Corinne is 26 years old and has been married to Ted for 5 years. She worries that her marriage isn’t what it should be. She thinks her husband is working too much and is distancing from her. She has tried to talk to him but he has suggested that she is too needy. Corinne has become increasingly depressed and irritable. She started therapy, thinking maybe he has a point. Maybe she is too needy.
Corinne’s therapist is kind and compassionate but has little training in couples work. She listens to Corinne’s complaints and validates her feelings. She suggests that Corinne trust her instincts about her marriage and says that maybe what she needed when she met Ted as a teen isn’t what she needs now. She should think about it. Further, the therapist doesn’t think neediness is the issue but is concerned about Corinne’s depression. She suggests that Corinne’s depression might be rooted in her discouragement about her marriage. She therefore refers Corinne to a psychiatrist for some medication.
When Corinne gets home, she tells Ted she’s not too needy and that their relationship is causing her depression — her therapist says so.
Ted feels defensive and angry that someone he has never met is judging him. He and Corinne have yet another argument about his commitment to his work. Corinne wishes that Ted would be as understanding as her therapist.
Over the some 40 years I’ve been a therapist, I’ve become increasingly convinced that people who describe their primary problem as conflict with their spouse are ill served by individual therapy. I’d even go so far as to say that, unless the therapist is skilled in couples work as well, individual therapy when someone is in a distressed marriage is likely to tip the balance to divorce.
Why? Because individual therapy focuses on the pain of the individual. The therapist has only the client’s reports about his or her spouse — which may be inaccurate or, however unconsciously, self-serving. Transference issues bloom as the client comes to see the therapist as the person who understands, cares and supports in ways the spouse does not. The client tries to get the spouse to do things differently — as the therapist has suggested in session. The spouse begins to wonder what her or his partner is telling the therapist and may become anxious, distrustful or resentful. The client accuses the spouse of not supporting the therapy and wonders “Why can’t you be as compassionate and wise as my therapist?”As the relationship with a third party, the therapist, becomes deeper, the spousal relationship becomes less so. This sounds very much like an “affair” to me — with all the destructive power that an affair can wreak.
The problem is compounded when there is a therapist for each partner. Now there are two sympathetic therapists listening to individuals complain “my spouse doesn’t understand me.” Instead of learning to understand each other, each member of the couple is turning to someone outside the marriage to listen to their feelings and offer solace.
Let’s say that Ted, in the story above, gets a therapist of his own. Ted tells the therapist that he loves his wife but is concerned about her depression. He adds that he has done all he can but Corinne seems to always want more. Further, he says, he hasn’t changed since they married and that it frustrates him that Corinne seems to want to change him.