I feel like a fraud: I'm an unmarried marriage counselor!

How can I help others when I can't get beyond a third date myself?

By Cary Tennis
Published February 26, 2008 11:42AM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I'm a fraud. I've never been married and haven't gotten past Date 3 in the past three years.

Yet, I'm a marriage therapist and my days are spent helping people work on their marriages.

Can I hitch myself to this career if I've failed to get hitched myself?


Dear Unhitched,

If you are spending your days helping people work on their marriages then you are not a fraud. You may be successful to varying degrees, but your success or lack of success does not make you a fraud.

You may feel like a fraud, however. If you feel like a fraud, there may be reasons for that. You may be hiding something from your clients or deceiving them in some way. You may feel guilty. What might you be hiding from your clients, or in what way might you be deceiving them? Well, I don't know. It seems reasonable to assume, however, that you may be hiding your own frustration with relationships. You may feel that in order to inspire confidence in your clients, you have to act as though you are having happy success in your own relationships, when in fact you are quite frustrated. You may fear you will be found out.

If not acknowledged, such a fear may blossom into fantasies of dreamlike intensity. You may fantasize that your clients will ask you accusingly, "Well, if you are such a great marriage counselor, why aren't you married? Why aren't you even engaged? Why haven't you even gotten past Date 3 in the past three years? Date after date has ended in tepid promises of future phone calls that are never made, and vague references to getting together that never materialize! We know your kind! You are socially inept! Why should we take your advice? You are a fraud!"

And, indeed, the frustrations of your social life may make it sound almost attractive to give up, to fall to your knees and cry out, "I am a fraud! I am a fraud!"

But you are not a fraud. You are having fears of inadequacy and guilt about the difficult vocation of helping others. But you are not a fraud.

That is not to say that your personal life is irrelevant to your work. It is relevant. But it is not so important how competent you are in your own social life. It is more a matter of how you process your difficulties. If you do not forgive yourself, if you are berating and belittling yourself, this may make it hard to feel compassion for others in their relationships.

If this is the case, then you may want to get counseling yourself, so that you can exercise compassion for yourself and thus for others, and so that you do not feel a pressure to unburden yourself to the very people you are supposed to help.

And remember, there are limits to what you can do; what you are offering to others is simply the best that current psychological practice has to offer. It is not magic. It is not foolproof. You offer a set of methods that your clients can freely use to change their lives. Whether they use these techniques is up to them. You cannot force them to change their lives. Nor can you change who they are. Some of your clients may be incompatible with you. Some of your clients may be incompatible with each other. They may not wish to stay married. They may want the marriage to fail so that they can escape its responsibilities. Your power over them is limited. But to the extent that you practice marriage counseling according to professional standards, you are not a fraud. You are simply doing your job.

In your personal life, the same thing is true. If you are dating, then you are doing what one does in order to find a lasting relationship. So it hasn't happened yet. There may be solid reasons for that. Perhaps you are highly selective. Perhaps you are dating others who are also selective. Perhaps you are highly intuitive about personalities and make quick decisions. Perhaps you are not interested in pursuing something that does not seem like it is going to pan out. And in your social circle, the pool of available dates may be heavily weighted toward people like yourself -- highly educated, career-oriented people at the beginnings of their professional lives -- lives that leave little time and energy for relationships. Those are just some of the possible reasons why you have not formed a lasting romantic relationship in the last three years.

So my advice to you, my friend, my admirable practitioner of a helping profession, is to simply practice more of what you already know. You are a graduate of a professional school of psychology. You have the best contemporary knowledge at your fingertips. Use it. Get counseling if you need it. Use your own methods for mood management and attitudinal adjustment.

And look at the details of your own emotional life with the same care and detachment that you would use in a session with a client. Watch for these moments when you feel like you are a fraud. Ask yourself what kinds of fantasies enter your mind at such a time. And more generally, explore how you feel about your professional expectations, and how realistic they are. And what are the emotions that your expectations are tied to? Do you have deeply rooted family expectations? Are you pursuing a childhood dream? Just examine what is going on in your own life in this way, and keep doing your work, and expect things to work out. They often do.

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