|A minor treatment complication
is beginning couples or family therapy with an individual I have already been working individually
with. Though people in my practice typically come in individually and leave as a couple
(or vice versa), one or both parties may have conflicting feelings. Either party may
initially feel the playing field is not level.
Usually the new person is wary of my existing relationship and alliance
with their partner. They worry that I will be biased in the partner's favor. Sometimes the
original client feels possessive. They are comfortable with our existing relationship and
don't want to risk losing it, especially to an individual they are at odds with. (Ps: They
Can't lose it.)
All of this is the normal stuff of therapy,
and the feelings of insecurity usually disappear. The therapist is likely to use a number
of techniques to facilitate reaching a comfort level. For example, the new partner may be
treated "gently," or the original client may be challenged more than the partner
for a while, and so on. Either partner may wish to clarify the therapist's viewpoint and
comfort level with importing a partner into treatment. My own "policy" in
working with an existing client is that when we are all in the room together, I am on the
side of the relationship. Should the relationship terminate, my "alliance"
falls back to the original client and I respect their wishes with how they want me to
proceed with my relationship to them.
The therapeutic relationship has no room for
personal bias. The therapist is allied with each individual's healthy side
against the side they are trying to tame. However, therapists are human and sometimes
personal bias spills into the office. But, hold on, all is not lost! Therapists are
ethically obligated to tell their clients if they are biased, and may refer the case
elsewhere. Occasionally a therapist may not recognize his or her bias, but that is another
topic. (Just remember, you are the consumer, and if you have a crummy feeling, you are
free to go elsewhere.)
When I tell my clients I am on "the
side of the relationship," I am promising to facilitate the relationship as long as
such is the goal of both parties. Nothing else is different. I still challenge each person
to be the best they can be, as I would in individual counseling. If Ted thinks Mary should
cook dinner and Mary doesn't want to, I challenge Ted for trying to run Mary's life,
and encourage him to simply accept the fact that she is not cooking. Then, I challenge
Mary on why she won't cook. Does she hate cooking? Is she mad at Ted, etc.? I don't
practice "behavioral exchange" techniques, having found them ineffective over
the years. An example of such an approach would be to ask Mary to cook for Ted. In
exchange, Ted would do something Mary asked for. Now you've got two people doing
things they don't want to do!
The bottom line: Ted has to own Ted's
behavior and Mary has to own Mary's behavior. Either partner may request anything (once or
twice), but must accept what is given or is not given. That is reality. You get
what you get and you don't get what you don't get. If your partner continues to behave in
a way you find unacceptable, there is no point in nagging. Nagging will only complicate
matters more. If you are not getting what you need, or are being abused, you may choose to
pull back from or take steps away from the relationship. Yelling and fighting are not only
unnecessary, they are disrespectful and demeaning to both individuals. Your partner will
either respect your wishes and modify their behavior because they want to, or the
relationship will end because, unable to get what was acceptable to you, you left.
Challenging each individual person to be
their best self works particularly well with verbal and emotional abuse. The
controller is challenged to focus on controlling him or herself instead of controlling
their partner. The codependent is challenged to take care of him or herself instead of
care taking everyone else - and to demand respect, as well as to give it. Both partner's
boundaries, impulse-control skills, and self-control skills are developed in the process.
Both partners learn life skills they can take with them anywhere.
So, whose side am I on? Yours! And your
partners! -Dr. Irene