According to current thought in the psychotherapy field, couples therapy may be the hardest form of counseling. Reasons include incompetent practitioners, uncooperative clients, inconsistent session attendance and unaddressed intrapersonal issues. In fact, statistics show that 75 percent of couples don’t even seek professional counseling before getting a divorce.
The old back fence counseling session
Long ago when married couples had problems, they didn’t “air their dirty laundry” to anyone. If they were religious, they could turn to clergy. Usually, they suffered in silence, and many marriages endured in misery. Psychiatrists restricted their work to those with serious mental illnesses. Instead, marriage counseling took place over the “back fence.” Desperate wives who needed advice would wander to the backyard fence to confide in their neighbors.
Why it works
Two words: common sense. Often, the problem and solution is obvious to anyone with an ounce of common sense. But those in the midst of crisis are overwhelmed with conflicting emotions so clear thinking is not so easy. Most of the time, all a frustrated wife needs is someone to vent to and as all the pent-up emotions are released, she can see matters more clearly for herself.
Caution when turning to friends and family
“I tell my friends to call me instead of paying a psychiatrist,” my cousin said. “I’m cheaper.” It’s true if all someone needs is an ear. But turning to friends and family for marriage advice can have its pitfalls. Everyone has her own emotional baggage and can project biased opinions onto someone else’s predicament. For example, a thrice divorced person can push divorce upon others because she found it a quick and easy solution to her own marital woes. Or a woman who has been cheated on can harbor the false belief that all men cheat, planting unfounded suspicion in another woman’s head.
Another possible pitfall is lack of confidentiality. Friends and family can spread intimate details of your marital problems to each other, making your situation a family affair. This can cause additional relationship tension if people begin to choose sides or meddle directly.
Giving marital advice
Yet, good friends often turn to us for advice. A recent counseling poll revealed that in the event of a major crisis, only 15 percent would turn to professional counselors. The rest would phone a friend. When your friend calls you for advice, here are a few important matters to keep in mind:
Listen. People in crisis are carrying a lot of emotionally-charged thoughts that need release. Crisis counselors, in fact, are trained not to talk much at all but to listen. Allowing someone to talk is the best form of therapy because it is the first step in clearing the mind.
Mirror. People in crisis often don’t realize what they are really thinking because what they are feeling is overwhelming. It helps to repeat back what the other person is saying so she can hear her own thoughts: “So what you are saying is___.” Then, let her decide if her words match her true thoughts and feelings.
Avoid telling them what to do. It is critical that people choose for themselves their course of action. Adding your own opinions to the mix can add to their confusion. Also, you will be held responsible should there be any regrets. (“I never should have listened to you.”) When one of my friends got divorce papers from her now ex, she was going to get cheated out of what she was due (retirement funds, house) so I told her to get a lawyer instead of going through the paralegal he wanted. Now, she blames me for her unpaid attorney fees. Even when a course of action seems sure to you, you must allow others to make their own choices regardless of the consequences.
Remember you’re hearing only one side. Everyone has his or her perspective of events. But you’re not there to get in the middle of a couple’s spat so you needn’t demand to hear both sides. You’re not there to judge who is right or wrong. Just listen. If the situation calls for action, encourage by asking, “What do you want to do? What are you going to do?”
Keep it confidential. When someone confides in you, it is a great show of trust. Even if you believe you can spill confidential information to someone else whom you trust, remember that the person also has her circle of “trusted” friends and they, in turn, have their own. Soon, news turns into gossip, and as in the children’s game of telephone, the news gets altered with every person in the chain. Better to keep your lips zipped and maintain a character of integrity than be a gossip monger. Gossip destroys relationships.
Being responsible for someone else’s marriage success or failure is a duty you do not want to assume. It is difficult, however, not wanting to help when you care about the people involved. It helps to remember that when a friend turns to you, he or she really just wants you to be a friend and not a marriage counselor. And being a good friend—nonjudgmental, supportive, receptive—is something that you already know how to be.