Has Your Marriage Therapist Ever Been in Therapy?

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By: Jay Slupesky, MA

Recently during a marriage therapy session, a young couple was telling me about the issues that had been causing them to be in intense conflict. It was a typical session for me until the couple mentioned a particular problem with an extended family member. Unfortunately for me as their therapist, that particular issue was very similar to a problem that had caused some strife several years ago in my own marriage. At that point in the therapy session I had to summon the self-discipline to stay in the moment with my clients and to block out thoughts and emotions regarding what had happened to me a few years back.

If you and your spouse have ever been to marriage therapy, you know what it's like. As the clients, you sit on the therapist's office couch and talk about your roles as husband and wife, your communication problems, and your areas of disagreement. Usually you and your spouse are doing most of the talking. The therapist occasionally interjects observations and asks some probing questions in order to help you better understand yourselves and the issues that are afflicting your marriage. Some therapists may also at times engage in "psychoeducation," in which they take on more of a teaching role rather than the usual listening and observing roles. No matter what the details of your therapy sessions are, you presumably view your therapist as a professional, an expert in the field of relationships and psychotherapy, perhaps even someone who will impart some wisdom to you and your spouse.

Maybe you have wondered if your therapist has ever been in your place, that is, if your therapist and his or her spouse have ever been the clients of another marriage therapist, talking about their own problems with some other expert counselor. Can you imagine your therapist as a client? It may be difficult. (Try to visualize Freud lying on another analyst's couch while having his own dreams analyzed!)

The next time you're in a therapy session, you might ask your therapist if he or she has ever been in therapy. This question may well catch your therapist off guard, and he or she may even get a bit uncomfortable or defensive and ask you why you would want to know that information. Of course, you have a very good answer to that question: you want to know if your marriage therapist knows what it's like to be in pain, to be a in damaged relationship, and to be seeking help from a third party. This may well be more information than your therapist is willing to reveal to a client. (I'm sure that Freud wouldn't have shared that information!)

Regardless of whether or not your therapist fesses up, the question remains: can someone be a good marriage therapist without ever having been in marriage therapy as a client? Yes or no? I'm going to take the "no" position. Why? Because in therapy, the most important factor for success is the quality of the relationship, the rapport, between the clients and their therapist. The clients have to believe that their therapist "gets" them, that he knows exactly how they feel. If clients don't feel heard and understood, the therapy won't be very effective. And it's so much easier for therapists to understand how spouses in therapy feel if those same therapists have themselves been in therapy.

Some powerful people agree with me that counselors should be in counseling. In California, marriage and family therapists who are in training internships are strongly encouraged to seek their own therapy. They are even rewarded for doing so by the licensing board in a unique and powerful way: every hour, up to a maximum of 100 hours, that an intern spends in his or her own therapy is counted as three hours of experience toward the 3000 hours of total experience required during the internship. That's a strong motivation for an intern therapist, and it speaks to how strongly the licensing board believes that therapists in training should be in therapy themselves. I took full advantage of this when I was an intern.

Here's another way to look at it: therapists should fully understand their own minds, their own emotions, defenses, and beliefs, before helping someone else to do the same thing. Furthermore, marriage therapists should understand their relationships, both past and present, including the ups, downs, strengths, and weaknesses, so that they can better help their clients to mend their own relationships.

Therapists also need to be able to deal with the feelings that they experience while listening to their clients speak. This phenomenon of the therapeutic process engendering feelings in the therapist is called "countertransference," and it is an unavoidable aspect of therapy. It's important, therefore, that therapists are well-prepared to handle these feelings, and this preparation is enhanced when therapists have already been through their own therapy.

A marriage therapist works with many couples and over the years will hear innumerable different relationship crisis stories. Sooner or later, probably sooner, and probably when it's least expected, all therapists find themselves listening to a client describing a situation that parallels the worst relationship event in the therapist's life. What will happen at that point? If the therapist has not worked through that crisis in his or her own personal therapy, the result may be a welling up of emotion - grief or anger, for example - and result in the therapist becoming much less effective as a helper, not only in that session, but in future sessions with the same clients when the therapist is again reminded of the painful events of the past.

Remember my clients and their extended family problem that was so similar to my own issue? Fortunately, I was able to handle that situation well. I didn't get emotional, and I remained focused on my clients. How was I able to do that? Because I'd already worked through that issue in my own personal therapy.

So the next time you're looking for a marriage therapist, I suggest you look for one who has experienced marriage therapy from both sides of the room: from the client's couch as well as from the therapist's chair.

Jay Slupesky, MA, is an experience marriage therapist with offices in San Ramon and Livermore, CA. For more information, visit his website EastBayCouples.com.

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