referee instead of dealing with issues as they arise. (And, uh, guilty as charged.) Those of us who hate conflict can often put things off until we're in an environment where our partner is less likely to respond with anger, or with snark, or any other way that means we retreat into our pain rather than hold our ground. Our counsellor becomes something of shield we use.
Which is fine in the short term. Fine as we learn to use our voice to lay claim to our needs, to insist upon our value in the relationship.
But again, a good counsellor will help you gain the skills needed to tackle issues as they arise. To learn how to bring up a difficult conversation, to recognize counter moves, to know when to walk away if the conversation turns disrespectful.
In fact, the best couples counsellors put themselves in a position where you no longer need them.
It's important to take stock of what we want from our therapist. The best ones are coaches not referees.