The recent article, How My Therapist Destroyed My Marriage–which discusses the dangers of individual therapy in the context of treating a troubled marriage–has generated a wave of passionate responses. Comments, emails and phone calls that say everything from, “This picture is dangerously one-sided,” to “This happened to me, and I see it time and again,” to, “I agree/disagree, with some caveats,” make it clear that there’s more than one angle to this story. Given that this article deals with the most constructive way to approach healing a marriage, this is an important story to tell properly.
Thus, responders have been invited to share their opinions formally to create a more balanced perspective on the issue. Points raised in the original article are clarified, debunked, confirmed, dismissed. General perspectives on marital challenges and resolutions are expressed.
After reading the various opinions and experiences presented below, you will hopefully emerge with a well-rounded concept of the risks, benefits and/or necessity of therapy when it comes to healing a marriage.
“Adults are accountable for their choices and behaviors.”
Evidence-based psychotherapies like REBT, Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy, posit that adults are responsible for regulating their internal emotional states and accountable for their choices and behaviors. As such, the title, How My Therapist Destroyed My Marriage, assumes both the irrational and the impossible. What destroys a marriage is the decision by one or both spouses that they no longer choose to work on accepting those parts of the relationship and those middos (character traits) in the other person that they dislike. The decision to declare the other person “intolerable” or “unacceptable” is what makes a relationship impossible.
My colleagues may hate this, but psychotherapists are no more or less competent and professional than your heating and cooling repair person, or at most your family physician. They make mistakes. Clients have to be “good consumers” in the mental health field just as in every other area. They need to use common sense. If, Heaven forfend, someone is struck by a potentially fatal illness, wouldn’t they spend an awful lot of time finding the best doctor and getting second opinions? Wouldn’t they ask questions if they had concerns about the treatment being given? Why should the potential death of a marriage be any different?
Finally, it’s the times. Psychological research has shown that the more choices people think they have and the more they believe that they can change their choice if they wish, the more dissatisfied they will be with the choice they have made, and that includes life-partners. The more that divorce is “thinkable” and the more we believe we have a potentially broader choice of a next spouse, the less likely we are to be committed to a marriage.
In 13 years of providing marital therapy I have seen some couples I have worked with separate and divorce. I have yet to recommend separation or divorce to anyone. On the contrary, usually within the first two sessions it becomes completely clear how really beshert, how well-matched,they are for each other. People of a similar developmental level and complementary issues tend to marry each other. If you think he’s crazy there is no second date. If he thinks you’re weird, there’s no shidduch (match). To put it lightly: We tend to marry people who are about as crazy as we are. It is after the marriage that the work begins. My father (OBM) used to have a sign on the wall next to his desk: “Life is a grindstone. The measure of a man is whether it grinds him down or polishes him up.”
A good marriage refines the character, and that takes grinding. It is often emotionally difficult, even painful, and it is our life task and purpose: to serve Hashem through our marriages. Appreciate your troubles and take responsibility for your feelings. If you find that you can’t do that often enough, then find a therapist that can help you with your problem. Stop blaming your spouse, your children, your parents, your boss, your therapist, the world or Hashem. Blame as a human tendency is as old as Creation: “The woman You gave me caused me to sin.” Take the responsibility to grow and stretch and make your relationships work better. All they have to be is “good enough,” and yes, you can make that happen.
Zalman Lachman is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker at Behavioral Health & Career Solutions in Spring Valley, New York specializing in relationship counseling, trauma resolution and career counseling. He is an Assistant Professor of Social Work at Long Island University-Brooklyn. Previously he served as Director of Project Y.E.S. in Rockland County, NY and Detroit MI. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“There is merit to his argument.”
Can a therapist destroy a marriage? According to Rabbi Shlomo Slatkin’s article, the answer to that question is “yes.” The specific culprit according to Rabbi Slatkin is individual therapy. A therapist will counsel only one spouse in a marriage. That, he says, ends up becoming an advocacy for that spouse instead of a balanced approach to finding solutions to a troubled marriage.
While I think that is an oversimplification (as I think would Rabbi Slatkin), there is merit to his argument.
Most of those commenting on this article are themselves professionals who disagree with Rabbi Slatkin. But I think they mostly missed his point. He did not say that individual therapy is never effective or beneficial. What he said is that it can and often does lead to erroneous conclusions about the client’s spouse…and that the marriage could be saved if both husband and wife were counseled together. And as a result, divorce is encouraged when in fact that marriage might be saved.
