In a recent Howard Stern interview, Arnold Schwarzenegger stated that going to couples therapy at the end of his marriage was, "the biggest mistake I ever made." He went on to bluntly disparage the therapist and to call his efforts to help the couple "nonsense talk."
I can't dispute Mr. S' experience in his particular therapy sessions, with that particular therapist, and with his particularly hurt and horrified wife who had recently learned that her husband had fathered a son several years prior with one of their household employees.
As we already know, Schwarzenegger and his wife, Maria Shriver, ended their marriage presumably because of this revelation. So, in other words -- and to extrapolate on what Mr. S has already said -- the couples therapy was deemed useless because the marriage didn't remain intact.
But that's not how it works, people. Couples therapy can help those in flailing marriages. It can help get couples back on track. It can help salvage marriages on the brink of divorce. It can also help end marriages that have no business staying put.
Here's a realistic look (from a couples therapist) at what you can expect (and not) from couples therapy:
1. It can't save your marriage. Only the two people in a marriage can do that. If a couples therapist tells you he or she is going to save your union, run in the other direction. This is snake oil, folks. And its purveyors prey on those desperate enough to believe it.
2. It isn't a perfect system. Each and every couple needs something different -- that's obvious. No two marriages are alike and what derails a marriage is unique in circumstances and details. Couples therapists -- good ones -- work hard to meet each couple where they are. Then the therapist does his/her best to tailor the therapy accordingly. There isn't one technique that works for every couple and what may help one couple heal may be another's Achilles' heel.
3. It can't change your partner's mind. No therapist in the world is going to be able to change the mind of someone hellbent on leaving his or her marriage. Face it, by the time some couples actually get to therapy, their marriage is a hot mess. A couples therapist can certainly outline the positive aspects of remaining married -- and encourage clients to give theirs a fair shake -- but magicians we are not.
4. It can help you communicate more effectively. I argue this is the one and only thing you can truly expect from good couples therapy. A therapist who will listen to the way two partners communicate and make suggestions for more empathic discourse. Couples lose their way when the communication channels start to break down. Couples therapy can help turn that around.
5. It can't guarantee a desired outcome. Couples therapists can only work with what a couple brings to their therapy sessions. If both partners are ready, willing and able to make significant changes, the couples therapy can help with that. There is no right or wrong outcome when it comes to couples work. And the only truly reliable outcome is the one both partners co-create.
6. It can help you understand your partner's behaviors. Throwing in the towel because you simply can't understand where your partner is coming from? If partners can't explain what's happening for them in the marriage -- either because they don't know or they can't express it effectively -- couples counseling can shed light on behavioral patterns and systems that may be damaging the marriage.
7. It can put you in the hot seat. My guess is that Arnold figured this one out pretty quickly. Although there's rarely one "bad guy," there are sometimes extreme circumstances that act as the low-hanging fruit in a collapsing marriage. Arnold's behaviors in the marriage certainly gave the therapy a running start. My guess is there were some really, really uncomfortable moments for him in those sessions.
8. It can be confusing. Sometimes couples leave sessions feeling worse than when they went in. And there are reasons for that. For one thing, you're basically dredging up a lot of discontent. One partner has his list of woes, the other has her list of complaints. It's the therapist's job to honor both partners' experiences in the marriage while guiding the couple toward reason -- and understanding of the other's perspective.
9. It can be worth a shot. Divorce ain't easy for anyone involved. Even if you want a divorce, better to really investigate your role in the unhappiness in the marriage before you pull the trigger on dismantling your whole life. If there are children involved, even more reason to drag thyself to therapy. If you do decide to divorce, you'll want to be able to tell your kids you tried everything to hold the family together. And that, for better or worse, includes couples therapy.