Family Therapy: Tackling Marital Burnout

Carl Grody
Carl Grody

Last summer, I found it hard to go to work, and I didn't know why.

I'd been burned out before, but that's when I worked 50 to 60 hours a week for a mental health agency. After starting my private practice in 2010, I figured I'd never hit that wall again.

To make matters worse, I couldn't figure out what happened; the only difference in my practice was that more people were coming in specifically for couples counseling. Much of family therapy involves working with couples at some point, but these sessions felt different. I felt more pressure. Maybe it was just time to take a break.

One day, our office manager in Granville said, “This new client asked if I assigned him to you because he's a man. I told him you take most of our couples.”

And then I knew. And then I relaxed.

For all the training we do and the strategies we use as therapists, the top reason for positive change in therapy comes from a good rapport between the client and a clinician who knows what they're doing. When someone comes in for family therapy, a child is normally the identified client, but they're often reacting to something in the family system, so I work with everyone in the family. If we decide to do couples counseling, I've already built rapport with the parents.

That's not true when parents come in specifically for couples work. They feel desperate, even hopeless. Often, they see it as a last-ditch effort to save the marriage. Last summer, I was simply blindsided by the pressure of building rapport from scratch with people so angry they could spit—often at each other.

But I like challenging cases. That's how I started seeing couples in the first place. (“I gave them to you,” the office manager said, “because the wife was screaming that she needed someone to say if she should leave her husband.”)

Once I had my epiphany, I relaxed and approached sessions with enthusiasm again. The reason I specialized in family therapy in the first place was to help kids, and there are few things better for a child than a good relationship between Mom and Dad.

Often, couples get blindsided by the need for counseling. Pride gets in the way, or hopelessness, or that uneasy feeling when something's wrong but you can't quite figure out why. Parents may feel like they've drifted apart, and they don't know how to come back together. Whatever the problem, it's just as important to nurture that relationship as it is to be a good parent.

Sometimes, it's as simple as making more time for each other. Other times, it means counseling—whether something just feels off-kilter or your relationship is in freefall. This may be a hard step to take; it's not unusual to feel overwhelmed and burned out by the pressure of maintaining a relationship. If it makes it any easier, just remember that it happens to everybody at some point—even the therapist.

Carl Grody is a licensed independent social worker who works with families at Grody Family Counseling in Worthington.