What Your Therapist Thinks About Your Marriage (But Rarely Says)


In response to my recent post on saving relationships, the superb blogger Life in a Bind asked several questions about a therapist’s attitude toward marital problems:

As a therapist, did you find it hard not to give your view on a relationship; did you find yourself wanting someone to leave, or to stay, but being unable to say so? Did your clients reach different conclusions to the ones you were expecting or thought would be best for them? Were you frustrated if progress was so slow because your work together was undermined by a difficult relationship or lack of support outside therapy? And how do you deal with a situation where the party in therapy inevitably has more insight and self-awareness than the partner who is not, and so the entire task of resolution feels as though it is upon their shoulders? Particularly if they are the one who is ‘mentally ill’ and therefore the one ‘with the problem’?

I’ll try to answer those questions today.

Therapists certainly have opinions about a patient’s description of his or her marriage and much else. We attempt not to be judgmental, but are not indifferent to whether the reported relationship is “working.” Frank advice to stay or leave, however, is rare. Why?

  • You are a therapist, not a fortune-teller. You cannot predict precisely where the chosen path will end.
  • Major changes are the client’s responsibility to make. The counselor’s job is to empower the patient, not to lead him.
  • The decision to end a relationship, especially in a home with children, is like walking through a pottery store and knocking over a precious vase. If you break it, you own it. The spouse who leaves will be held responsible for whatever follows from the divorce. Since severing family ties is difficult, he risks being blamed for anything that goes wrong, whether the finger-pointing is fair or not. Disapproval can come not only from the mate, but children, parents, and other relatives. Friends, too, may express or act out their unhappiness at the decision. No therapist is able to anticipate the reactions of all the people unsettled by a relationship’s end.
  • One of the potential consequences of ending a marriage is regret by the individual who chooses to do so. As a rule I tried not to discourage patients from making every effort to save the union. To suggest a preemptive end (short of one coming in an abusive marriage) might leave the one who files for divorce saying “I should have tried harder” at some later time.

All that said, the counselor may still believe his patient would benefit from leaving the marriage. Yet, he must remind himself that he doesn’t know the spouse or have an unbiased description of life in the home. Were he to meet with the partner once, he still obtains only a snapshot of what is going on in the family. On the other hand, if the counselor were to attempt marital therapy, he leaves his patient without a therapist exclusive to himself.


While such efforts can sometimes produce a good result, they are complex and avoided by more than a few in the professional community because of the complexity. The spouse who has agreed to marital therapy with the patient’s therapist might question whether the doctor remains aligned with his long-time client. A new goal of treatment, to save the union, alters any continuing individual sessions.

Life in a Bind wants to know if the marital relationship turmoil can frustrate the treatment and the treater. Without question. Freud, in fact, attempted to discourage the people he analyzed from making any big changes during the course of therapy, the better to simplify the process and keep his patients on target to unravel their early life knots. Life happens, however. All sorts of external events might impede the patient’s progress: job losses, illness to the patient or his loved ones, and work-related moves, to name only three. The doctor’s task is to enable the client to stay afloat in difficult moments: if possible, to use those changes, misfortunes, and hurdles to grow in resilience and insight. The counselor learns to keep a therapeutic distance and manage his own personal frustrations.

As Life in a Bind suggests in her questions, client’s decisions are not always in line with what a therapist might think ideal. Doctors can inadvertently betray their own biases. Once again, we are dealing with someone else’s life. An experienced therapist comes to terms with this. He is not a god or a tarot card reader.

The counselor might well, however, ask simple questions of a person in relationship distress or considering divorce. For example:

  • Do you still love your mate?
  • What are the positives and negatives of the relationship?
  • Why have you stayed until now? The latter question may evoke reasons to continue to stay or fears of ending things.
  • What would be the positives and negatives of a separation or divorce?
  • Are you prepared to take on the job of ending the marriage? What do you think that might be like? Have you talked to others who have been through it?

Finally, a look at Life in a Bind‘s last two questions:

And how do you deal with a situation where the party in therapy inevitably has more insight and self-awareness than the partner who is not, and so the entire task of resolution feels as though it is upon their shoulders? Particularly if they are the one who is ‘mentally ill’ and therefore the one ‘with the problem’?

