As a couples therapist, my goal is to help couples who experience difficulty in their relationships take personal responsibility for who they are and how each contributes to the relationship. This also means they must be personally responsible for the decision to divorce or stay together. While some counselors may recommend a course of action, that is not something for a therapist to decide. A therapist should help the couple come to their own decisions – decisions that will lead them to the healthiest place for both of them.
When a married individual comes to me for individual therapy and I recognize that part of the stress stems from within the relationship, I often recommend we start couples therapy. When I see how my patient interacts with the spouse and I myself, meet the spouse, that I can determine where some of the problems lie and how I can help my client. Often, clients behave very differently when they are alone then when they are with their spouse, and it is always informative to see the difference. Individually, each person brings their uniqueness to the relationship but years of accumulated hurt, exacerbated by poor communication skills can bring out dysfunctions that erode a relationship.
Conversely, when I am counseling couples, it is important to speak to each one individually, as well. The goal of this individual time is to understand each party better when the other partner is not present to affect how they answer questions. This deeper understanding will help guide our couple sessions more effectively. It also helps me see what the individual is like when not in the presence of someone who represents the source of their stress.
It is in these individual sessions that I may find out about physical abuse. My primary responsibility is to keep my client safe, and in such cases, I would recommend a separation for safety purposes.
When a couple comes for therapy, and both seem sincerely interested in saving their marriage, the chances of success are good. When it becomes clear after a great deal of effort that one or both are not willing to forgive, compromise, or recognize how they contribute to the problems, my next step is to help them recognize their own feelings, their own level of commitment to the marriage, their own responsibility for how the marriage arrived at the current place it is in and what steps they are willing to take to save it. Along the way, they might find the forgiveness or compromise they so desperately need. Or they may find a road forward that leads in different directions.
Ultimately, it is the couples counselor’s responsibility to help the couple reach a place that is healthiest for them, both as a couple and as individuals. They must be responsible for the decision to stay together or continue apart. My job is to help them explore their strengths and weaknesses, draw out the story of their marriage and what brought them together and kept them together thus far, help them discern their commitment to the union, and develop the communication skills, forgiveness, and compromise needed to make any relationship a blessing rather than a burden.