7 Reasons Why Your Therapist Is Giving You Bad Marriage Advice
’m not going to make this an ‘emperor has no clothes’ kind of post. But I do want to give you a behind-the-scenes look at marriage counselling. So, here are 7 reasons why your therapist is giving you bad marriage advice.
Now, I know this post may not make me wildly popular with some of my colleagues, but I am willing to take that risk. Marriage counselling is about you – the client – and I firmly believe in putting the client in the driver’s seat when it comes to their therapeutic process.
1. Your therapist lacks the proper basic training
In today’s world of life coaches and online experts, it can be hard to weed out the properly-trained therapists from those who purport to offer a service but don’t have sufficient training or experience in the field.
If you’re looking for individual help, there are probably lots of options that could work for you.
But working with couples requires a particular type of training and expertise.
Some relationship helpers will say they offer marriage counselling to meet a business need – meeting client demand for marriage counselling.
But it could mean that they lack competence.
When a therapist has limited training in relationship theories – such as family systems theory (I explain this more below) – and says that they offer marriage counselling, they may be being disingenuous. This could ultimately lead them to offer bad marriage advice.
Indeed, much has been written about the phenomenon of therapists offering marriage counselling without having specific training in the area.
To ensure that therapists possess adequate expertise, most professional therapy organizations have a code of ethics that stipulate a member may only provide services in areas within the boundaries of their competence.
Unfortunately, it is most often left up to the therapist to ensure they have the confidence and competency to offer good marriage counselling – competent enough to meet their own professional code of ethics.
Unless an ethical complaint is filed against a therapist, a therapist’s competency will not be examined with a great amount of scrutiny beyond that of having to show proof of ongoing education and training. But, ongoing or continuing education does not have to be in any specific area – such as marriage counselling.
Questions to ask your therapist
So, when it comes to marriage counselling, it is so important that your therapist is qualified to offer the service.
Do they possess adequate training?
Do they understand and have experience working with couples?
Or is it just a one-line addition to their website to try to increase their business offerings?
Before you commit to starting therapy, make sure that your therapist has proper training and has worked with couples before.
Ask your therapist – point blank – how many hours have you worked with couples?
If they have not met at least 250 clinical hours, then they don’t even have enough hours to meet the graduation requirements for a clinician trained in Marriage and Family Therapy.
2. Your therapist doesn’t understand Family Systems Theory
Marriage counsellors, couple therapists, or relationship coaches all need to have one thing in common: an understanding of family systems theory.
Not only should your relationship helper understand the term, they should also be trained in it.
The Bowen Center for the Study of Family explains perfectly what family systems theory is, but here is a brief summary: it’s a theory of human behaviour that sees the family as an emotional unit and uses relationships as the starting point for understanding how each member of the family engages with others.
By nature, family members are intensely connected emotionally.
That’s why, when working with couples, it is important to understand that the emotional interdependence two partners have with each other has evolved to promote co-operation, reliance and cohesiveness.
Essentially, it’s the emotional connection in our relationships that prompt us to protect, shelter, feed and connect with our partner.
Now, most therapists receive some training in family systems theory.
However, not all therapists are the same – we’re not all cut from the same cloth.
Many helping professionals understand family systems theory at a basic level and have also received some training in the theory.
However, their training is often sparse or limited at best.
In order to best serve your relationship and work towards the best possible outcome, your therapist needs to understand family systems theory deeply and thoroughly.
3. Your marriage counsellor isn’t being an objective third party
I’m going to break this reason up into two parts.
Part A: Your marriage counsellor picks sides.
This is far too common, and an absolute disaster in relationship counselling.
Your marriage counsellor must remain neutral to both partners seeking marriage counselling.
Not only must your marriage counsellor not pick sides, they should be fighting for your relationship – not just one of you!
There is a misconception about what marriage counsellors do.
We are not in the business of convincing one of the two partners that their actions, behaviours or traits need to change or be fixed.
Rather, our role is to be there for the goals of the relationship, and we do that by supporting both partners.
The minute your marriage counsellor stops seeing your side of the relationship because they resonate more with your partner, then chances are you’re getting bad marriage advice.
Part B: One partner feels ‘ganged up on’
I commonly hear from people that they felt ‘ganged up on’ by their marriage counsellor – which may mean they have fallen prey to the phenomenon of the counsellor picking sides.
Although this complaint comes mainly from men, the point is that no one should feel that their marriage counsellor is ganging up on them.
The issue stems from reason #1: a lot of therapists offering marriage counselling don’t have the proper training.
It takes a specific type of training and a lot of practice to be able to see both sides of a couples’ argument, without taking sides or making one person feel ganged up on.
This is why therapists need to know how to help more than one individual at a time.
4. The therapist will see the partners individually
This can be a common occurrence: one partner misses a counselling session unexpectedly, and at the next session, they are left feeling like their therapist has begun to favour the partner who was at the previous session.
There is a danger when meeting only one half of a couple, as it can lead to the other half feeling left out or that they are missing something when the couple comes back to therapy together.
Even if the therapist is well trained in couples counselling, and does their best to remain neutral, the missed session can lead to a partner feeling left out or ganged up on. This can happen simply because the therapist and other partner spent time together and discussed things while the absent partner wasn’t there.
