Couples are enormously diverse. We know this. But we therapists are indoctrinated to ignore this diversity by believing we can work quite well with any couple who steps in our doors.
That gap is important. We say “I can help you!” and couples think “I don’t get any confidence you can help my unique marriage situation,” or even worse, “The last therapist said the same thing, and that sure failed. So why should I risk trying again?”
At some level, we really know that none of us works well with all couples. They may bring a style, a personality, a career mindset, an energy level that doesn’t fit well with how we work.
The brash New Yorker is a very different presentation from the salt of the earth Midwest farmer who wouldn’t know a feeling if it landed on the crops. The ever patient nurse midwife is not the same as the engineer manager where time is money and logic reigns.
Some of us love strong personalities, some of us find them exhausting and hard to get traction.
Some of us love down to earth types who tell it like it is, and tell us not to psychobabble them, while others of us love insight oriented, existential clients where we can do deep about the meaning of life, love, and happiness.
Our clinical trainings don’t speak to these kinds of “fit” issues that are outside a model of therapy. That wouldn’t be feasible in a generic training. Plus, there is little or no research on it as a field.
In our offices we are left to turn the science of couples therapy into the art of working with clients who have distinct marriage personalities that fit well or poorly with the therapist’s style and preferences.
What to do?
First, let’s share a few common examples of what goes on in the minds of potential clients.
First, did you know? The research is clear. The majority of individuals in marital distress end up going to an individual therapist.
We think one of the reasons is that we couples therapists have not been convincing enough that we can help couples with their distinctive problems connected to their distinctive couple personality. (There are other reasons, of course, but those are for another day.)
Here are some examples:
“My husband and I are high powered lawyers. We’ve tried couple therapists, but they were just so damn squishy. We want to get MOVING and the therapist just acted like we’re resistant to therapy when in fact we’re really smart, fast processors and want to get to work, not take 4 sessions to talk about our past. How can we find someone who gets us?”
“We struggle in our marriage, but we don’t actually know what we’d talk about in therapy? We don’t really fight. We’re just quiet. All these therapists seem to want us to explain what’s going on and really, I don’t know. I’m just not happy and my spouse isn’t happy. It seems like we have to figure out what’s wrong before we can even go to therapy.”
“We’re in free fall! Our teenage son just went into drug rehab, our daughter is struggling with online bullying, my mother in law is dying, I travel for work too much but can’t even job search because I’m gone too often. My husband has a very intense job and a boss who is nasty about letting him take time for his mother or our kids during the day when there is a crisis. Our marriage is clearly in the hole, but how on earth would we even begin couples therapy? It’s craziness around here and I don’t even know where we’d start since he and I don’t even agree on what our problems are and how to handle each of these issues I just described. It seems like we have to get ourselves figured out first before we could even work on our marriage. Maybe I’ll start therapy for myself.”
And of course, let’s share the one we never talk about except in hushed tones with trusted colleagues or in supervision….
“I’m a therapist and my marriage is awful. I feel like a fraud – like I should know how to fix this, but I’m ashamed. Going to a couples therapist is going to just tell the world and my clients that I don’t know what to do and am a failure. How would I even find a therapist that either doesn’t annoy me because I hate their therapy style or who won’t trigger my spouse into feeling ganged up on – two therapists against one normal person.”
Notice what we’re talking about is beneath a model. This isn’t about telling this individual you’re an attachment therapist, or that you have training in dealing with affairs or substance abuse. It’s about signaling that you get them and you can meet them exactly where they are.
Elizabeth’s passion started as a marketer and then she became a therapist. The real grist here is her desire for more couples to feel confident with a particular therapist, because their key objection, their “style gap” with a therapist, or their sense of insecurity that couples therapy could really work, is met with confidence, warmth, and tone of experience by the therapist.
But does it work to simply say “I welcome….” then give a bulleted list of every issue and type of couple? Generally that backfires, reducing confidence. After all, would you rather someone announce they can fix 100 problems, or their entire focus is on 5 key issues? You’re more likely to go to the focused person.
Meanwhile, how do you differentiate from all the therapists who really ought not see couples because they lack training, but do see them because money is tight and there is no regulation against them doing so – licensing boards don’t protect couples in that way.
Are you seeing the gap? It’s both a struggle for couples to feel confidence in who they will see, and a struggle for a marriage therapist to articulate cleanly and with gravitas that certain common “marriage personalities” are very welcomed because therapist is comfortable working with and supporting them.
One way to stand out as a therapist is to have what is called “social proof” or “third party endorsements.” This can help signal your expertise and give confidence to couples. Our trainings in the field are a form of social proof, but not for the issue we’re addressing here—the insecurity the couple feels about whether you can match their marriage personality.
Elizabeth and Bill brainstormed this gap and came up with six areas that Bill’s 40 years of experience has handed him, areas he feels especially able to train on. One of our rules is to ignore any topics that have full-fledged trainings, such as generic high conflict couples or couples dealing with substance abuse or other clinical issues. We’re aiming for something different.
And to keep the creative energy going, we talked about both what Bill can offer clinically and what Elizabeth can offer on the marketing end.
Rather than the traditional 1-4 hour trainings in therapy land, sometimes (let’s face it) that has a bit of “fluff time” to fill the CE hour expectations), Bill shares exactly as much as he has of his clinical wisdom on working with various marriage personalities—and then stops. The goal is to help therapists better understand the underlying dynamics, how therapy can get stuck, and how as a clinician we can handle the potential complexity and power dynamics of specific types of couples.
Meanwhile, Elizabeth is ever aware of how much couples want and deserve a confident therapist who will meet them exactly where they are and who signals excitement for what the couple experience as a barrier. Taking the best of the internet tools, trends in e-learning, and social proof (by way of web badges used by large companies with tens of thousands of employees as well as smaller organizations), Elizabeth and Bill have put together names for these trainings that offer respect and optimism (not insults like “Got a crazy emotional spouse? or “You a power hungry, high strung executive?”). We’ve created images that therapists can immediately use for blog posts or articles on each couple style, along with a full page of marketing ideas on how to address these types of couples.
We’re not calling these certifications. That’s a big word and implies many hours of robust training.
Instead, these are certificates, small but powerful signals to millions of couples seeking reassurance that couples therapy, and you in particular, can cut through their energy level or reactivity in the room, and be enormously beneficial to their relationship.
If you join the training certs, launch week you’ll get a bundled offer to be able to train on all topics, even those you wouldn’t actually advertise competence in. Each will be available as a bundle or individually.
Audio training and handout nailing the clinical challenges, the issues for couples and how to be successful no matter what your therapy model or orientation
A quiz you pass lets you get the training certificate, geared for you to put on your website that signals to couples you’re experienced with their issues
A marketing handout and 3 customized images you can reuse that let you blog and write more on that type of couple so they feel confident you are uniquely prepared to deal with them.