Of course, it isn’t individual therapy alone that is the problem. A lot depends on the cultural biases of the therapist. For example, a couple begins their marriage committed to a specific religious way of life and later one of them decides to alter their commitment in ways that contradicts what they agreed upon. A therapist with a cultural bias against the pressures of religion may support that spouse’s desire to break the bonds of that religion in favor of self-actualization. This also breaks the commitment made at the beginning of the marriage. If this is done without any input from the other spouse, it rises to the level of professional malpractice.
Not that there aren’t often other problems pressuring a troubled marriage. But a therapist who focuses too much on the personal autonomy of a client may inadvertently be destroying a salvageable marriage. That is much more likely to happen when there is no input from the other side.
This does not mean that every therapist that practices individual therapy in troubled marriages will make bad decisions. Nor does it mean that in some cases freedom from some of those strictures isn’t warranted. But without full input from both sides, a fair and unbiased evaluation of a marriage is impossible. It is therefore easy to understand why Rabbi Slatkin feels so strongly about it.
Rabbi Slatkin‘s goal is keeping marriages together. And for good reason. Apart from the obvious impact it has on the couple, divorce can be devastating for their children in so many ways, including but not limited to their Yiddishkeit (Judaism). It can also permanently affect the way their children see marriage—as a negative state of being. It can also cause them to go off the derech (become irreligious). It can affect their progress in school and their social skills.
It is also true that there are incompetent therapists who give bad counsel to a couple when treated together. So the bottom line for me is competence. But I also share Rabbi Slatkin’s concern.
The fact is that a good marriage does take a lot of work. It takes a lot of compromise and sacrifice. There is a lot less me-ism and a lot more we-ism. When two worlds collide in a marriage it can cause a giant explosion. And there are always two worlds. No two people are exactly alike. They each bring their own baggage to a marriage. And often when two people get married they do not always look for the most important qualities in each other that will make the marriage work—like temperament and the ability to compromise. Or compatibility of ideals.
But more often than not, the thing that people look for in each other is the intangible ”attraction factor,” which is of course very important. Attraction is based on both physical and psychological attributes. A marriage cannot succeed if a couple is not attracted to each other. But too often the investigation ends there. Once the romance wears off, other important things that were ignored will surface and if the differences are great enough, it can destroy the marriage. I know some pretty attractive couples where there was “love at first sight” that have gotten divorced. I recall one case where the marriage did not even last through the week of Sheva Brachos (the week following the marriage).
I don’t know if that marriage was salvageable. But I do know that many marriages are salvageable with just a little bit of work—and the right kind of therapy. And yet divorce seems to be an all-too-easy a way out these days. It used to be a rarity. When it did happen, people were embarrassed by it. Now it is almost as matter of fact as getting married. But still divorce even in our day is an ordeal for the couple. And if there are children—there will be a lot more suffering by all concerned.
On the other hand, divorce is sometimes the right course of action. A contentious marriage where a couple is always at odds with screaming matches and constant bitter battles can have a far more deleterious effect than a divorce. If there can be no compromise that will lead to a peaceful marriage then divorce may be the only solution.
Where to draw that line should only be determined by a competent professional who counsels both husband and wife and then honestly evaluates what the best option is for them and their children. This does not mean that each spouse cannot have individual therapy. That can be very helpful as long as the therapist does not turn his or her client against the spouse without hearing the other spouse’s side of the story. In my view, any advice about divorce ought to come from an experienced therapist who knows both sides of the story by dealing directly with them both.
Harry Maryles runs the blog Emes Ve-Emunah, which focuses on current events and issues that affect the Jewish world in general and Orthodoxy in particular. He attended the Hebrew Theological College for a period of 10 years where he received his semicha, as well as Roosevelt University where he received his Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Dr. Shoshi Lewin
“If one (or both) spouses are dealing with mental illness, it is often primary to manage the mental illness.”
I believe that Rabbi Slatkin made many excellent points. However, I think they are primarily valid when you are dealing with two healthy individuals who are in an unhealthy relationship dynamic. Relationships are made of two people who have unique personalities, needs, and temperaments. Sometimes these aspects of the relationship are in conflict with one another, and it is important for the relationship for both spouses to examine their dynamic as part of a couples’ therapy process. A therapist trying to help a couple work with one another in a healthier way will be able to do so more successfully if both parties are engaged and involved in this process.
