The big idea: is couples therapy a waste of time? | Counselling and therapy

The big idea: is couples therapy a waste of time? | Counselling and therapy

Something interesting happens in the first few pages of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s recent memoir-cum-self-help book Be Useful: Seven Tools for Life. It opens on a moment of weakness, as he describes his lowest point: the day he told his wife that he’d fathered a baby with their housekeeper. “No failure has ever felt worse than that,” he writes.

But that isn’t the interesting part. “I won’t be rehashing that story here,” he sniffs, refusing to dwell on it for even a sentence longer. Instead, he instructs readers to Google the story if that’s the sort of gossip that happens to get them going. The rest of the book continues at the same sort of clip, with Schwarzenegger wresting away any looming hint of introspection that might impinge on yet another anecdote about the time he cut the legs off his trousers to remind himself to work on his calves.

I have to confess to tumbling down a bit of an Arnie‑hole after reading Be Useful, seeking out all sorts of interviews with him, purely to see if he has ever managed to display any vulnerability in public. The closest I got was an interview with Howard Stern, ostensibly to promote the forgotten 2015 film Terminator Genisys. At one point Schwarzenegger admitted that he had once attended couples therapy with his then wife. But, just like in the book, he clammed shut when asked if he got anything out of it. “It was the biggest mistake I’ve ever made because that guy was so full of shit,” he said. He claimed the sessions were full of “nonsense talk” that was “counterproductive to our future relationship”. So why did he go? Because his wife talked him into it, apparently.

It has the making of a million memes: “Men would rather become an indestructible robot and eradicate humanity than go to therapy.” The thing is, though, his book, and his life, make a seductive argument for just marching ahead unexamined – although whether his ex-wife would agree is a different matter.

To Schwarzenegger, a moment spent exploring his inner motivations is a moment where he isn’t able to manifest his external ones, whether that’s becoming, briefly, the world’s highest-paid actor, successfully entering politics or Instagramming videos of the donkey he lets roam around his kitchen. It seems like a good life.

But it doesn’t seem particularly fair of him. A big part of couples therapy, maybe even the biggest, is finding a space where you can learn to communicate properly again. And that’s bound to be difficult when one half of the couple a) doesn’t want to do it in the first place and b) is determined not to get anything out of it.

Counsellor Priya Tourkow has a number of theories about why people might not want to take the plunge. “They think the therapist is going to sit there and not say anything. Or they’re worried that the therapist will be on their partner’s side. There can be a real fear of opening Pandora’s box.”

That fear might be exacerbated if you’d happened to catch Showtime’s Couples Therapy, currently on iPlayer – a series that seems to exist as a warning for people who aren’t in couples therapy not to have couples therapy. Admittedly, it might be a bad example from which to extrapolate, because the programme isn’t just about couples having therapy, but about couples who actively want their sessions to be broadcast on television; an impulse that, you suspect, can’t be all that good for a relationship. But even accounting for this, Couples Therapy isn’t a particularly good advert. It’s the sort of show that forces you to take sides. It’s Jeremy Kyle with better dentistry.

Thankfully, this isn’t what most couples therapy is in reality. It isn’t a competition where you pay someone to pick a winner, where there’s a hero we can root for, and a villain to despise. And this, I would guess, is why Schwarzenegger didn’t enjoy his session.

“Couples therapy is based on the premise that having the best relationship you can have is a good idea,” argues Tourkow. If that’s not how you see it, then it may well be a waste of time. Even with the best will in the world, however, it’s still going to be hard, “because there are habits that build, and we’re all going to get triggered … One of the things that happens in couples therapy is that you learn to talk to each other. How much more foundational does it get than that?”

I should probably come clean and point out that I know Priya quite well. My wife and I started having sessions with her almost as a joke – a newspaper asked us to have couples therapy and write about it – only for us to instantly realise that, oh shit, we might actually need couples therapy.

It wasn’t fun, because of course it wasn’t. It isn’t easy to hear all the ways that you’re not perfect, and the sessions never end when the session ends, because you invariably have to travel home together afterwards in the immediate aftermath of some horrible home truths. But it did help. We learned techniques to cool things down in tetchy moments that would have otherwise rocketed off into the stratosphere. We actually apologise to each other sometimes now. Imagine.

This isn’t a blanket endorsement. For some, perhaps especially the overthinkers among us, certain forms of therapy might get you more bogged down, rather than freeing you up. Ester Perel, the closest the therapy world has to a superstar thanks to her wildly popular podcast, warns: “Ironically, we often are inclined to seek the form of therapy that matches our defences rather than help us change it.” Not only that, but “for many people, therapy is still filled with stigma and talking to a stranger is a bizarre practice”.

Bizarre it may be, and judging from his book and his social media, things are going great for Schwarzenegger. But it does seem quite odd that someone who has made a career out of working hard and battling through adversity couldn’t face the prospect of sitting in a room with his wife and talking about his problems. That said, it’s not unknown for couples who resisted therapy at first to return once they’ve exhausted other options. With any luck, he’ll be back.

Further reading

Be Useful: Seven Tools for Life by Arnold Schwarzenegger (Ebury Edge, £20)

The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity by Esther Perel (Hodder & Stoughton, £10.99)

Us: Reconnect with Your Partner and Build a Loving and Lasting Relationship by Terrence Real (Cornerstone, £18.99)

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