Sunday, March 18, 2012

Do therapists practice what they preach?

Most people probably assume that their therapist is mentally and emotionally healthy.  After all, the therapist seems to have it all together: a good job, nice office, nice clothes, and a consistently calm demeanor that is both comforting and reassuring.  It certainly makes sense that a therapist should have good mental and emotional health; she has all the necessary tools and she knows how to use them.  But do therapists practice what they preach?

I can't speak for all therapists; I can only speak for myself.  Am I the picture of perfect mental and emotional functioning?  Absolutely not.  I do, however, practice what I preach.  One of the reasons I am able to "sell" certain strategies to my patients is because I know from personal experience that they work.  I'm a walking testimonial.  I'm quite proud of this.  I started out insecure and emotionally unstable.  Learning to "do" therapy is an ongoing process that for me started when I got my first job out of college.  From day one I started using what I learned to help myself.  I've come a long way since then and I'm proud of myself.

Imagine my chagrin, then, when six months into my marriage my mother suggested that my husband and I needed marriage counseling.  I resisted.  "We don't need a therapist," I thought.  "I am the therapist."  (I've since reconsidered my position).  Then I started thinking about all of the therapists I've worked with over the years; A LOT of them are divorced.  Even some of the therapists I know who are trained specifically in marriage and family therapy are divorced!  Apparently, when it comes to relationships there are a lot of us who have a hard time practicing what we preach.

I recently stumbled upon a research study that looked into this.  (The article is entitled "Do psychotherapists have better marriages than nonpsychotherapists?" and is found in the journal Psychotherapy: Theory Research, Practice, Training, Vol. 41, No. 3. The authors are Murstein and Mink).   The study measured marital adjustment in couples where neither spouse was a therapist, where one spouse was a therapist, and where both spouses were therapists.  Overall, they found no difference in levels of marital adjustment between couples where neither spouse was a therapist and couples with one or more therapist spouse.  In other words, couples with one or more therapist spouse did not have better marital adjustment than couples with no therapist.

They broke the results down into categories and found some very interesting results.  The couples with the highest indicators of marital adjustment in both partners were those composed of a therapist husband and a non-therapist wife.  The lowest ratings of marital adjustment came from husbands (both therapists and non-therapists) married to therapist wives.

This is, of course, extremely relevant to me, given that my husband is married to a therapist wife.  I started thinking about our "marital adjustment" and how me being a therapist affects  our relationship...

Early in our marriage, my husband had a terrible habit of not telling me when I did something to upset him.  Instead, he'd accumulate these instances in his mind and then throw them at me one by one whenever we had an argument.  This meant that if I complained about something he did that was really upsetting me, he would respond by going through a long list of examples of things I'd done to make him angry.   As a therapist, I knew he was breaking one of the cardinal rules of fair fighting: stick to the subject and stay in the present (don't bring up issues from the past).  I'd tell him, "Look, you're not supposed to do that when we're arguing."  The thing is, he didn't know anything about the fair fighting rules and he hadn't agreed to abide by them.  I know that at times he seemed to resent me telling him how we were "supposed" to communicate with each other (especially when I didn't always follow my own "rules").

I suppose my husband might have some theories of his own.  I plan to ask him.  I'll let you know if he has any interesting insights.


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  3. It is great you are willing to show you are a human being, capable of making the same mistakes as others, it will not put a wall between you and a client. You can become "one" to solve a problem as a team, some people will definitely thrive with this kind of work, others won't. Help those that you can, and don't feel bad with others when you don't fit their needs. Move on when this happens...there are plenty that need you.

    1. Thanks -- that's something I have to keep reminding myself.

  4. I agree with the previous comment. Great Post!

  5. Humans with human problems helping humans, aspiring to help humans...beautiful, tender hearted, quiet heroes. Thank you so much.


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