In contrast, if one (or both) spouses are dealing with mental illness, it is often primary to manage the mental illness. This can be done individually or (at times) as part of couples’ work. Mental illness can have a profound effect on the couples’ relationship. If either spouse’s mental illness is not treated, it can cause great strain to the marital relationship. I have found that when treating an individual with mental illness in individual therapy, it can frequently have a very positive impact on that person’s marriage.
It is unethical for a therapist to advise a couple to divorce without treating the couple. Even when treating the couple, the decision to divorce is not the therapist’s decision to make. It can sometimes be the therapist’s role to help clarify his or her client’s decision making. Ultimately, as Rabbi Slatkin noted, the clients should be the ones making the decisions because they are the ones living with the decisions. They are adults and have capacity to make these choices for themselves.
It is important for the general public to be aware that there are many ethical therapists, and they do not fit the mold that was unfortunately portrayed by Rabbi Slatkin, who described therapists who have an “axe to grind” or an active “dislike” for certain types of individuals.
Good therapists are trained to consider the big picture, and to discuss with the client whether s/he is willing to involve any “collateral” contacts, such as the other spouse, other family members, or other related individuals (e.g. the Rov, the doctor). While a therapist may have biases, because we are all human, it is also the therapist’s duty to consult with other professionals when the situation warrants it.
Good therapists can be part of what helps achieve good therapy. Quality therapists will help a person have a greater knowledge of themselves and the role they play in situations. They can help individuals feel more confident in understanding what goes into the decisions they make, and help people make decisions more thoughtfully. Working with an ethical therapist, whether individually or as a couple, can be helpful for those who need it.
Shoshi Lewin, Psy.D. is a clinical psychologist working at Jamaica Hospital Medical Center in Queens, NY. She works in both inpatient and outpatient settings, specializing in individual and group psychotherapy. She is co-director of the clinical training program for psychology doctoral students, and teaches medical students, psychology students, and psychiatry residents. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rabbi Raffi Bilek, LCSW-C
“Nothing could be further from the truth.”
The OU recently posted an article, How My Therapist Destroyed My Marriage, that makes the claim that individual therapy is likely to be detrimental to couples seeking to improve their relationship or save it from failing altogether. Nothing could be further from the truth.
What is true is that an inept therapist can do a lot of harm, no matter what the context. The examples cited are indeed some of the mistakes that are made by incompetent clinicians, such as diagnosing a partner in absentia, or bringing a personal agenda into the session. But these have nothing to do with the type of therapy in question and everything to do with the therapist.
It is certainly important to verify the counselor’s credentials, get references, and do reasonable research on a potential therapist whether you are going for individual therapy, couples counseling, family therapy, or any other form of intervention. Otherwise it is absolutely possible that you will find a counselor who could make things worse – regardless of who is or is not in the room. Any therapist who is in the business of “breaking up marriages” or “convincing” his or her clients to make any major life changes is already acting outside his or her role. I have had to convince clients to face a fear, to consider a different perspective, or to start a journal; I have never tried to persuade a client to divorce his or her spouse (and this is true even of victims of domestic violence with whom I have worked). A therapist who is acting in such a role is already extremely suspect.
However, one can imagine many possible situations where going along with a client’s wish to divorce would be perfectly reasonable. A client who seems unsure about seeking a divorce can certainly be asked and even recommended to consider couples counseling, if the counselor feels it would be beneficial. On the other hand, when a client comes in with 100% clarity that he or she wants a divorce and is perhaps seeking guidance in managing the stress or in helping the children through it – it is not a therapist’s place to try to change his or her mind, regardless of what the therapist imagines is the best course of action (especially when he or she does not have the full picture). That might be the role of a rabbi, but it is not the role of a therapist—a rabbi is expected to bring his own personal and religious values into the discussion; a therapist should absolutely not.
Thus, to suggest that individual therapy is inherently risky for people seeking help with their relationships is inaccurate. Individual therapy can be beneficial for just about anyone. In fact, for many people such personal work is indispensable to fixing their relationships. Problems in a marriage are not always specifically about the interactions between the couple and are sometimes attributable to personal issues in one or both parties – issues that cannot necessarily be addressed with both parties in the room. Although many relationship problems can be improved or entirely solved without delving into either partner’s deeper concerns, neither should these concerns be overlooked as part of the bigger picture.
