It's said you can't kid a kidder. But you'd also have to reach a pretty high bar to fool a couples counselor. We've pretty much seen it all. Fortunately for us, we don't have to reinvent the therapy wheel every time we meet a new couple. There are some pretty standard issues in relationships we're on the lookout for and most couples will show up in therapy with one or more of them. Just like your plumber has seen the likes of your leaky faucet many times over, so it goes for the couples therapist. And, like your plumber, we're pretty sure we know where the leaks are coming from.
1. We know the buzz-phrases.*
"I love you but I'm not in love with you," is a popular one. Usually, the person saying this already has one foot out the door and is trying to break it to his/her partner gently. "I think something's wrong with me. I just need to time to figure out where my life is going," is another way a spouse may be cryptically saying he or she wants out. Sadly, the other spouse is hurting and confused -- and hoping therapy will fix his/her partner's ambivalence.
*You may have your spouse baffled, but we already know where you're going with this.
2. We know you're having an affair.*
I've found it's pretty rare to get an admission of infidelity in the course of couples therapy. Usually, couples come in with this issue once an affair has already been discovered. But there are those folks who agree to "work" on their marriages in therapy while actively (and secretly) involved in an affair. Needless to say, this is a colossal time-waster because no real work can be done on a marriage while there's another honey in the picture. Along with losing lots of weight, suddenly developing new interests or being unaccountable for their time, "I just need some space," or "I'm feeling suffocated in the marriage," are pretty standard giveaways.
*We'll give you the benefit of the doubt for now but we're onto you.
3. We know the marriage is the problem.*
Sometimes it's just too hard to admit the marriage is sinking into the abyss so people look to pin their unhappiness on other issues. And some of these issues are valid: a friend or parent has died, a child is unwell, there's been a financial setback. But couples in good marriages accept they need to work through life's challenges together.
*Life stressors shouldn't be used as excuses to split. And we'll happily tell you that.
4. We know there isn't one bad guy.*
I know I'll get a chorus of naysayers on this one, but in everyday marriages with everyday problems, each person has brought some dysfunction to the table. So, when couples present the bad partner/good partner paradigm in therapy, we therapists are on high alert. Especially if the "bad partner" has bought into this assigned identity. (I'm not talking about abusive relationships here, just those in which each partner has a laundry list of complaints about the other.)
*If you're looking to your couples therapist to confirm your spouse is a no-good, lazy, narcissistic schmuck because he won't drive carpool, you're going to be disappointed.
5. We know you're like your parents.*
Yep, we all are. Relationship dysfunction has a way of being passed down through the generations and it's the gift that keeps on giving. So, if you saw your parents abuse substances, have affairs or keep secrets, there's a greater chance you will, too. The good news is it's not always egregious behaviors that are copied. But your prototype for marriage is set in your childhood psyche by observing the adults in your life. This doesn't mean you're doomed to the mistakes of your caretakers but there's work to be done.
*Be prepared for us to enlighten you as to where some of your less-than-desirable behaviors in the marriage are coming from.
6. We know dysfunction.*
It's a pretty standard joke that therapists go into this field because we're comfortable with crazy -- or just plain crazy. Truth is, your therapist is no nuttier than you may be. But in addition to experiencing much of the same relationship dysfunction you have, we've studied people and their motivations for years. Some of us were asked to unearth our own relationship uglies and hold them up to the light as part of our training. Does this make us organically better at our own relationships? Unequivocally, no.
*But don't bother with the ruse. Because the combination of our education and personal experience makes us pretty darned astute in ferreting out where the real problems lay.