capturing the beautiful calamity of healing in therapy

The Unmarried and Childless Marriage and Family Therapist

I am in my young twenties, at the beginning of my professional career as a marriage and family therapist intern, and I am neither a spouse or a parent.

I have completed hundreds of therapy sessions with children of all ages, married adults, and couples. I have received solid academic training and expertise in both populations, and I recognize that my knowledge will continue to expand. And yet, more times than not, when a frustrated parent vents about his or her child to me, several times I am interrupted with the classic question, Do you even have children???? When sitting across from an exasperated spouse complaining about his wife, I am often asked, Are you married? Do you know what it’s like? 

I always answer honestly. Nope! I don’t!

I can’t understand what it’s like to be a parent. I can’t understand what it’s like to have been married for 20, 30, 40+ years. I haven’t reached those milestones yet, and I do not believe that lack of personal experience makes me unqualified for my job.

It is true that I don’t have first-hand knowledge of parenting or marriage. Because of this, I can be objective about children and relationships. I can draw upon my clinical experiences and academic background to provide what clients really are asking for. Answers, guidance, suggestions, etc. After all, isn’t it the ominous “expert” opinion they are seeking? Tried and true practices? The interventions and ideas that actually work? If they were looking for just another parent’s or married person’s subjective feedback, why pay so much for a therapy session? Why not just ask another parent?

Because I cannot rely on self-disclosure and my own personal experiences, I must be more motivated to closely observe my clinical work, text and readings, and the actual dynamic of these populations.

I would argue that the closer we are to a topic our client discusses, the harder it is for us to be objective. When we identify closely with someone else’s situation, the lines can become blurred, and at times, we start paradoxically treating ourselves instead of the client. We become enmeshed with their problem, assuming it must be unfolding the same way ours did, assuming we must know what they are going through, assuming the pathology and the circumstances share similarities.

At this point, I should emphasize that I know several talented therapists in terribly broken marriages. Likewise, I know several terrific parents who make for lousy therapists. I do not believe being a parent or even being married necessarily correlates with being “better.”

My basic assumption about therapy is that, more than anything, clients need empathy and compassion. Beneath the interventions and the suggestions, beneath the psychological jargon and the process of change, a client needs to feel understood. “Feeling” understood is different than “knowing exactly what the client is experiencing.” There is no exact. We are all unique. No marriage or parent is alike, and it is ridiculous to assume that one could ever really know what another is experiencing.

The therapist automatically knowing is not the pointThe therapist wanting, working, and striving to know is.

Strip away the situation, however drastic and unique it may be, and we are left with core feelings. Sadness, anger, fear, guilt. Underneath any problem, no matter the context or circumstance, there are feelings involved. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be a problem. What are those feelings? Let’s stretch, play, examine, and process those. Let’s see how the client is coping. Let’s see what we can do about them. As a therapist, I may not change the situation. I may not even fully understand.

That’s okay. My client will teach me. The understanding is fluid- just like any other relationship, we are evolving and growing together, and I will learn more about him or her as our time goes on. I will ask questions, many of them, but that is because I want to understand as much as possible. I want information. I want to enact connection. I am trained to be open-minded, receptive, and a revolving teacher and student. I cannot pretend to “know” anything. But I want to learn. And I want to learn from the expert–and that expert is, of course, the client across from me.

Humans are naturally social creatures. We do not need to experience something in order to have empathy. We are built to be evoked by emotion. This is why we attend to people crying. This is why “happiness” can be contagious. This is why we so often find ourselves taking the emotions of others.

Emotions are the thread humanity binding us together, creating language, building relationships, continuing evolution. It doesn’t matter if I’m a parent. It doesn’t matter if I’m married. It doesn’t matter if I “know” what someone is going through. It matters that I want to learn, that I want to connect, that I want to help, and that I want to show my support. It matters that I care.