One of the things that’s always annoyed me about certain kinds of advice columns (think Ann Landers) is the blitheness of the short-cut they take in saying, “Seek counseling” every time they come up against something they can’t address in 25 words or less. Those newspaper columns are getting shorter and shorter these days.
One major problem with a suggestion to seek counseling is that there are so many different kinds of counseling, and then such a variety of competence within the different counseling “schools,” that getting a counselor that’s right for you is something of a crapshoot. I’ll talk more about the search process in a later post, but here’s one of my patented True Tales of Marital Disconnect.
I recently heard from a reader whose wife had experienced a sexual assault in her youth. (I’m not quoting his letter because there was too much potentially identifying detail). She attempted counseling, but after her first counselor quit his practice under an ethical cloud, she next went to a sexual counselor, who apparently prescribed soft porn and masturbation, a suggestion that disturbed and disgusted the assault victim so much that she immediately quit counseling for good.
While a history of sexual assault is certainly a good reason for a woman to seek psychological help, I don’t know why this woman went to a sexual counselor instead of more general therapy. Sexual therapy is best for people who want to recover their erotic selves for their own sake, because (for example) they miss the way they used to feel. They want to get their previous level of sexual enjoyment back, or they are genuinely committed to finally becoming a fully sexual being.
But if there are personality or relationship problems that need to be overcome, a narrow focus on sexual dysfunction can be very problematic. It’s like saying, “Never mind why you don’t want to, just Do It” (advice I understand forms the central premise of a couple of recent books on this subject). From other elements of my reader’s story I suspected that this wife went to counseling more as an attempt to solve her husband’s unhappiness with her sexual disinterest, and not because she herself really wanted to change.
So, the first rule of counselor-seeking is to acknowledge the problem you’re trying to solve is YOUR problem and that you are willing and ready to solve it. This, in fact, is the most common problem with couples counseling, sexual or otherwise. Almost invariably, one member of the couple is far more committed to the counseling concept than the other, and the “hostile” member of the pair can sabotage the entire enterprise because they are not really willing to work with it. Therapy requires a relatively whole-hearted cooperation, or it isn’t therapeutic (how that for today’s Outrageous Obviousness?).
Some people would say that it is rational to be hostile to certain kinds of counseling. If you come to feel that a counselor is “not on your side” or is being unfair to you, you will resent it and your cooperation will naturally suffer. Unfortunately, it is also common to hear — or feel — things in therapy that make you angry with the therapist. When this happens in couples therapy, the partner whose faith in the therapist is faltering will often assume (sometimes rightly, alas) that the therapy is designed to aid the “therapist’s pet” at the expense of the other partner.