A counsellor may offer insights into a relationship, but saving the marriage? That’s the couple’s job.

A few weeks ago, at a social event, I was in conversation with a reasonably experienced counsellor, when a young couple came up to us and gushed about how grateful they were to said counsellor for saving their marriage and for the brilliant advice given and so on. The word, ‘saviour’, came up more than a couple of times. And although the word, ‘messiah’ wasn’t actually spoken, perhaps because they weren’t familiar with the term, it was strongly implied. Not wanting to interject, since it wasn’t really my conversation to participate in, I stood by waiting to see what the counsellor’s response would be. To my chagrin, I only saw simpering acceptance of everything the young couple said.

I have said this before and I will say it again. Counsellors do not save marriages. It is not what they’re expected to do. It is not what they can do. It is not what they’re trained to do. Also, good counsellors never give advice. This they leave to friends, elders and coaches. I must clarify that when I use the term counsellor, I refer only to those who are trained in psychological counselling of individuals and couples, not legal counsellors or educational counsellors or career counsellors and the like. Obviously in these situations, advice is sought, paid for and must therefore be given. But not when it comes to marriage counselling or psychotherapy.

What then, you might legitimately ask, should one expect of a marriage counsellor?

Several things. The first and most important of these is to help the couple get a clearer perspective on the unconscious dynamics of their relationship and the issues they are grappling with. Another is to help each partner take ownership for their respective contributions to the state of the marriage and not see themselves as the victim of the other’s machinations. And a third is to help them understand the process of conflict resolution so that each may make considered choices for their respective selves and for the relationship they are engaged in. And if the couple is able to resolve their issues and get their marriage to a better place in the process (which I guess is what one means by ‘saving’ the marriage), then the credit for doing so goes principally to the couple.

In saying this, I’m not undermining the role played by the counsellor. I do believe it’s an important one (or I wouldn’t be doing it myself for almost three decades), but certainly not a messianic one. As any experienced counsellor will tell you, a counsellor’s effectiveness is almost entirely contingent on the ‘state of preparedness’ of the couple (or the individual, in the case of individual counselling or psychotherapy) to obtain and act on insights. Unfortunately, most couples, especially the agitated ones in ‘toxic’ relationships, are not yet prepared to do so when they visit a counsellor. So, often the first order of business for the counsellor is to de-escalate the hyper-charged emotional situation and prepare the couple to obtain insights.

Many couples visit the counsellor to seek a solution for a specific problem. And having obtained a solution for this, are perfectly happy to discontinue the process, until they hit the next roadblock and see the counsellor again, thereby setting up a revolving-door sort of mechanism wherein they ‘outsource’ their marital problem-solving to the counsellor. I think of such couples as ‘solution-seekers’ as opposed to those couples who seek to understand their issues and obtain the appropriate tools of conflict-resolution so they may address the future bottle-necks they’ll doubtless encounter, using this newly-acquired template. I call them ‘enhancement seekers’, for their focus is on enhancing the quality of their marriages and their lives, and not just on finding solutions to their current problems. In my experience, enhancement-seekers utilise the counselling process far more effectively, for they want to own their problems as well as the resolution of these.

In our country, unlike others, psychotherapy and counselling have traditionally been patterned on the guru-chela paradigm (as opposed to the client-therapist equation that obtains in the West). The counsellor is seen as the one who holds the keys to unlock the mysteries of human relationships and the help-seeker has to obsequiously receive the seer’s wisdom. This probably explains why we expect our counsellors to give us sage advice. However, in recent years, counsellors themselves have slowly changed the way they think of themselves. Not any more as gurus, but more as professional facilitators (although as evidenced by the simpering counsellor, not all of them think this way). This has certainly helped in the way the public also responds to them (again, as evident from the gushy couple, not everyone has broken out of the guru-chela mindset).

I have no quarrel with your being grateful to your counsellors. For their empathy. For giving you space to unburden yourself of your deepest secrets without judging you or betraying your confidence. For holding your hand and walking you through the darkest periods of your lives. And for helping you empower yourself with better insights with a nudge here and a prod there. Without doubt they are facilitators of your healing and recovery process. But, messiahs of marriage? Hell, no!

vijay@vijaynagaswami.com