Couples Therapy: ‘Like piloting a helicopter in a hurricane’
WE’VE all had that horrible experience: you throw a party or invite a couple over for dinner, and they start fighting, right there in front of you — the character assassination, the barely controlled anger, the neurotic transference of their cooled sexual attraction onto, say, the hygiene of the family dog, all of which makes you want to fake choking and hide. Surely bearing witness to couples’ quarrels feels less bad to the pros, those credentialed and compensated marriage and family therapists whose job it is to help significant others work through issues and pain?
“Oh, no,” says Terry Real, one of a growing number of family therapists speaking out about how couples therapy feels from their chairs. “It’s so much worse.” At the dinner table, Mr. Real explains, you’re just a bystander, collateral damage. In a therapy office, he says, “You’re supposed to do something about it.”
The fact that couples therapy stresses out therapists has long been an open secret. The field, however, seems to have decided that now would be an appropriate time for its practitioners to address their feelings and vent. It started with the November/December issue of the trade magazine The Psychotherapy Networker and its cover package, “Who’s Afraid of Couples Therapy?”
“It’s widely acknowledged that couples therapy is the most challenging,” says Richard Simon, the magazine’s editor. “The stakes are high. You’re dealing with volatility. There are often secrets. We were just trying to make explicit something people who’ve done couples therapy already know: You often feel confused, at odds with a least one of your patients, out of control.”
Part of the problem is that the kind of person who tends to become a therapist — empathic, sensitive, calm, accepting — is generally not the kind of person who is a good couples therapist. “The traditional, passive uh-huh, uh-huh is useless,” Mr. Real says. “You have to like action. To manage marital combat, a therapist needs to get in there, mix it up with the client, be a ninja. This is intimidating.”
“It’s frightening to be faced with the force of two strong individuals as they are colliding,” he says.
Peter Pearson and Ellyn Bader, psychologists and founders of the Couples Institute in Palo Alto, Calif., which offers both therapy and training for therapists, describe the experience of counseling high-conflict couples in equally violent if metaphorical terms, as “like piloting a helicopter in a hurricane”.