Nor is it true that individual therapy does a disservice to the relationship by diminishing its importance. Just the opposite – a relationship is all about the interface between two people. If one of those people is bringing personal problems into the relationship, it is hard to imagine solving the relationship’s weaknesses without addressing those problems. Thus, individually addressing each party in the relationship is a very appropriate way of improving the relationship as a whole – provided of course, that the individual therapy is conducted by a competent counselor, as discussed above.
I wish to emphasize again that individual therapy is not dangerous, especially when the appropriate precautions are taken in advance. Rather, it is a valuable, and sometimes indispensable way to improve one’s relationships, whether on its own or in conjunction with couples counseling. If you are in therapy or considering starting, you are to be commended; don’t hold back for fear of what will happen to your relationship. Rather, take the initiative to make your therapeutic experience a vessel for improving yourself, your relationship, and your life.
“I do not believe all individual therapy is harmful for a marriage. The problem arises when a third party supplies his or her input in a way that does more damage than good.”
My article How My Therapist Destroyed My Marriage provoked a few strong responses from fellow mental health professionals. I truly wish I would have received more detractors and that my conclusions were way off base. Unfortunately, in the aftermath of the article I have been inundated with emails and phone calls from therapists as well as individuals who have had similar experiences to what was described.
I do not believe all individual therapy is harmful for a marriage nor do I believe that it is the primary cause for bad marriages or divorce. Bad marriages lead to divorce and the main culprit is the couple.
The problem arises when a trusted professional or other third party—be it therapist, clergy or other person of influence—supplies his or her input in a way that does more damage than good.
I am not suggesting that the majority of therapists are guilty of this, but even a significant minority is enough to be alarming. At the crux of this issue is the question of how we conceptualize a couple and how we therapists treat them.
Working with a couple requires an entirely different set of lenses than therapists may have been trained to use when working with an individual. In fact, some of my colleagues have told me that they are reluctant to work with couples because they do not have the skill set, despite the fact that they are highly respected veteran therapists.
This, to me, provides insight into why I have seen many marriages that were left for dead by other therapists that have subsequently been able to heal. I don’t want to believe that the initial hopeless assessment is a function of incompetent professionals or uncommitted couples. I do believe it’s the framework through which the relationships are addressed that makes the difference.
Ideally, couples should seek out a therapist who embraces a therapy model that emphasizes that the couple is the expert, not the therapist. Instead of advising or prescribing, the therapist focuses on creating enough safety in the session for the couple to do the work themselves. They speak to each other in a structured way of communicating that curbs reactivity and invites connection. The therapist guides the process, deepens the sharing, helps the listener really hear and have compassion for his/her spouse, but does not diagnose or take sides.
This dynamic enables the therapist to empower the couple as a unit, as opposed to focusing on “what’s wrong” with either party. When treating individually, it can be difficult for a therapist to remain neutral, either because of his own countertransference (emotional triggers) or because one client may appear as the “identified patient.” When treated together, while either of these things may happen, it’s less likely: The therapist can successfully hold space for the couple as a whole by conceptualizing the situation differently. The therapist focuses on the deeper issue: the disconnect that the couple is experiencing. By going to the root of the matter, the relationship is strengthened and becomes safe enough that both parties can effectively tackle the issues. Without safe connection, it is possible to “problem solve” but practically get nowhere.
We are born into connection. As babies in our mothers’ wombs we experience the most intimate form of connection. As we come into this world and begin to individuate, we begin to search for that connection in other relationships. The ultimate way to retrieve that original sense of connection is through marriage. While there are exceptions to every rule, most of us got married because we felt some connection to our spouse. It is this initial connection that gives us hope that even when experiencing difficulties in a relationship, it is possible to heal.
In our disposable society, many of us seem to think that if something is not working, it is not worth fixing. Even if it is worth fixing, we convince ourselves that it is not fixable. But many, if not most marriages, can be fixed.
Marriage requires hard work. It triggers us in ways that no other relationship does. But the growth and healing that come from marriage is more profound than you can experience in any other human relationship. While this article is not the place for an in-depth study of this approach, (for that I encourage readers to look at Getting the Love You Want by Dr. Harville Hendrix), we do see that the issues couples trigger in each other are usually the areas where the other could benefit to grow.
The following is an example. I could provide hundreds of similar scenarios.
A husband and wife are experiencing conflict where they routinely trigger each other. When the husband becomes angry, the wife does what she knows best to protect herself: she hides. See, her mother was an alcoholic and physically and verbally abusive. As a little girl she learned to emotionally check out and avoid contact as it was unsafe.
