One of the things I often encounter is a spouse who presents me with a psychological diagnosis of their partner. When I ask them how they came up with this diagnosis, usually the answer will be that it came from a therapist who never saw the other spouse. That counselor listened as one spouse criticized the other spouse in an individual session, and the counselor had come up with a diagnosis.
The spouse usually adds that he or she had been seeing the counselor alone, trying to sort out the issues in their marriage. After listening, the counselor might make a statement to a husband that he was most likely married to a borderline personality disorder. If it was the wife, the counselor might speculate that she was probably married to someone with a narcissistic personality disorder. That seems to be the common pattern. But then the counselor might add, “There’s not much that can be done with that” and they suggest several books to read that describe what they are living with.
Sometimes a spouse, as they continue to be committed to staying in the marriage, begins to get labeled a “victim.” Then the counseling may take the turn of helping that person set boundaries. Many times, this inadvertently encourages the spouse to only see what supports the diagnosis. They forget all the other positive characteristics of their mate. Don’t get me wrong. I teach all my clients to learn how to set boundaries. But my married clients must learn how to do that in the context of the marriage bond.
Many times when a diagnosis is assumed (but not investigated) it will undermine the marriage. I’ve already alluded to that above, but we need to highlight it again. Here a counselor may say things that subtly suggest that the client maybe shouldn’t have married that person in the first place as they are so incompatible. Here the goal seems to be that “happiness” is more important than the tough work it takes to stay together.
Gary Thomas says in his book, Sacred Marriage, that the purpose of marriage is not to make you happy–it’s to make you holy. Quite a different value! I remember a study that reported on a large number of couples who were contemplating divorce. They all basically reported how unhappy they were in their marriage. The researchers followed up with the same couples five years later. When they interviewed them this time, they found that a significant number of those who stayed married now reported they were happy in their marriage. When they talked with those who had divorced, they found that most of them reported they were still unhappy.
So how do you protect your marriage when you seek marital counseling? Remember, you are the consumer. You have the right, and I would say the obligation, to interview your prospective counselor. Here are some questions to ask:
1. What are your personal values about marriage?
2. What percentage of couples you work with end up breaking up? What percentage stay together and improve their relationship? Beware of any 100% answers. No one’s that good or that bad.
3. What percentage of your practice is marital therapy?
4. What is your approach when one person wants out and the other one wants to save the marriage?
I’ve been married a long time. We’ve worked hard at our relationship. We both can enthusiastically say it has been worth it. There’s nothing quite as satisfying as growing old together.