Marriage and Divorce: Family Therapists Share Their Own Stories
I have done a bit of research gathering stories of marriage and family therapists and their thoughts on marriage. As a marriage and family therapist who is married to another marriage and family therapist, I have a deeply personal interest in learning more about the marriages of therapists.
Framo (1968) wrote of his own experience of trying to keep boundaries between his clinical work, his family of origin, and his wife and children. He stated:
I don’t know when I first became aware of the phenomena that treating families not only revives the specters of one’s own past family life, but also has subtle, suffusing effects on the therapist’s current family relationships. After doing family therapy, and seeing what emotional systems can do to people, I take my own family life more seriously. In the living presence of a mother, father, brothers, and sisters, the constellation in which most of us grew, one finds oneself transported back to old thoughts, longings, disharmonies, and joys in a way which can be more moving and reintegrative than one’s own personal therapy or analysis. Each family we treat contains part of our own. As I saw more and more families I have become used to reliving each stage of my own family life cycle during sessions, in a series of flashbacks at once compelling and fearsome, fascinating and despairing, growth-promoting and regressive. While I am conducting treatment sessions, with my surface calm and important, hiding behind my degrees and the trappings of my profession, evaluating the dynamics of the family before me, figuring out the strategy, avoiding the traps, I communicate to the family only a small portion of the emotional connections I make with them the places where we touch. (p. 24-25)
Framo seemed to feel as if there was a link between his personal relationships and his psychotherapeutic practice.
Benningfield (2006) wrote an article about her own experiences in the process of divorce as a marriage and family therapist. She and her husband were both therapists, and worked in the same office. Benningfield mentioned one particular encounter with a client during this time. The client said, “Well, doc, if I couldn’t manage my own money, I wouldn’t expect my clients to give me theirs to manage. So how can you help us if you couldn’t make your marriage work?” (p. 31). It is a question that Benningfield struggled with for some time. Yet, she continued on in her work as a therapist and concluded the following:
One of the wonderful privileges of being a therapist is that our life experiences—whether aging, illness, birth, death, marriage or divorce— inform and transform our work with others. We learn from ourselves as well as from others. Perhaps one of the most valuable gifts we offer our clients is the opportunity to watch us be human, to struggle with as much as they do and sail in our own leaky boats on the same seas as they do, especially if in that process we also help them learn from themselves as well. (p. 31)
Clearly, Benningfield believed that therapists could still be of aid to others, despite their own imperfections. We could actually be even better when we allow our lives to continually inform our practices.
Do you agree that therapists can use life experiences to enhance their psychotherapy? Please leave a comment below.
- Benningfield, A. B. (2006). When therapists divorce. Family Therapy Magazine, 5(3), 31-33.
- Framo, J. L. (1968). My families, my family. Voices: The Art and Science of Psychotherapy, 4, 18–27.
Check out Summit Family Therapy in Peoria, IL to learn more about Dr. Courtney Stivers’ professional work.
As a therapist and as a human, the best thing we could ever do is allow people to see us in struggle. I believe if a therapist buys the story that says they are some how better than their clients they will be less able to create the experience of change. Hiding who we are is just as powerful as showing who we are, the results are just very different.
Amanda, thanks for posting! Yes, looking down at our clients from and expert tower can really damage the client relationship. We are all humans first, regardless of pedigree.
I absolutely agree that our experiences enrich our clinical work. As someone who is divorced, I have navigated emotional terrain that others have not. I have navigated my way through grief & loss. If we are viewed as flawed, we can also present ourselves as authentic & whole, even though we have experienced deep pain. Role modeling this as a life experience rather than a failure can help our clients do the same in their own lives. Of course, this is all dependent on appropriate self-disclosure. If a client was to look at me or work with me, how would they ever know I was divorced unless I shared that information for their benefit. I personally value family & relationships but choose not to engage in toxic relationships.
Carol, thank you for sharing your experiences. I agree with you completely. Pain is an universal experience that we can all relate with. This makes me want to read Brene Brown!