Updated: Apr 21
Troubles in couples counseling pt 1.
A few weeks ago the best couples counselor I know quit the game. She totally stopped seeing couples. I knew it was coming, but still, it was a shock. When I asked her why she’d quit she gave a few different answers. Some of it was stage of life stuff, and some of it was person of the therapist stuff, but the first words out of her mouth were “Jordan, they just keep fighting.”
What happens for most of us is we see our first couple and it sucks. So we go back and read our textbook from gradschool or listen to a podcast. We feel a little more equipped. Then the couple comes in again and fights again.
So we pick up a book from the latest therapy Guru and after reading a few chapters suddenly couples counseling makes soooo much sense. We see the couple again and a week later the wife says, “we had a good weekend but had a fight on the way to the office.”
Confused that it’s not working we wonder, “what am I doing wrong? Why is it so much harder for me?” We grit our teeth and reluctantly pay the money to go to the training. You know the one. The popular couples training that costs 1000$ plus all the unpaid time off of work. We spend a week immersing ourselves in the material. We have a light bulb moment about our parents’ relationship. And several more about where we went wrong with our last partner. At the end we cry and hug the other participants. We’ve all grown so much. It’s the closest thing to summer camp for adults. On Monday we see the couple and the session seems to go well.
A month later we say, “seems like things have been going smoother?” just trying to check in.
“Yeah,” he says, “they have been. I think it’s because it’s hunting season. We’re not together that much. Maybe the distance is good for us?”
And she says, “I got on anxiety medication. It’s helped some.”
That’s when a little voice in your head hisses, “nothing you do matters” and you feel the walls begin to cave in and smother you, and just when you’re ready to lay down, a fire erupts from your belly and you scream “F%$@. You! Failure!” and you PAY THE MONEY and go through the full training and you get supervision from the “supervisor” who cost 3X more than your licensure supervisor ever did and watch your tapes and send it all in so that you can become certified and then become a supervisor yourself.
By this time six months have passed. You ask the couple how’s it going.
To which she says, teary eyed, “I found him looking at porn the other night.”
And he sneers, “Gawd. Here we go again.”
“I just can’t have sex with him when he does this. He just pressures me.”
“Don't give me that shit, you haven’t wanted to since the baby!” He spits.
And the heavy blanket of hopelessness wraps itself around your shoulders as they just keep fighting.
Honestly, the whole situation is not workable. I mean that. Counselors literally can not keep working in those circumstances. See it’s a human need to feel competent at our jobs. Critical to this is clear wins.
The people who really have this figured out are video game companies. If you play any modern video game you’ll notice that the first few levels aren’t actually about playing the game. The first few levels are about learning skills and gaining early wins. They calls these "skill atoms".
For example Level One will be designed so all you have to do is hop over bad guys, and if you hop over enough bad guys eventually you get to the end of the level and you win.
Because you win, you keep playing and move to Level Two. Level Two is really all about learning to shoot bad guys. Once you shoot so many bad guys you win.
And because you win, you feel good and move on to Level Three. Level Three is about learning to shoot one bad guy while hoping over another. Once you can do that you win and go to Level Four where you learn to use a special ability while you run and shoot.
You get the picture. Intrinsic to the process are clear wins.
Therapy is literally the opposite. Which means sometimes being a therapist is really hard and, frankly, sometimes unsatisfying, so much so that even the best couples counselors sometimes throw in the towel.
So why am I saying all of this? Because I want you to know that it’s hard. It’s hard because it’s hard to give your best and it not consistently work out. It’s hard because it’s hard to care and see the clients you care about be mean to each other. It’s hard because it’s hard to know that even if you help this one, the next couple could just keep fighting.
It’s not you. It's just that hard. That’s why it feels hard. Because it is. And sometimes it’s just too hard, which means it’s okay to quit.
All stories about clients are mixes of various clients with identifying details changed. No identifying client information is revealed in these stories.