You can tell the state of the situation the moment they walk into the room. If they are sitting far apart on the couch or in different chairs, you’ve got your work cut out for you. Couples counseling is among the most difficult of processes for a therapist. While on one hand you want to be the glue that gets a team back together. You also do not want to encourage a toxic relationship. It is not our responsibility to make decisions for our clients, but to lead them down the correct path. Therapy cannot always fix relationships; it clarifies what is going on and that does not mean everyone walks out happy.
The first question I ask when confronted by a clearly out-of-touch couple is, “OK, which of you has one foot out the door and is just here to show you have made an effort?” And then I dive in. Recently, one partner just blurted out, “I never should have gotten married. I want an immediate divorce. I want you to move out now. This is over.” My other client felt like he was smashed with a baseball bat. He thought that after almost a year of marriage and three years of dating, things were going well. She was bored out of her mind and said so. What I find most interesting is that she said all this to me with him sitting in the room. It was easier to say with a witness who might interpret what was going on. This was fairly clear. He, an always calm, often silent partner, had no retort at all. Any questions about the relationship were answered negatively by her and got a shoulder shrug by him. He is currently packing up, preparing to return to Mom’s and still there has been no substantive conversation. Meeting with them separately she asked why he did not fight for her, even though she would not change her mind. Meeting with him, his response is that she was so definite and mean-spirited that he could not see a reason to “fight” for the relationship. He no longer wanted it. But neither could say that to one another. To stay together would have proven toxic for both which we discussed at a closing couples session. I felt it was necessary to get them to share their thoughts and see just where the relationship derailed. Again, they were not able to look one another in the eye, but talked through me. I was safe, unemotionally, only judgmental for noting that the initial demand was a surprise and really abrupt and perhaps unkind considering a 4 year relationship.
On a more positive note, I have sat with couples apparently estranged and got them to talk through me and say the things they could not say to one another. A lot of this had to do with sex. Somehow, it stopped. They had moved into separate rooms, apparently due to snoring issues, and never had sex again. The woman was suffering from the natural after-effects of being post-menopausal; symptoms where intercourse can be painful (while easy to remedy) and her embarrassment at bringing it up. He, a 65-year old still very virile man was unhappy. And rather than approach this situation with his spouse, went elsewhere for intimacy. Finally, through discussion, a visit to her gynecologist (I suggested he attend), the appropriate simple medication, and some lubricant, life was able to continue as it was. But the initial discussion was too painful for either to bring up with each other.
Asked often, so does therapy work? The answer is an overwhelming “yes.” It allows people to voice to a relative stranger what they cannot voice to one another. That is somehow more comfortable, less threatening or embarrassing and more honest. The triangulated discussion of speaking through a therapist and allowing her/him to then lead a circular discussion can work magic. Therapy sometimes can be that magic pill you never have to take. It is helping those give voice to what they can never say and helping them through that process.