First, the “identified patient” is sometimes the most insightful partner within the marriage. He or she can be a thoughtful, if unhappy person, who wants more out of the conjugal contract than the spouse who finds the current terms of the marriage tolerable. The latter might be obtuse, insensitive to the companion’s feelings, and domineering, even if he is perhaps more functional and not as troubled as his mate.

An important step in the treatment of the “identified patient” is for him to become able to shrug off the status of being a “second class citizen” or “damaged goods.” He must not, because of this “label,” accept the invalidation of his every thought and feeling. This does not mean he is permitted to inflict his dysfunction on the family, but rather to recognize he is not the only one who needs to work on himself and try to establish “a more perfect union.”

In the long-term, unless the partner Life in a Bind describes becomes enlightened, the marriage’s continuance may depend on the acceptance by the sole person in individual therapy of his or her discontent: in other words, a willingness to bear the largest part of the psychological weight of family life. While 50/50 sharing of the stress of home life is a goal impossible even to define, the sacrifice of oneself to a spouse’s vision of an acceptable marriage is a step toward personal unhappiness.

Were individual dissatisfaction the only concern, everything else being equal, a decision about continuing a relationship would be simplified. But, as they say, everything else is never equal.

If only it were.

The top image is called “No Escape.” It is the work of Judith Carlin and comes from Wikimedia Commons.

Five Things You Wanted to Know About Your Therapist but were Afraid to Ask: The Answers

psihoterapie-validTherapists sometimes reveal themselves despite their training not to. For example, in psychoanalytic treatment, Freud made himself a blank slate. He thought the patient’s troubles would become evident if he didn’t intrude upon the process. Remember, Freud sat behind the patient lying on the couch. Sigmund’s facial expressions and body language could not be observed. He said little, instead encouraging the analysand’s free association of thoughts. Then, if the client displayed positive or negative feelings about Herr Doktor Freud, the psychiatrist believed it due to underlying unresolved issues, usually about mom or dad. The heart of the problem having thus been uncovered, Dr. Freud could begin his “heart” surgery.

Still, patients wish to know “personal” things about the mysterious humanoid who treats them and will comment on the imbalance in unfolding that which is most intimate: the therapist gets to ask, the patient mostly does not. Spacefreedomlove, a provocative and prolific blogger, raised worthwhile queries in her post, Five Things You Always Want to Ask Your Therapist but are Afraid to Ask. I will try to answer, speaking only for myself. I encourage other therapists and clients to add or subtract by posting comments.

Question 1. “Do you ever wish you never met me or that you referred me out after the initial consult?”

A therapist works hard to find the best in the people he treats. This is a cliché, but it is true. You otherwise make both yourself and your patient miserable. I rarely if ever wished I had never met a patient, but occasionally thought later it would have been best to refer them. Careful readers will distinguish two questions here:

A. “Do you ever wish you never met me?”  The reason I’m glad I came to know my entire clientele is because they enriched me in knowledge and experience. I grew because of them. Many are wonderful people with whom it was a privilege to work.

With respect only to my enrichment, however, I would even say I found value encountering some nasty folks outside of work. Of course, I didn’t love those who did me wrong at the moment of injury. Strong feelings of anger and dislike touch everyone, therapist or thespian, “butcher, baker or candlestick maker.” A psychologist realizes he learns from some lessons only pain offers. Thus, if you ask me, “Do you ever wish you never met me?” I can pretty much say no, because you taught me about life, work, and myself. Past your tutelage, however, I might say I’d rather not meet you twice! This last comment refers to only a few people I met in the office, however.

B. “Do you ever wish you referred me out after the initial consult?” The simple answer is yes, but read on before taking the statement to heart. First, a different therapist might have worked wonders I did not. I remember one intelligent and sweet young woman early in my career who I didn’t diagnose as Bipolar Disorder until she arrived at the clinic with a bunch of “gifts.” The package included a box of condoms for me! She was hospitalized soon after. Had I been quicker to make the proper diagnosis, she might well have avoided being temporarily institutionalized. The young lady had some bad feelings about me as a result and I deserved them.