Sometimes, individual partners request to come alone – and that is okay – but this should be discussed beforehand and both partners should be okay with this.
If it is an unplanned situation, I always avoid individual sessions with only one half of a couple client
5. Your marriage counsellor has goals of their own for your relationship
If your therapist has goals of their own for your relationship – watch out.
This is a big no-no. And also a sign that you may be getting bad marriage advice
The fact is, your relationship is just that – yours!
There is no reason why your marriage counsellor should have goals of their own for your relationship other than to support your own goals.
One way to tell that your counsellor has goals of their own is if they try to give you direct advice.
Now, this gets tricky when we talk about issues of abuse – physical, sexual or emotional – but, in those instances, our training (and the laws of the land) direct us to follow specific ethical and legal requirements that dictate we must take appropriate actions.
However, if your therapist suggests that “you’d be better off with a trial separation” or “perhaps you (both) should discuss reconciliation”, then you better believe that you may be getting bad marriage advice.
I’ve heard from many clients that their marriage counsellor offered advice to them that was contrary to what they had wanted for their relationship.
It is not the therapist who should have goals for your relationship.
If they do, then they are inserting themselves as an expert in your life – and your relationship!
And that leads me to the next way that you may be getting bad marriage advice.
6. Your therapist acts as the expert without possessing all the information
When couples come to marriage counselling, they usually aren’t coming to talk about all the great things going on in their relationship.
So, in the absence of hearing the good or what’s going well in your relationship, your therapist only hears what is not going well.
When they make a decision, judgment, or offer their expert opinion on your relationship, they are doing so with incomplete information.
No therapist or marriage counsellor can be an expert in your life or relationship.
It’s not possible.
They simply don’t have all the information.
Therefore, they cannot claim expertise.
This is a big issue in the industry: clients may think they want an “expert” to tell them how to “fix” their relationship, and therapists act as the “expert” and give a lot of advice and opinions.
Generally, this approach does not lead to positive outcomes in the long term.
Your relationship is only yours – you and your partner’s – and no one else is able to be an expert in it.
7. Your therapist wants you to go to individual therapy before they will see in you couple therapy
Disclaimer: Not all couples are ready for conjoint therapy (conjoint = attending together).
This is certainly the case when there is a presence of ongoing domestic violence or some other kind of abuse.
When there are unsafe situations or violence in the home, then couple therapy or conjoint therapy is contra-indicated (not recommended).
This is the standard across the field of couple therapy.
There are really no exceptions and, as such, individual therapy is necessary for at least the offending partner before safe and effective couple therapy can take place.
However, outside of this situation, I do hear a lot of therapists suggesting that they won’t treat couples if there is an active addiction occurring with one of the partners.
I’ve even heard that some therapists refuse to treat couples because one partner is lying or engaged in an active affair.
My interpretation of that is the therapist is trying to insert their goal into the relationship by saying that the drug or alcohol use, or lying or the affair, needs to stop or come to an end.
Don’t get me wrong, of course all those things should probably come to an end at some point.
However, it’s not up to the therapist to say that is the case. It’s up to the client to bring the maladaptive behaviour to an end.
The reason for this is twofold:
First, if the goal of therapy is change, then the work of change – from acceptance of problems, to formulation of goals and ultimately behaviour change – should be led by the client, since this is the best way to make change happen.
Second, couple therapy is just that, about the couple and their relationship, not the individual partners.
We have a saying in the field of Marriage and Family Therapy that the sum of the family is worth more than the individual members.
Couples and relationships do survive with active addictions or infidelities or lying.
While that kind of relationship may not be what you or I would choose, for some couples, that may be good enough.
And who are we to suggest otherwise?
Remember that part above about being the expert? I claim no expertise in another person’s life – and nor should other therapists, in my opinion.
What we can do as therapists when there is maladaptive behaviour occurring in a relationship is ask leading questions of the individual partners to help them consider the impact of their behaviours.
Ultimately, our job as counsellors is to ask questions.
We should suspend our desire to claim expertise and allow our clients to seek our help without being judged for their choices.
Our role is to be there for our clients – it is society’s role to tell them their actions do not fit acceptable social norms.
Marriage counselling is difficult, specialized work.
It requires a good understanding of how relationships work and a lot of experience working with more than one person in the therapy room.
For that reason, and the many listed above, I think it’s a great idea to do your research and really get to know your marriage counsellor.
Find out how many clinical hours they have under their belt working with couples.
Try your very best to learn as much as you can about your therapist – this can happen by asking friends, family and people you know for referrals.
Sadly, there are many therapists out there who lack the qualifications but still offer marriage counselling.
While they don’t need to have studied Marriage and Family Therapy specifically to be a good marriage counsellor, they should know that their role is to treat the family system and not the individual complaints that couples bring to the counselling session.
Your efforts to get to know your therapist will go a long way in preventing them from making sure that your marriage counselling is helping save your marriage rather than sabotage it.
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About the Author
Jonathan Van Viegen is a full-time online therapist and relationship coach helping adults and couples improve one of the most important relationships in their life – the one with their partner. Jonathan’s approach has helped 100’s of clients struggling to maintain a lasting, loving relationship while navigating the challenges of parenting. Jonathan’s goal with this blog is to offer you a behind the scenes look at his life to show that it is possible to create the kind of relationship you desire – using simple skills that anyone can learn.