Marriage Counseling: Taking Sides, Revealing Secrets?

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Reader’s Question

My husband and I started seeing a counselor separately first, but last week was the first week we saw her together. During our first session together, the counselor asked my husband if he had ever cheated. He says, “Besides the cyber sex, no.” Then the counselor asked him to leave the room, so that she could speak to me. She then asked me, “Are you telling me that this man has cheated on you?” I tell her, “Physically, he may not have. Emotionally, he has several times.” Then she says to me, “Why are you accusing him of cheating when you’re the one who has cheated?” I was in shock. I came to her because my husband’s emotional affairs, one including my sister, tore me apart, and I found myself kissing another man. When my husband came back into the room, she asked him if I had ever cheated, and he said that I had phone sex with a man named “John Doe”. She shakes her head and says, “nope…I’m not familiar with that name.” Was she wrong for hinting I was involved with more people?

Psychologist’s Reply

It is tricky for a counselor to see members of the same family in individual sessions for just this reason. There is potential not only for the counselor to inadvertently leak information from one person’s therapy to the other’s, but also for the counselor to find herself in a conflict of interest. What is good for one person may not be good for the other, or the counselor may simply lose her objectivity and find herself favoring one family member over another. (Systems therapists are specially trained to work with the relationships between family members, rather than the family members themselves, and obtain ongoing consultation and supervision to help them maintain this difficult therapeutic stance consistently.)

In couples therapy, meeting with both members of the couple together for the first session has the benefit of establishing that it is the marriage or partnership that is the client, and that the welfare of the relationship will be the therapist’s priority. An initial definition of the problem can be agreed upon, along with tentative goals for the couple’s therapy. Some therapists will then schedule one individual meeting with each member of the couple to get some individual history on each partner and to screen for domestic violence, mental illness, and chemical abuse. With this approach, the fourth session brings the couple back together to go over the results of the evaluation process, to finalize the definition of the problems and the goals, and to begin the work.

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If the couple is not ready for work as a couple (for example, if there is domestic violence or chemical abuse), or if one partner has mental health needs of his or her own, then the counselor may recommend separate individual or group work for each partner. In such a case, it is difficult for one therapist to take on both partners: if it is possible, it is better for the couple to have its own therapist, and each partner her or his own therapist/group leader, the better to maintain each party’s privacy and the objectivity of each therapist. This may not be possible in rural areas, and there are variations across the different schools of family therapy, but in couples work it is easier to maintain good boundaries this way.

As you can see, then, starting with two individual therapies using the same therapist and then moving to couples therapy is especially difficult. Boundary issues have to be carefully negotiated at each step of the transition, not only to determine whether such a transition is even possible, but also so that each party knows what is expected of them and what they can expect from each other going forward.

At the beginning of therapy you and your husband may have given written, informed consent to treatment. (In the United States this is not only an ethical requirement for psychologists but is also required by Federal law.) The paper you signed would have included specific, detailed ground rules covering your therapist’s stance on such issues as affairs and secret-keeping, and you would have been given a copy. This informed consent process ideally includes a description of the therapist’s theoretical stance, methods, and expected outcomes (including possible negative effects).

Most couples’ therapists will not agree to keep secrets because it is not in the interest of the marriage to have them, and because the therapist who knows something which one spouse does not gets drawn into the destructive dynamic that brought the couple to therapy in the first place. It’s counter-therapeutic. Some therapists are more active and directive, while others prefer to teach skills that help the couple confront their own issues in their own way. All this should be covered in the written treatment contract which all parties sign at the outset.

Ideally, informed consent is also an ongoing process that continues after the initial contract has been signed. As new issues arise, the therapist and client(s) discuss how they will be handled, and clients are encouraged from the outset to ask if they have questions before revealing potentially explosive new information. Or the therapist may be responsible for bringing up new informed consent points for negotiation as they arise. Therefore, the answer to whether your therapist was technically “wrong” or not depends on your original contract with her and on how you and she agreed this issue would be handled in the course of your sessions together.

If you feel that this is not what you agreed to, or that she has lost her objectivity, then the best course may be to discuss it with her. If you never had a treatment contract at the outset, now is a good time to ask for one. Analyzing how this dynamic was created and played out in your therapy and sharing how you each feel about it can be therapeutic for your marriage, as well as serving to get the therapy back on track and restoring a healthy working relationship with your therapist. Alternatively, it may clarify for you and your husband that you need a new marital therapist: either way, you should benefit by bringing this up with her.

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