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The Truth About Family Therapy (and Why You Should Still Go)

5 minute read
Susanna Schrobsdorff writes the It’s Not Just You newsletter on Substack

The first thing I noticed in the family therapist’s office was the giant painting of four fat pigeons sitting on the edge of a kitchen table. The birds are so disproportionately big, you wonder how they got into the house in the first place. Everyone who comes to see the therapist must be tempted to make some remark about the painting. The canvas is at least five feet tall, and the pigeons are all looking at you in that sideways bird way. The therapist says one of his clients has to sit on the other side of the room so as not to be distracted by the pigeons over his head. I get it. City people have complicated feelings about wildlife.

When I suggested that the painting was a kind of Rorschach test, our kindly therapist nodded as if that was fascinating information … about me. All weird therapist-office art is a stealthy psychological icebreaker. (“Did you not notice the purple sculpture of a stallion in the corner? Well, that says something about you, doesn’t it?”) One of my daughters made sure to say how much she liked the painting, while the other noted that the birds looked nervous. Interesting.

I should backtrack here and explain that after nearly two decades of being parents, 14 years of marriage and almost 10 years of unmarriage, my ex-husband and I decided to take our two teenage daughters to family therapy. I won’t get into why. Let’s say it involves some typical teenage things, both serious and not. And before you accuse me of mining my daughters for material (guilty), know that I asked them what I should write my column about this month, and both said family therapy. This is because they want other teenagers to know that in a therapist’s office, the youngs can air their many grievances and the olds are not allowed to cut them off with “When you have your own house, you can make the rules. Until then, my house, my rules.”

You probably can’t believe that parents still say those sorts of things. Unless you have a teenager. So let me say to you mothers and fathers of tender, nonteenage persons: Someday, you will hear words like these coming out of your mouth. It’ll be one of those desperate moments that drive even nonneurotic parents into a pit of embarrassing clichés–and then possibly to the therapist’s office.

When you are sitting in front of a stranger and his notepad, you inevitably wonder what this person sees as he watches all of you lined up on the sofa. What seems obvious to him that you’ve totally missed about the way you interact? Looking around, I could see that the four of us still move like a family even after all these years in two houses. There is a familiarity, a resemblance in the way we wear our clothes. And there are the children’s faces, their noses, their foreheads, the way they cross their legs, which link us and always will.

While looking at the floor, which you do a lot of in a group-therapy situation (with or without pigeons), I noticed that my younger daughter chose new, blindingly white sneakers with a retro ankle strap for the occasion. We’d watched the first Alien movie a few days before, and I like to think she picked them in honor of Sigourney Weaver’s famous warrior Reeboks. The film came out in 1979, when I was about my daughter’s age and embroiled in some of the same high school battles. I was surprised to see that Weaver’s Ellen Ripley holds up well, according to Gen Z. She’s a feminist heroine with no gloss, no enhancements, not even a bra, just a jumpsuit and those kick-ass sneakers, all of which are back in vogue. Somehow everything has changed about adolescence and the way kids connect, and yet nothing has. It still boils down to someone saying, “My house, my rules,” and someone else saying, “You just don’t get it.”

Maybe that was the point in bringing us all together in one room. It reminds us that we have more in common than not. But soon, in-person therapy will seem clunky. We have video therapy, after all. You can choose a therapist from a vast national database, like online dating, and have sessions via app where all you see of each other is a face in a square. I can’t decide if this is good or bad. The therapist can’t see your fidgety feet, and you can’t see his pigeon paintings. There are even ads for text-only therapy, which eliminates the visuals entirely: “You are busy. You are stressed. You worry all the time. You barely have time for friends or family, much less yourself. Now, we have a solution to this problem: Talkspace.” Sounds fantastic and impossible. If only there really were an app to manage being human. Besides, I’d be tempted to text the text therapist during live family therapy. Maybe family sessions will be conducted entirely in emojis. Is there one for “You’re driving me insane, I love you.”

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