Therapists don’t predict the future without error. Only in retrospect do we realize an earlier referral was required. That said, I think the real issue being raised by spacefreedomlove is found in her second question:

Question 2. “Am I too much? Do I wear you out?”

The answer is yes, counselors get worn out, but not necessarily because of you. Once the therapist realizes he is exhausted, two more queries should pop up: a) Am I trying to do too much instead of allowing the patient’s own energy to carry therapy forward? b) Do I have some countertransference issues? Countertransference refers to the feelings the therapist has about the client, negative or positive. These can go back to the therapist’s own unresolved emotional concerns, so I’ll address this in response to Question 4. “Do I remind you of anyone from your past?”

As a young psychologist, I was keen to heal the world. This delusion is common among new therapists. Experience informs you of your inability to save everyone and, indeed, perhaps you can’t save anyone! By that, I’m thinking of the lifeguard who tries to rescue someone trying to drown himself. In other words, you need a person who isn’t going to fight your efforts every session and who has the therapeutic integrity to endure the pain of treatment. He must do everything he can to wrest a good life from the wreckage of his previous existence.

Therapists can burn out if they don’t recognize and calm their own frustration when progress is stalled. A counselor might exhaust himself by meeting his patient too early or late in the day, discounting fees to the point of feeling ill-compensated, and by overworking. Phone availability is still another potential complication, especially in non-emergency situations. Private life stressors create a trip-wire, as do multiple late cancellations without strong reasons.

A wise doctor will discuss issues during appointments, but not before healing himself or seeking his own outside support if the problem is his, not the client’s. Psychologists need to set limits. Being “on call” day and night can feel like guard-duty in wartime, causing sleeplessness and fatigue to the point of being less good when it really counts, in session. Remedies might include talking about the patient’s level of determination; a change to the time, day, or frequency of sessions; renegotiating the fee or the cancellation and phone policy, etc. Without improvement, referral is another option.


Question 3. “What do I bring up for you? What do you struggle with in our sessions?”

As stated earlier, I only speak for myself. The best answer I can give is a long one, so I will refer you to a post called, What is Your Therapist Thinking? In addition to what is contained there, I struggled with how best to be helpful. Were a patient decompensating (getting worse) as the session progressed, I considered how to get the train of treatment on track to a safe place. The post I linked illustrates the manner in which your “doctor” head can be in a number of different places depending upon the flow of the therapeutic encounter as it happens. After the appointment, the counselor needs to reflect upon his efforts and whether they helped, were ineffective, or indeed caused the decompensation.

An inexperienced healer risks identifying with his patient’s pain so much that both he and the client are adrift at sea, and he is unable to offer a steady hand from the shore. Experienced therapists, on the other hand, risk becoming jaded to the point of equally worthless emotional distance. I believe I was eventually able to find solid ground in the middle.

Question 4. “Do I remind you of anyone from your past?”

Much like parents who are better suited to raising one child than another, counselors are not equally well-suited to each client. This can be a matter of skill, temperament, age, experience, or background. The question, however, seems to suggest you (the therapist) suffer issues from your past impinging upon your relationship with your patient in the present: your patient’s resemblance to someone else is the trigger. I remember a 16-year-old victim of sexual abuse. Her face reminded me of an old girlfriend, who I met when she (the girlfriend) was only a year older — 17. In the session during which the abuse surfaced, the client’s pain contributed to my own. While this was not a unique experience (my eyes can moisten hearing such stories), I was more than usually touched because of the invisible presence of tender feelings toward someone I’d not seen in many years. Nonetheless, my emotions settled and did not appear to derail treatment progress.

A few patients reminded me of my mother, with whom I had a “complicated” relationship. Please do note the euphemism! Once, however, I resolved my “mom” issues, I observed such similarities without undue emotion interfering in treatment. So, at least, I told myself.

Question 5. “What would you say to me if you were not my therapist?”

