I do a lot of couples therapy and there are nine words that are music to my ears.
“We came in before there was a real problem.”
This very wise couple hasn’t waited until a crisis has hit; no one is flirting with a coworker, no vicious and repetitive arguments are heard late at night, nor does steely silence define their days when the only words spoken are about who’s getting which kid to which practice.
If only it were the norm for couples to come in before things get chaotic and incredibly hurtful.
But let’s face it. You probably don’t take your car in for a tune-up until some warning light goes on. Tornado shelters are planned after tornados have ripped through your community. Do you know where your flashlight is…or if it needs batteries?
You’re both inundated with the stress of normal life — working for a promotion, attacking piles of laundry, or helping with math homework. So it’s easy to forego maintenance of your relationship — to reassure yourself that the arguments you’re having or the fact that you can go days without speaking to one another is “okay.”
Add onto to that fact that there are some very common misconceptions about therapy itself. Then you’re likely never to darken the door of a couples therapist; you can wait far too long.
The misconceptions that you hold onto can easily be hiding your fear of vulnerability… and entering therapy takes courage.
Let’s talk about those misconceptions for a minute; they’re the stories you tell yourself about why couples therapy just isn’t for you or won’t help or is a waste of time. However, they also serve as a great way to avoid the fear of vulnerability that is part of the therapy process. That takes courage.
So I’d like to debunk five common misconceptions.
Misconception #1: Therapy involves giving up control.
“Some stranger isn’t going to tell me what to do.”
You tell yourself that therapy is like school, and that the therapist is the authority with all the answers and you, the ignorant student, are assigned tasks which you must perform. You’re handing over your life to a perfect stranger. I assure you if I used such authoritarian tactics I wouldn’t have any patients.
What a good therapist does have is objectivity and experience. They can act as a consultant, seeing problems you’re describing in the context of the hundreds of others stories. They may connect present-day issues with your past, or notice behavior or communication patterns that are harder for you to see. It’s the same as a coach watching your golf swing, or a chef tasting food you’ve prepared.
Misconception #2: I can talk to my friends.
My father-in-law used to joke, “People pay to talk to you?” In many ways, his teasing revealed an important point. There’s a misconception that therapy is all about talk. Words. It’s not.
Therapy is about a specific kind of relationship that’s a focus on you and what you want to change in your life. Your therapist’s job is to carefully understand and hold your emotions — your hurt, your anger — and help you work through them. She or he is emotionally present with you, helping you to maneuver through whatever is causing pain. For couples, the work for a therapist becomes to provide that compassion and support for both, even though there can be vast disagreement and conflict.
Your friends often have an agenda. Hopefully, a therapist does not – except to help you and your partner reach a better place with one another.
Misconception #3: Excuses of money, time, and availability.
“Therapy costs too much, it takes too much time, and you can’t find a therapist when you need one anyway.”
Money is tight for many and of course, it’s a consideration. But therapy can be very focused on a certain issue or pattern, and if you do the work outside of the “therapy hour,” then you’d be amazed at the kind of progress you can make. Many therapists use a brief, solution-focused model — and will work with you on identifying a major issue and suggest things to both of you to work on in yourselves. How fast therapy goes is actually up to you.
I often also point out to folks that divorces have tremendous cost, both financially and emotionally.
As far as availability goes, there are some areas in the US where therapists are scarce. And I’ve heard that in other countries, such as the United Kingdom, there are long waits for therapy that’s free – largely due to demand. But online therapies are growing in popularity and are definitely an option. And the self-help community of podcasts, books, tapes, seminars — is huge. If you look, you’ll find something that will help.
Misconception #4: Distrust.
“I don’t want anyone to know my (our) business. And how could some stranger know anything about me?“
There’s no getting around this one; at its root is a struggle with fear, shame and immense distrust. If you’re 50,000 dollars in debt, if you’ve got an addiction, if you were abused as a child, if you meticulously clean your house at 3:00 am– those things are important for a therapist to know if they are going to be able to help. Often that distrust is rooted in the fact that you’ve been hurt. And you don’t want to be hurt again.
Misconception #5: My partner doesn’t need to know everything.
Many people keep secrets. And yet, secrets have power – a lot of power. You may not have wanted to disclose these things for fear of their impact. I get it. Hearing yourself say the words and especially admitting something in front of your partner, can be very hard. But if your marriage is crumbling, maybe it’s time to consider another strategy for connection — one that is built on more openness and honesty.
And that can start in couples therapy.
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Originally published on June 24, 2017; updated and republished on November 21, 2021.