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updated: 10/22/2011 10:42 AM

Counseling stereotype is no longer accurate

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You are lying on a leather couch in a dark, wood-paneled office with deep pile carpeting and wall-to-wall books.

A balding, middle-aged man with a neatly trimmed beard, a well-tailored gray suit, bifocals and a thick German accent sits behind a massive desk. Your conversation seems to wander; you talk about childhood memories, troublesome dreams and vague feelings.

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He takes copious notes on everything you say, occasionally interrupting you to ask a question such as "When did you stop hating you mother?" Or to mutter a weighty "I see " This has been going on once a week for six years, and it is costing you an arm and a leg.

This is the picture of counseling (or psychotherapy) that has been around for a good 75 years. And let's face it: If that's what it's all about, who really needs it? But before we just write counseling off, let me paint a little different picture for you.

You sit in a bright, pleasant room, probably with other members of your family. Your counselor, a younger woman, sits with you. You discuss problems you're having right now. The therapist tries to help each person really hear and be heard. She clarifies, interprets and suggests, always working to make sure everybody gets a chance to tell their story.

Sometimes she even gives you "homework," things to try between counseling sessions. You've agreed to a contract for a limited number of sessions; you're regularly evaluating what you've accomplished and what you've got left to work on. Sound a little better?

Well, these days, chances are the second picture is far more accurate than the first. Counseling, or psychotherapy, has changed a lot in the last half-century -- it's been along time since I've even seen a leather couch.

Modern psychotherapy still considers our childhood experiences, dreams and feelings to be very important. Most therapists, however, realize that the here-and-now also is important. Understanding how we live today, especially how we relate to other people, often is key to unraveling our problems.

So we spend time exploring our relationships with friends, family, etc. We talk about talking -- for example, how to tell others who we are and what we want. And we figure out ways to change our behavior so we can start to live the life we want to live.

Let me give you an example. Mary and Frank were a married couple in their early 30s. Frank had moved out after six years of marriage, complaining that he just couldn't take Mary's nagging anymore. Mary came to me. The first thing we did was get Frank to agree to six counseling sessions with Mary and me.

We started simply; I had each of them tell me what they thought was wrong and, most importantly, what they wanted out of their marriage. Then they had to decide if their marriage was worth working on. Frank and Mary decided it was.

Now, things still got rough during some of our sessions. They had six years of problems that they hadn't dealt with. We had a lot to catch up on. Sometimes they felt like giving up, but with some help they both managed to hang on. During these six weeks we tackled their problems one at a time. Our first goal was simply learning how to listen -- it is amazing how many problems are caused by not listening.

As we did this, Frank and Mary started to see each other as people who care; they began to trust each other again. That's important. Then we started making some other changes. We experimented with special times outside of counseling for them to talk, and laid down rules about how to do it without arguing. They even started "dating" again as we tried to bring back some of the good feelings they once had.

Eventually, Frank moved back home and we came up with a whole new way of sharing household jobs. Both of them made compromises. For instance, Mary tried not to do those things that seemed like nagging to Frank, while Frank tried to be more careful about throwing things around the bedroom.

At the end of six weeks, we took stock of what we'd done and decided to meet for another six weeks. We continued to tackle problems one at a time. And, as Mary and Frank learned how to listen to each other, many of their problems worked themselves out. They were able to be more loving toward each other; even their friends noticed the change.

I saw Frank and Mary for 18 sessions before they felt able to try it on their own. We all knew that they still had a lot of work to do on their marriage, but the difference was that they had learned how to do it. Sure, there'd be misunderstandings, fights and hurt feelings. But they trusted each other -- and trusted what they had learned -- enough to get through the tough times. They believed that there would be plenty of good times down the road, too.

Modern counseling or psychotherapy is a lot more than just talk. We work toward understanding and change. We figure out together why things are messed up, and how to make things better. Then we do it. It is surprising what people can do with a little help.

• The Rev. Ken Potts' book "Mix, Don't Blend: A Guide to Dating, Engagement, and Remarriage with Children" is available through book retailers.

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