I am a pretty direct person. Not undiplomatic (most of the time), but direct. From childhood I found it almost impossible to be false. Should you care to know more, an amusing post on this congenital failure describes a kindergarten catastrophe: Gone in Sixty Seconds: How to Lose Three Girlfriends in a Minute. I don’t take full credit for my discomfort with being disingenuous (since I seem to have been born with it). Nonetheless, because of the trait, my client heard whatever I thought was most important to say. I tried to hold a mirror so that he might better recognize himself. If his vision was cloudy and it was essential that he perceive more (in my opinion), I often said more. I made good use of Socratic dialogue, asking questions designed to lead to self-awareness. Telling someone he is missing something is rarely helpful. A therapist says things like “What does that way of being cost you?” in the hope of allowing the patient (upon answering and thereby taking responsibility for his behavior) to grab the therapeutic initiative to change. The same comment in the form of a statement, by comparison, might cause him to feel scolded. It is easier to reject the therapist’s conclusion than your own.

No one gets to know every thought a therapist or a friend thinks about him. The truth of the previous statement does not mean, however, you would hear more from me as a friend than you would as your therapist.

In the end, as worthwhile as the above questions are, I believe it is most important a therapist know the truth of what Leo Tolstoy described in War and Peace — the role of medical doctors in early nineteenth century Russia:

“They satisfied that eternal human need for the hope of relief, the need for compassion and action, which a human being experiences in a time of suffering. They satisfied that eternal human need — noticeable in a child in its most primitive form — to rub the place that hurts.”

What is Your Therapist Thinking?


What do therapists think about when they are with their patients?

Or, to put it differently, what does your therapist really think of (and about) you?

First things first. In order to be able to be of any help, a therapist needs to conceptualize the job he is doing. If he believes it is to “fix” the person, he is setting his patient and himself up for disappointment.

A therapist is not a surgeon who takes an instrument to excise old behavior out of you or insert new thoughts and feelings into you while you are unconscious. Rather, both you and he should see him as someone who is knowledgeable about human problems and their solution; someone who has been trained to help you if you are prepared to make the effort to help yourself. The counselor ought to have lived long enough to have acquired a bit of wisdom about life, along with the humility that comes from his own set of ups and downs.

Ideally, he should know himself quite well, so that his own relationship issues don’t get in the way of treating you. The healer must be hopeful, encouraging, and experienced in addressing the particular difficulties that you are having. And, he can only be helpful if he grasps more than a little about what makes for a good life.

Finally, the counselor must be open to the possibility of learning something from the therapeutic exchange, rather than taking a position “on high” and seeing himself as an unassailable authority who hands down proclamations to you.

Freud's Waiting Room

Freud’s waiting room, now a part of the museum at his former Vienna office location

This is the person who you are about to meet. Of course, new patients are often uncomfortable in coming to a psychotherapist’s office, knowing that they will be talking about difficult subjects, and aware that they will be evaluated.

You will be evaluated. You must be. That is the first part of the healer’s job.

A good psychologist, within a few minutes, will get a first impression — an almost instant “take” on you.

All the things you might expect him to observe will be observed: how you dress, how you walk and stand, the strength of your handshake, your ability to make eye contact, your voice, body language — what you say and how you say it, with particular attention to the presence or absence of emotion, as well as your own understanding of yourself.

This “physician of the soul” is also noting whether you are confident, nervous, and/or open. He is assessing your verbal capacity too, since your ability to conceptualize and understand the things that are put into words — either those you say or those that are said to you — is essential to a good result from treatment.


Sigmund Freud

Does your counselor like you? He will try hard to look for the best in you. It is much easier to treat someone who you feel good about than someone you find despicable. You don’t have to be perfect for the therapist to appreciate you or enjoy your company. A good therapist finds most people pretty likeable and some extraordinarily admirable, even if there are major things they’ve done of which they are ashamed. If he has been at his profession for a number of years he has heard an enormous range of stories. It is doubtful that what you say will floor him.

All the while, the clinician is trying to make “sense” of you. Calling upon all his training and experience — all that he has read, been told, and discovered in the course of his career — he is trying to formulate who you are diagnostically and as a person. The shrink is taking the combination of your presence in the room, your history, your weaknesses and strengths, your likes and dislikes, and the problems you are reporting and trying to put them into a pattern that will lead to a determination of “what is wrong” and how to put things right; in other words, a plan of treatment.

A clinician must be in three places at once as he listens to his patients.

