Why Won’t My Marriage Counselor See Me as an Individual?

Reader’s Question

My husband and I were seeing a licensed marriage and family counselor. After about 6 sessions my husband said he is not going back. I asked the counselor if he would continue seeing me but he said he would not. He said that my husband is his client and there would be a conflict of interest.

Could you explain this to me? I built up trust and revealed information to this man. Maybe I would have not been so open if I had known I wasn’t his client, too. If one party to a joint counseling enterprise quits counseling are they still considered a client?

Psychologist’s Reply

Mental health professionals, therapists, and counselors across the various disciplines are trained to be on guard with respect to “dual relationships.” An example of this that would give rise to the most concern would be a “therapeutic relationship” between a counselor and a client that becomes romantic or sexual. The ethical standards of all the major disciplines strictly forbid this kind of dual relationship. There are even caveats about conducting a romantic or sexual relationship with a former therapy client.

There are other kinds of dual relationships. Some are not as potentially harmful as others. Some may be unavoidable (e.g., a very small remote town in which the only therapist knows just about everyone on a personal level). Some are not strictly forbidden but are good boundaries to set in place. For this reason, most therapists form only one kind of “therapeutic” alliance with someone they’re counseling. It’s hard to keep a primary allegiance and trusting rapport with one person if you’re also counseling another person with whom your client has a relationship. That’s why most counselors won’t keep a primary therapeutic alliance with one party of a “marital counseling” situation. Generally speaking, in a marital therapy situation, the couple is the primary client, not either party. Although it’s possible that one member of the couple originally sought out a therapist, most therapists are wary of continuing a primary alliance with one party if they’ve truly embarked on a course of marital or couple’s counseling. If they do maintain a primary alliance with one party, they generally make a referral to another counselor for marital counseling.

Maintaining boundaries within therapeutic alliances are for your benefit. As you note, you have strong feelings about having revealed things only to learn that you don’t have the primary allegiance of your counselor.

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If your husband is genuinely involved in continued individual counseling with this therapist and you still wish counseling of your own, it would be best to seek help from a different counselor. If your interest is in marital counseling, of course it takes two willing participants in the process. For your own safety and interest, it is best to be involved in a process where the best boundaries and your individual needs have priority.

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