When she “checks out,” that triggers her husband who had the opposite story. As a little boy, his parents were negligent. If he wanted to get his needs met, he learned that he needed to make a lot of noise, to fight and to nudge. This was how he survived.
As an adult, when the wife checks out emotionally, the husband becomes even more aggressive, making her feel more unsafe and leading her to pull away even more. They both trigger each other and get in a vicious cycle where no one gets his or her needs met and they both feel hurt.
Who is to blame? Does the husband have an anger problem? Is the wife suffering from an avoidant personality? Going that diagnostic route would avoid the deeper issue at hand—their childhood experiences that emerge in their particular dynamic. If the therapist were to tell him to go to anger management classes, the wife would feel vindicated that it really was his fault. If she was diagnosed with a personality disorder, the husband would feel that he was justified in his reactions. It would circumnavigate the real problem, and may fail to encourage the ultimate change that will bring about greater connection rather than resentment.
When the couple was able to talk about the situation in a safe and connected manner, they were able to understand how they both triggered each other and were able to approach the situation from a more neutral perspective. By understanding his wife’s troubled past, the husband was able to make sense of why she wanted to check out when she felt unsafe. Instead of allowing that to trigger him and fight back, he realized that it would be better to share his feelings in a calm manner.
Conversely, she was able to realize that when he was nudging her and being outspoken, he was not her mother, but her loving husband. Instead of disengaging, she was able to make herself feel safe enough to entertain the notion that her marriage was not her childhood.
This story is typical of the discoveries couples make when they are safe enough to get conscious about their situation and see the greater unconscious agenda of their relationship. The conflict they are experiencing is not proof that the relationship is doomed; rather it is an opportunity for growth and healing.
Dr. Carl Rogers’s landmark work demonstrated that the therapeutic alliance between therapist and client is an even more important healing factor in therapy than the actual techniques employed by the therapist. The therapist provides unconditional positive self-regard and empathy. For couples in crisis who are willing to work as a couple together, would it not be preferable for their shared relationship to be the healing factor instead of developing that healing alliance with someone outside of the marriage? We are wounded in relationship and are ultimately healed in relationship. While we can talk about the issues out of context with a third party, couples work allows the couple to heal in real time in the session. It doesn’t create a divide between “problems” and “solution.” It’s all part of one positive process.
Of course, there are many cases where one partner is not interested in counseling. Does that mean the other should not seek help? Of course not. Individual therapy may be helpful in assisting one spouse to learn more about him or herself and what he or she brings to the relationship. It is when the therapist, even with the best intentions, advises, speaks poorly about the spouse, or even insinuates the slightest doubt about the relationship, that it can be contraindicated.
You may say that this is simply not good therapy. I would agree, but my experience and that of my colleagues has been that it is too prevalent to simply categorize as bad therapy and give the general advice to seek out good therapy. It seemed incumbent to make people aware of the specific issues that can arise in individual therapy.
While ultimately it is the client who decides to get divorced, many people are looking for third-party validation to give up working on their marriage. This is especially the case with a professional whose opinion we respect. If someone is in pain and his or her therapist evens hints to a solution involving divorce, it can be tempting to think that by removing the external stressor—that is, the spouse—things will improve. This is especially true as one may feel a connection to his or her therapist, as the therapist is there to support him or her, often in stark contrast to the lacking connection he or she shares with his or her spouse.
Of course, every person is responsible for his or her own marriage and the choices they make. But to ignore the fragile reality of someone in a troubled marriage under that pretext of personal responsibility is naïve. As mentioned, that’s not to say we avoid individual therapy at all costs. But it’s critical to recognize that it can be a dangerous situation.
If your individual therapy is helping your marriage, great! If you are experiencing more tension with your spouse after your sessions, then it may be worth considering the impact it is having on you. If you begin to focus more on your role in the relationship and what you can do to improve the situation, it can be beneficial. Many individuals have been successfully able to work on themselves and consequently bring about greater change in their marriage.
I hope that people will use their best judgment to discern when individual therapy is the best modality to heal their relationship. This is a very serious issue and while I apologize if I have offended my fellow therapists who I am sure are skilled and would not do what I discussed in the article, my pain and concern for the families that are suffering needlessly was my primary motivator.
Rabbi Shlomo Slatkin, MS, LCPC, “The Relationship Rabbi,” is an internationally renowned Imago relationship therapist, author, and lecturer. He works with couples in person and worldwide via Skype. To contact Rabbi Slatkin, please visit www.TheRelationshipRabbi.com.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.