Does Marriage Counseling Work?

I sat with my wife at our assigned table for the graduation reception with other students and professors of the nursing faculty. I quickly learned I was the only spouse in this group, and therefore the only “civilian” in medical terms. Graciously, they ignored me, knowing I had little to add to their discussions and plans. They spoke of going on to Masters, Doctorates and Post-doctorates, the profs trying to convince the students to continue on at the Alma Mater. I threw in a comment occasionally, content to let my wife carry the conversation .

Then she left to run an errand. At that moment, they all noticed me simultaneously. One asked what I did for a living. Since I do several things, I mentioned all of them. When I said “writer” no one responded. To academics, a writer is simply an opinionator without credentials. Then I tried “Pastor”. They smiled politely at that. None of them were interested in religious types. But when I said “counselor” they all seemed to perk up as a group. One gregarious young Master of Nursing Administration graduate piped in: “Oh you mean an MFT” (Marriage and Family Therapy). I politely told her no…I don’t do marriage counseling.

“Why not?” she summarily accused.

Not only was our table looking at me, but several members of the next table were deserting their conversations to listen in. I had a ready audience. So I plunged ahead.

“I don’t think marriage counseling works. In fact, I know it doesn’t. The statistics prove it.” I threw in that last sentence to get them all off the track. Just minutes before, they had all been saying how Statistics was their least favorite college course. I hoped they would get sidetracked on that discussion again and ignore me. No they didn’t.

One of the multi-doctorate professors said, “You’ll have to explain yourself young man”. I instantly liked her. I hadn’t been called a young man since … well, around the time I was one.

“Researchers have found” (always good to start a comment to academics with this phrase) that more people will get divorced if they go to marriage counseling than if they don’t. ”

One of the grads asked, “why do you think that is?”

“Part of the problem lies in the standard format for Marriage Counseling. Traditional three-way counseling involves two people with marriage problems meeting with a counselor they hope will have solutions. Only, that is not why they are there and that is not what happens. What happens is the two of them spend most sessions convincing the counselor they are the righteous party, the injured party or the misunderstood one. And no matter how the counselor wants to claim they don’t take sides, no human being can help believing one person over the other. ” These learned scholars and their teachers were in rapt attention (or comatose) so I took that as a sign to continue.

“The counseling continues until one of the marriage partners deduces they are being identified as the one most to blame. They then drop out and the other marriage partner goes to a few more sessions alone. After that, they usually separate.”

“So is it hopeless?” asked another prof.

“Not if you take a different approach.” My wife returned at that moment, and I decided to include all of them in on the discussion. “Can you imagine if all of you were working in a hospital and realized that a particular procedure was making patients worse instead of better. What would you do?” They discussed the options for a moment as my wife looked at me quizzically. I winked at her and remained quiet until I realized they had come to a consensus.

“We would probably seek to change the way we were doing the procedure until it worked” said the nursing prof who considered me a young man. God bless her.

“That’s what a number of counselors have done. They realized the real difficulty is that no two people have the same marriage story. Even a married couple who come to counseling have different stories about seemingly the same marriage. And for the most part, there is no way to make their stories sync with each other. It is as if they experienced a different marriage. There’s a good reason for this: they have!”

I saved my best line for last: “The truth is, marriages aren’t in trouble – People are. The best a counselor can do is work with them on the details of their story and facilitate them coming to a place of health and it will bring aspects of their marriage into a healthier place.”

We then talked a little about a subject I like to talk a lot on. Most people have hidden motives for going to a marriage counselor. Once they discover in one-on-one counseling what their hidden motives are, they usually are much  more open to solving the systemic problems in the relationship.

In the next article, I will go through the hidden motives themselves. But I was pleased to have several of the profs and students tell me at the end how glad they were to have heard what I had to say. The gregarious red-headed student even said at the end, “You’ve ruined me now…you know that.”

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