Wednesday, December 23, 2009

“Knowing When to Hold ‘Em and When to Fold ‘Em”

Recently, I received a question from someone in cyberspace who asked for my help to know when to let go and when to keep fighting for their marriage. “After many years of counseling on and off, I’m still not feeling like I want to be with my spouse. How do you know when it’s time to throw in the towel?” The question was such an important one that I decided to offer some guidelines to help you answer it.

In order to provide the best help, I am blogging my answer in two parts.

First, I must offer a caveat. There is no right or one-size-fits-all approach to relationships. There are always exceptions. Use your own best judgment in applying these criteria to your situation. If you are confused, feel free to call my toll-free number (888-546-1580) for a complimentary consultation with me. I don’t have to tell you what an important decision you're facing. So it is best to give this question its proper due.

Dr. Beth’s Rules of Thumb for Sorting Out This Conundrum

Have you tried counseling? Especially with a long relationship, chances are that walking away without first seeking professional help can prolong your healing process. It leaves too many unanswered questions, most important of which is "Have we tried everything we can?" If you honestly can answer "yes" to this question, you have one indicator that you can go with a clear conscience.

Was it with a trained marriage and family therapist? This is an extremely important consideration. Why is that?

Several factors distinguish “real live” marital therapists from those who say they do marriage counseling.

o The graduate degree alone may not necessarily be relevant. Too often, people tend to disqualify those with a master’s degree in either social work or psychology in favor of someone with a Ph.D. or and M.D., just because they are doctors. However, the primary function of most psychiatrists (M.D.’s who have little or no supervision or training in providing psychotherapy) usually is prescribing medicines. Further, clinical psychologists typically have studied how to conduct research and how to diagnose and assign individual pathology. These don’t necessarily make them empathic and competent couples therapists. They may be. But they also can be analytical and lack the warmth required to create a safe space for delicate and often painful work.

o Having taken a course on Intro. to Family Therapy in graduate school does not make clinicians trained marital therapists. "Real" family therapists have studied marriage and family therapy, whether in graduate school or through an ongoing investment in continuing education courses.

o I recognize that many clinicians aren’t as fortunate as I was to complete two years of post-doctoral training in marriage and family therapy. However, if someone you are contemplating seeing can demonstrate an investment in making the paradigm shift from individual to systemic thinking, working with that type of person is best.

• A what shift? Because I already had a Ph.D. and had a psychotherapy credential (I was a Certified Reality Therapist), I remember how baffled I was in trying to make the shift in my way of thinking about relationships, psychotherapy, and my role as a therapist. In fact, I felt as if all I learned in the first semester of my post-doc was how little I knew! There is a qualitative difference in each approach.

o What that shift in perspective entails is learning to see relationships as an interlocking system of individuals who had formed a synergistic -– if problematic -- relationship that is larger than each of the individuals separately.

o That means that people unwittingly, usually unconsciously, cooperate in the creation and maintenance of the problems that are plaguing them and for which they seek professional help.

o Blaming one person, usually the identified patient, for all the family’s ills is not helpful at best and pathologizing at worst.

So the first question to ask yourself is in considering the question of going or staying is, “Have we sought professional help?” The next question is, “Have we found the best help possible?”

Even working with someone from a long distance who is well-trained and empathic usually is more effective and productive than meeting with someone who may have an alphabet soup of initials but who lacks the ability to see relationships as a system. These counselors tend to blame one person for all the problems and to let the other person off the hook. This does nothing productive. In fact, it creates a whole ‘nother problem.

Stay tuned for my next entry that will consider how to know whether to stay in a current relationship or, to go.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A relationship of five years was not going well and in an attempt to determine why my significant other and I went to see a Therapist. This particular therapist had treated my significant other to help her get past her divorce. She never did and every minute of the three sessions we attended I truly was made to feel that as the man in this relationship it was my fault that her previous divorce was still the 500 pound gorilla in the room. There was no mediation, no unemotional discussion, just simply more blaming me for all of her woes including the divorce that occurred 3 years before I ever met this lady. I do know that getting a sympathetic well trained neutral expert in relationships rather than individual therapy is the key to any possibility of salvaging the relationship.