One of the fundamentals of my work in couples therapy begins with this critical question, and it is one which, I believe, underlies the importance of doing clinical work as a part of exploring options in a marriage.
At the very beginning of my professional relationship with a couple, often even before we meet for the first time, I ask clearly and explicitly whether my client is the husband, the wife, or — and here is the central part — the marriage itself. I can do, have done, effective therapy in all of these settings. There are times when an individual seeks a therapist, and when some of the presenting issues are about a marriage which is not where it might be. There are even times when, in doing individual therapy, the client and I invite the spouse to participate in one or more sessions. The goal in doing this may be to gain a better understanding of the challenges facing the client, or to facilitate communication between the parties. Whatever the goal, though, the context is about meeting the needs of the individual client.
My professional and ethical obligation is always to my client. When the individual is the client, it may be that the marriage continues, or not, but that decision will be made personally by the client, as the therapeutic process of the individual evolves.
That is not what I consider to be marriage therapy.
When my client is a marriage, then the goals of therapy, as well as my professional and ethical commitment, are focused on whatever is in the best interests of the marriage itself. This work is quite different. Although it may share certain features, including both individual and joint sessions, it is the strength and continuity of the relationship itself, to the greatest extent possible, which is the stated goal of husband, wife, and therapist. Different goal, different process. I have found that this expands the dialogue, and that, even if the marriage should prove not to succeed, it has been given its best honest, respectful, and sincere chance. Even if the ultimate outcome is that the marriage ends, the two partners have more tools to move forward into a new setting. They may have better communication skills, an enhanced appreciation for what the marriage represented during its course, and a clearer understanding of how the narrative of their time together can be presented to children, extended family, and others.
I have learned, sadly, from too many clients, that sometimes even professionals who work with couples do not take this approach. These clients have often worked with other therapists in the past, and tell me that I am their last resort. They describe a history of meeting with someone who listens to each side, and then indicates — explicitly or otherwise — which party is right. This model seems to me to introduce a competitive tinge just at the time when consensus, and a shared commitment to strengthening the relationship, may be a wiser choice.
Certainly, it is possible to work toward improved communication without enlisting the aid of a professional. Taking care to listen closely and non-judgmentally to one’s partner, saying only those things which have a purpose, using respectful language and tone of voice, remaining clear about the topic under consideration, avoiding the use of the words “never” and “always”, can improve the atmosphere in any ongoing relationship. When issues regarding trust, comfort, disagreement or other stressors enter the picture, though, it can be hard to stay committed to communicating this way.
If you and your partner are considering seeing someone together, please listen carefully for the question, Who is the client? If you do not hear it, you may want to introduce it yourself. That way, the time, money, and energy you invest in your therapy will have the best chance of leading to a revitalized and lasting marriage.
Roxanne Abrams has a private counseling practice in Skokie, IL She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org