There's a popular saying extolling the virtues of mindfulness: "Don't just do something; sit there."
That is a terrible idea when it comes to couples therapy! It's not what most people want, and it's not enough. In fact, the top complaint of dissatisfied clients in couples therapy is that, although some found their therapist empathetic and even insightful, "she didn't do anything" or "he didn't give us skills to do better."
It's not easy sorting out the tangled, complex pieces of a couple's marriage; most of us have a hard time understanding how this person we fell in love with won't give us what we most want--be it sex, sympathy, help with the kids or a sense of security. And the truth is that most graduate programs do not prepare therapists to do the heavy lifting of working with couples and families.
So, couples must shop carefully, and once in therapy, be proactive about getting good help. Here are some things to look for:
- Does your therapist keep control of the room? : A skilled therapist is like a traffic cop, stopping the people speeding and ripping through stop signs (the high-conflict folks) as well as jump-starting the people stalled in the intersection (the conflict-avoidant folks). He won't let a couple go on and on fighting in the room without intervening.
- Does your therapist seem to know where she/he is going? Part archaeologist, part symphony conductor, part sailor, a strong therapist has a good idea where he's going and a guidebook or map to help him lead the way. He may not always know what he's going to find, but he has a really great sense of direction.
- Does your therapist ask lots of good questions? Like a journalist, your therapist should be finding out important data: your strengths and challenges as a couple, your family relationship history, what's wrong and who is doing what, what's happening right now in the room., etc. etc. A good journalist knows what to ask and which important piece of information to follow and which to ignore or come back to later. A good journalist is also ready for the unexpected.
- Is your therapist knowledgeable? There's a lot to know if you work with couples: parenting, sexual and gender politics, addictions, sexuality, blended families, etc. etc. If a couples therapist isn't fully knowledgeable in an area, they should know enough to consult with an expert or refer you to one.
- Is your therapist transparent about his/her values? If you're married to an alcoholic and you want to find out the best way to stay, you don't want your therapist to press you to go. If you're a lesbian couple dealing with one partner transitioning, you want to know that your therapist values you as a couple like any other couple. No one wants to feel "othered," especially by someone you should trust and are paying to help you.
- Is your therapist human? Even the most experienced therapists makes mistakes, blunders down a wrong path, says something awkward. You want a therapist who can apologize, hear criticism, be willing to talk through uncomfortable conversations. You want to feel a sense of connection with this person you are sharing intimate, vulnerable details of your life with.
Lots of negatives to the questions? It's time to go find someone better for you. Your relationship needs it. Your relationship is worth it.