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Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center - Houston, Texas
Marriage and Family Therapy Saves Relationships
By Todd Goodman, Public Affairs Specialist
Tuesday, January 14, 2020As Frank Sinatra famously said, love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage. But love alone cannot save a marriage for Veterans struggling with substance use or mental illness. That’s where Houston VA’s marriage and family therapists come in. They have skills to help Vets and their spouses improve communication and, quite possibly, save relationships.
The biggest relationship obstacle therapists deal with is substance abuse, more specifically, alcohol. Drinking is how many Veterans deal with anxiety, PTSD, and depression, said Laura Shely, a licensed marriage and family therapist.
“It’s a way of medicating away those anxious feelings,” she said.
That makes the partner emotionally absent and causes friction.
“Using substances blunts the feelings so people aren’t really able to talk about what they’re experiencing and are not fully able to engage in treatment,” she said.
Stacy McCarty, another marriage therapist, said she had a case where the husband had been drinking for 50 years. His spouse enabled the behavior by buying alcohol for him so he wouldn’t drink and drive.
“There are ways that we justify the enabling,” said McCarty. “He made it very clear that he was not going to stop drinking. Then the question becomes, ‘What is your boundary?’ We don’t have the power to make anybody do anything. What we can help you do is figure out your boundaries.”
That was the case with Michael and Sonya Gould. Before their relationship could get on stable ground, Michael, who had a substance abuse issue, had to complete a VA program to get better. He now has a year of sobriety to his credit. The Goulds participated in 2 months of marriage and family therapy, which improved their communication.
“Michael has never been in a long-term relationship,” said Sonya. “He had been without female companionship for years and had a lack of understanding about a woman’s wants and needs.”
McCarty taught them techniques to be better listeners and respect one another’s opinions.
“My husband is very long-winded,” she said. “I want him to get to the point. After therapy, our relationship is better. We’re now very open with one another and are coming up on three years of marriage.”
In marriage, it never comes down to blaming an individual. The family is a system and must work as such. Therapists show the family how patterns interact with one another.
“We look at it as the system has a problem,” said Shely. “As systems theorists, we don’t see it as one person’s problem, we see it as the family system’s problem. Everyone in the system plays a role.”
And everyone in the system has a voice that needs to be heard.
“You must learn to listen to one another,” said McCarty. “You’re in here with me for 50 minutes one day a week. You’re with each other the rest of your lives. The important thing to realize is that you don’t have to do this by yourself. There are people here at the VA who can help you figure out what is best for your family system.”
Veterans interested in couples counseling at Houston VAMC may call Laura Shely at at (713) 791-1414 extension 26376.