Resources for Helping Professionals
The Seven Common Mistakes Marriage Counselors Make
2. Overly intellectualizing marriage and marital conflict. Love is an emotion! You can’t “intellectualize” love. Love cannot always be explained in rational terms. Sometimes, love can’t be explained at all! Without a doubt, love is something you feel – in your heart, your soul, and in your being. When your relationship needs help, the last thing you need is for someone to tell you that what you and your spouse are feeling with regard to your relationship can be explained by some entry in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (currently referred to as DSM-IV-TR), the most widely-used psychiatric/psychological reference book and standard diagnostic tool used by mental health professionals worldwide. Don’t get us wrong, the Manual is a great reference source. But in the end, an intellectual tool can’t measure love! Love is an emotion, and the best counselors know this. They act as a “guide on the side” as you and the one you love address the challenges confronting your marriage. They are not smarter than you. They are not wiser than you. They are trained to facilitate the resolution of a marital conflict. They are not always successful. In the end, it is your marriage, your emotion, your life, and your future – together or separate. The best marriage counselors help your marriage feel – help your marriage get in touch with the respective emotions of you and your spouse. The best counselors help you understand what love’s got to do with it. They help you feel the emotions that cause you to come to grips with what you want from your marriage. To love is to feel emotion. Love is not intellectual. Don’t let anyone resort to intellectualizing when it comes to your marriage!
3. Being an advocate for a particular marital perspective instead of a “guide on the side.” Here’s a truism you can take to the bank – it is not the role of the marriage counselor to be an advocate for anything while counseling you and your spouse about your marital problems! Frankly, their personal opinions are not relevant to your marriage. Their stories about their marriage, their parent’s marriage, or other marriages they have treated do not matter when it comes to YOUR marriage. Your marriage is, in most ways, unique! The answers you and your spouse are seeking about your marriage are not always informed by the experiences of others. While common positive themes run through the best marriages, and while there are telltale signs of failing marriages, in the end, each marriage that is in failure is in failure for reasons that are unique to that marriage. A marriage counselor that assumes your marriage is failing due to anything other than circumstances that are unique to your marriage, is being disingenuous at best, and incompetent at worst. The best marriage counselors are “guides on the side” and not advocates for any particular perspective. Trust us on this.
4. Making marriage too difficult to understand when, in fact, “simple things matter.” We have been saying this for years – our 26+ years of research on successful marriage has revealed some simple truths about marriage. And the simple truth is this – successful marriage is, in fact, simple to understand! The problem now and always has been this – marriages fail most often because couples do not do the simple things required to make their marriage work! Understanding the simple things required to make marriage work means nothing if you haven’t learned what the simple things are or you refuse to put them into practice. Make no mistake about it – successful love and marriage is an accumulation of having done the simple things. You cannot buy a dozen roses on Valentine’s Day once a year and assume that that is enough. Acts of kindness, respect, love, and caring must occur every day of the year – multiple times during each day – and not just on those special holidays. The best marriage counselors know this – do the simple things day in and day out in your marital relationship and you can make your marriage work. If you don’t, your marriage will be in peril. Surprise, surprise!
5. Choosing sides in a marital dispute during counseling. If you are in marriage counseling, look for this action from you marriage counselor – if they take sides – if they choose the perspective of one of you over the other – get a different counselor! Doing your best to resolve the challenges your marriage faces is an admirable goal. Working hard to make your marriage work is a good thing. However, if your counselor chooses sides, it is time to move on. Settling or resolving a marital dispute(s) requires objectivity on the part of your counselor. Do not be mislead or taken down the primrose path by a marriage counselor with an agenda. The best marriage counselors understand that unconditional positive regard for their clients is of the utmost importance. Making judgments, taking sides, and advocating for one or the other can be destructive. Choosing sides can fracture the trust that is required in marital counseling. The best marriage counselors check their opinions at the door. The old axiom says, “First, do no harm.” Choosing sides is harmful. The best marriage counselors know better.
6. Failing to understand the simple notion that most marriages are worth saving, but not all. We have said for years that most marriages are worth saving, BUT NOT ALL! Most couples that go into marriage counseling truly believe that their marriage is worth saving and can be saved. In their heart of hearts, they want their marriage to be successful. But the truth is, some marriages are NOT worth saving. Some marriages have travelled so far down the path of no return that there is no hope. Some marriages are beleaguered by abuse – physical and mental – that they cannot and should not be saved. The consequence of saving such a marriage is destructive. Sometimes, saving the most abusive of relationships is downright dangerous. In the end, the best marriage counselors know that their job is to be objective, open-minded, and honest. Marriage counselors should know their limitations – it is not their job to save every troubled marriage that comes their way. Their job is to be a professional counselor and not a counselor with an agenda.
7. Interjecting personal opinions and experiences into the counseling session. The research on marriage counseling over the decades is clear – the best marriage counselor’s hold back expressing their personal opinions and experiences during the marriage counseling session. Here is a telltale sign – you are having an exchange during your therapy session and your counselor says something like this – “Well, my wife and I have never experienced what you and your spouse are experiencing.”
The question is, who cares! The relationship your marriage counselor has with his or her wife or others is irrelevant to your marital relationship. And frankly, the interjection by the counselor of his or her own personal marital relationship teeters on the edge of unethical behavior on their part.
Worse yet, their personal experiences do not necessarily address the challenges you and your spouse face. Personal opinions are just that – personal opinions. As a client, you deserve better. As a client, you deserve professional behavior from your marriage counselor. Their personal opinions should take a back seat to their professional judgment.
People participating in marriage counseling are very vulnerable. They deserve the best counseling they can get. Counselors are not selling snake oil. They are selling their expertise, their professional judgment, and their years of training as professional counselors. What they are not selling is their personal opinions and personal experiences.
Simple Things Matter in love and marriage. Love well!