Dr. William J. Doherty of the University of Minnesota recently presented a talk in which he described characteristics of what he described as an “incompetent couples therapist.” Here is his list with my comments.
Failing to actively structure sessions. The couples therapist must be able to control the direction of the conversation. Couples are prone to defend themselves while attacking their partner. The skilled therapist will guide couples to addressing relationship issues rather than allowing personal attacks.
Not moving beyond clarifying issues to specific ways couples can change. Couples need to be able to leave the therapist’s office with specific efforts that each partner can contribute toward making a emotional and physical connection during the next few days. Couples can expect change to be gradual but it must be observable. Each partner must see effort from their mate.
Failing to connect with both partners. Relationships are circular. The therapist must help couples to recognize that they each have a stake in each barrier between them and in each step toward improving their connection.
Failing to move quickly when commitment and divorce are on the table. Partners can respond quickly and destructively when they learn that their partner’s commitment has become uncertain. The therapist must intervene quickly to normalize the crisis and encourage good decision making. Therapists can further harm the marriage by attempting to manipulate the outcome (save the marriage) instead of helping the couple through a healthy decision-making process.
Giving up on the relationship when the therapist feels hopeless or lacks the ability to help. Momentary feelings on the part of the partners or the therapist are poor predictors of the outcome of couples counseling. I have learned that minor changes can bring unrealistically strong feelings of hope for the relationship and that being stuck can lead the couple to unrealistically conclude the relationship will never be satisfying. That is why I encourage couples to consider marriage counseling to be a three-month process before it can be assessed as a success or failure.