By Lesli Doares Several years ago, a colleague of my husband’s loaned him the first season of In Treatment. As a therapist, I appreciated the show but it felt a lot like a busman’s holiday for me. After watching a few episodes, he turned to me and asked, “Is this what you do all day?” I acknowledged that it wasn’t far off my experience on some days. The look he gave me was equal parts respect and “are you crazy.”
I didn’t start out to become a marriage therapist. A single client changed all that. She had sparkling brown eyes, a smattering of freckles across her nose, and an outgoing personality. She was also six years old. Her mother contacted me because this beautiful girl was suffering from anxiety. No wonder. Her parents divorced when she was two and a half and she had been caught in the middle ever since.
First came the allegations that the father was guilty of sexual abuse when my client was three years old. Her mother told me how Child Protective Services had dismissed the allegations for lack of evidence before I ever met her daughter. In my first session with the child, after spending about ten minutes introducing myself and trying to help her feel at ease, she volunteered that her dad had abused her. I soon learned about counter charges from the father about his ex’s interest in pornography, the mother’s hiding of a cell phone in the child’s backpack because the ex didn’t allow my client to talk to her mother, and dueling physical examinations by multiple doctors.
As an adult, I had a hard time keeping it all straight. It came as no surprise that my client suffered from anxiety. She was a child trying to keep all the adults in her life happy, and there were many of them — dad, step-mom, mother, step-dad, step brother, grandparents. And a six-year-old girl was caught in the middle. It was every divorce nightmare in one single case.
The sexual abuse case had to be reopened as a result of the girl’s statement to me in our first session. As the case progressed, a colleague was brought in to do a custody evaluation, something I was not qualified to do. I realized that nothing I could offer would help this child. I told the mother that I had the wrong person in my office. She didn’t take that well and I never saw any of them again. Two years later, I got a call from my colleague. I said, “Please don’t tell me this about the case I think it is.” Unfortunately, it was. Still mired in the custody muck this divorce had led to, my colleague was searching for something, anything that could help her reach a healthy conclusion for this unfortunate child. I could no offer no deeper insight about the case that would bring it to a long awaited end, only support for her futile efforts and shared concern over the life-long impact on a bright little girl. (I don’t know what ultimately happened with the abuse allegations, but as I mentioned, Child Protective Services found no evidence and, based on the way it came out, I believe the little girl’s statement to me had been coached.)
About six months after I last saw this young girl I was at a conference focusing on building a private practice. At the first session on Friday morning, we were encouraged to identify a specialty. I’m thinking, “I need to pay my bills.” By the last session on Sunday afternoon, when the presenter again stressed the need to focus on a specialty, my young client popped into my head.
She had never been far from heart because I truly believe I had let her down. Even though there wasn’t any tool I could give her to manage the chaos the adults in her life were causing, she had trusted me. She was the rope in her parents’ never-ending tug of war. While I couldn’t help her, my goal became keeping other children from experiencing the pain caused by the plethora of divorces. If I wanted to help the children, though, I had to start with the parents. I had to challenge the parents on how they were managing their relationship before they put their children on the divorce roller coaster.
Most parents say they would do anything for their children. If they mean that, the best thing they can do is to protect their marriage. Unfortunately, that isn’t often what I see. People get caught up in their personal happiness, not the responsibilities they have taken on when they have children. They believe that if they are happy, they will be better parents and their children will be better off. What they don’t do is put that concept to the test. What is a child supposed to say when one parent says they are blowing the family apart because they aren’t happy? No mommy/daddy, I want you to stay and be unhappy so I can feel safe and secure?
As a society, we have convinced ourselves that the children will be okay. That divorce is not a big deal. Will most children heal? Yes. But that doesn’t mean they haven’t been permanently affected or suffer unnecessarily before they do eventually heal. Despite parental reassurances, many children believe they are responsible for their parents’ split. If they had minded better or hadn’t fought with their siblings, mommy and daddy would still be together.
The concept is that if the adults can co-parent, everything will be fine. Unfortunately, the emotional problems that led to the divorce often remain unresolved and the fight continues through the only conduit left, the children. Loyalties are tested, children become inappropriate confidantes, lives are disrupted, and the adults still can’t get along.
Children are caught in the middle and have to find their own way out. I believe this is the reason many young people reject the concept of marriage. They didn’t see it work for their parents and don’t believe it can work for them, and so the destructive pattern continues into the next generation.
Couples counseling is not for the faint of heart, either on the part of the clients or the therapist. Not every therapist is cut out for dealing with the multiple agendas present in the room. While sessions don’t always resemble what’s presented as entertainment, counseling is hard work and sometimes it’s not successful. But I can’t give up because, every day when I unlock my office door, I see sparkling brown eyes and a smattering of freckles on the face of a precious six year old girl. So I settle in and speak up for the children whose voices aren’t there.