NYC Therapist Talks: Marriage Counseling? Is it BS? Does it Work?

Best-selling author, Laura Doyle, recently wrote a piece for The Huffington Post entitled “6 Reasons Marriage Counseling is BS”.  You can find the article in its entirety here:  In summary, Ms. Doyle, the author of a book entitled The Surrendered Wife, outlines 6 reasons she believes marriage counseling is a “big, fat lie.”  

In response to Ms. Doyle’s article, I would first like to mention a couple pieces of information in her article that immediately caught my eye.  # 1:  She is a best-selling author and clearly has a book she is trying to sell and # 2:  She refers to the practice of participating in counseling to improve your relationship as “marriage counseling” rather than couples counseling or partner counseling.  On the surface you may be wondering why I would care that she uses this language but I mention it because I believe it is the very core of the downfall of Ms. Doyle’s article.

Yes, as a therapist that sees couples for therapy, I bring a certain bias to the merits of seeking counseling for the purpose of enriching your relationships, however what I find most troubling with Ms. Doyle’s article is the vastly outdated gender role adherence and heterosexual/marriage-centric position she appears to embody.  Let’s go through each of her “reasons” to discuss some alternatives to Ms. Doyle’s views on couples counseling.

It starts with calling your spouse a loser

Ms. Doyle begins her assault on marriage counseling by saying “when a wife says to her husband, ‘we should go to counseling’, what she really means is “you’re a loser.”

It’s hard to know where to begin in addressing the enormity of errors in this statement.  For starters, Ms. Doyle makes the assumption that women are the only individuals seeking counseling to “fix” their “loser husbands”.  This heterosexual/marriage-centric stereotype is outdated and entirely unfounded.  In fact, in recent days I have seen a surge in males seeking help to improve and enrich their own relationships be it marriage or partnership.  She additionally excludes same-sex relationships which is not completely shocking considering the content of her article.  She goes on to say that a woman who approaches her husband to pursue marriage counseling is being too critical and her husband will surely distance himself even further from her at the idea that his marriage needs counseling.  Ms. Doyle claims the braver choice is to be vulnerable with each other by admitting you’ve been hurt, rejected, or feeling lonely.  While I agree that vulnerability is the key to improving the connection in your relationships, I can’t understand how going to see a trained therapist to help you in that vulnerability process is a bad thing.  Working with a skilled therapist can make this process easier with the ultimate goal being able to do this on your own.  

Some marriage counselors are failures

Ms. Doyle compares going to a marriage counselor who may have their own failed relationship or worse, aren’t married, to seeing a personal trainer who weighs 350 pounds.  She instead suggests going to see a “wife” who has a happy, healthy relationship.  Oh dear, again I am stunned at her gross misunderstanding of what happens in a couples counseling session and can only assume that she had a terrible experience with her own marriage counselor.  Yes, it’s true that some therapists, no ALL therapists have failed at something.  Failure is a universal experience and all human beings experience it at some point in their lives.  It’s what we choose to do with that failure, how we respond to it that makes the difference.  No one is immune to the difficulties that life and relationships naturally bring, but it is our choices and thinking that determines how that failure shapes our lives.  There are, in fact, many well-known, effective couples therapists who readily admit to having failed relationships.  It is through these failures, however, that they have developed tools and the courage to change their own thinking and perceptions that enables them to help others walk through those difficulties.

Any fool can complain and most do during marriage counseling

Again, I’m not clear on where Ms. Doyle is getting her information and the notion that all therapy promotes ongoing arguing and complaining about each other during each session is an enormous generalization.  I’m quite sure that some couples therapists conduct their sessions like this, but many do not.  Many couples therapists have a structure for their sessions that is based on mutual respect, direct intervention, activities, and strategies to assist the couple in making the changes their relationships require to find deeper connection.  Her suggestion to focus on gratitude towards your partner is actually one such activity that can be facilitated by a skilled therapist who can help the couple move forward.

It’s a hideout for hypocrites

“Marriage counseling will never work because it focuses on someone you can’t change:  Your spouse.”  Let me be clear here, anything you do that focuses on changing someone else will never work.  Every little passive aggressive measure we undertake in the hopes that someone else will change themselves is usually doomed to fail.  We cannot change other people.  We can only change ourselves.  Repeat to self.  Good therapists will be clear about this with couples from the beginning.

Men are not big, hairy women

Ah, this one is uniquely 1950’s, shame heavy.  “But asking a man how he feels in counseling is like asking a woman in a bathing suit eating a piece of cake how much she weighs.” Beyond the obvious gender stereotypes Ms. Doyle is reinforcing with this statement, she is also adding specific struggles she has defined for each gender.  Yes, taking emotional risks is hard and yes, all of us have experienced deep shame when it comes to not feeling enough in some area.  Perhaps for women physical beauty could be a source of shame in the same way that vulnerability may be more shame provoking for men.  But it’s not the case for all men and all women.  And if you identify as a transgendered person, by the way, well, I guess you’re out of luck with having any real relationships problems in Ms. Doyle’s mind as she, in fact, does not make mention of the LGBT community one single time in her entire article.

It’s the most expensive way to try and control your spouse

Ms. Doyle sums up her argument with this last reason by claiming that self-care is what would really help your marriage (read: relationship).  I actually agree with her here, but again, it can be tremendously helpful to work with an objective therapist who can help you define what is important in your relationships and how to take the steps to live that out.

Look, relationships can be difficult and usually act as a mirror giving us an up-close image of the person we are and the things we struggle with.  Any time you have one, two, three, or more people operating in relationships with one another, things can get complicated.  The solution is not to avoid talking about difficult things or to avoid seeking therapy to help you at a time that may seem very scary or overwhelming.  Some couples counseling is BS, as Ms. Doyle claims in her article, but it is a misleading assumption that all therapists operate the way Ms. Doyle explains.  I additionally hope that she does not deter couples from seeking the help they desire to begin addressing the areas of their relationships that are no longer working for them.  A good couples therapist will offer empathy combined with a non-judgmental, but action oriented approach to help put your relationship back in your own hands.

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