  • He must know and remember what you have said to him before; both the words and their sometimes obscure meaning, as well as any fluctuation in mood over the history of his relationship to you.
  • He must be intensely focused on what you are saying now and how you are presenting yourself in voice, body language, and emotion.
  • He must be thinking into the future, asking himself some subset of the following questions:

Where is my patient going with this? Should I continue to listen or should I comment? If I do comment, what is the best way to do so; how much or how little? Should I offer an interpretation of what the patient is saying? What is the most important thing to respond to? Which topics should be discussed now and which should wait? Am I missing anything, possibly including the patient’s disaffection from me? Is the pace of therapy too fast for the patient or too slow? Are my own feelings or actions getting in the way? Is the treatment working and if not, why not? Is there another — better — approach to take?

At the same time the therapist must be aware of the clock. Is there sufficient time left in the session to open difficult topics? Is the person too agitated and should the troublesome issue be closed down (if possible) before the end of the allotted time?

Let me give you an example of how all of this works. I received a referral of a woman who was approximately 35 years old. She was in the hospital due to a Major Depressive Disorder, as well as other diagnoses. I also knew before I saw her that she had a deformity.

When I met her I noticed the deformity immediately. It was impossible to miss. I introduced myself and we began to talk about why she was in the hospital. As I listened, the dominating thought on my mind was when to address the question of the disfigurement. It could not be simply ignored, since it doubtless affected all her relationships (producing, at least, an immediate impact), not to mention her self-image.

The question then was how to bring it up and when. As this pleasant lady was talking, these thoughts were being weighed in my mind. She seemed relatively comfortable discussing the very serious problems that brought her to the hospital and that had nothing directly to do with her deformity.

I therefore reasoned that she would probably also be able to address this physical problem without too much discomfort. Moreover, I also knew that until I brought it up, the fact that I had not brought it up would be between us, getting in the way of developing a good treatment relationship, with both of us likely to be waiting uncomfortably for the inevitable confrontation with the topic.

In the event, I did ask her about it within the first 20 minutes of our initial session. She told me of a failed history of surgeries to correct the imperfection, but minimized the social problems that doubtless attached to it. It became apparent that it was a topic that she could address, at least on a superficial level. While we did come back to the subject later in her treatment, for now it was out-of-the-way as an obstacle to our therapeutic alliance and we could get on with the issues that were more pressing.

New therapists, like novice drivers, find that there are entirely too many things to be conscious of all at once. But like the new driver, with enough practice, all the meters and gauges on the dashboard and all the cars and traffic signals on the street eventually can be managed almost instinctively, without being overwhelmed by their sheer number.

Does your therapist think about you after the session is over? Sometimes he cannot help it, simply because something touching or troublesome (or even funny) happened in the session. As my patients know, I laugh a lot with most of them.

Then too, the therapist needs to document what has happened in your medical record and plan for the next session. He needs to review his notes and the treatment plan just before he sees you next, as well. Sometimes, he will have to consult a supervisor or colleague (without revealing your identity) for assistance. If he is required to be in touch with a managed care company in order to obtain treatment authorization, that too will demand that he takes some time for telephone or written observations about you and your treatment.

Will your therapist remember you long after you have seen him? If his memory is good and the course of your treatment is not brief, it is likely that he will. Of course, certain people stand out, both those who made astonishing progress and those who didn’t progress despite every effort. And then there are some you remember because they were unusual or because something about them was especially poignant; because of a story they told or the crucial knowledge or experience you acquired in your time together with them.

The clinician is enriched by his contact with people. It really is a rare privilege. People you might never get to know in the course of a different career not only come to see you, but reveal their most intimate secrets.

You think about them because it is your responsibility, yes. You think about them because it is a way to make a living, yes.

But you think about them most — if you are well-matched to the work of a therapist — because they are fascinating, challenging, sad, beautiful or less than beautiful, handsome or plain, anxious, thoughtful, decent or unkind, skilled, clever, energetic or beaten-down, and all the other things that make us what we are.

You are two people in transit, who come together on a subterranean road toward, one hopes, something worthwhile.

If you are the therapist in this pair, for a while you may be the carrier of the only torch that lights the way.

Onward toward the light.


Freud’s Sofa, pictured below the “Question Mark Man,” is now housed in the Freud Museum, London. Freud typically sat behind the patient who was lying down on the sofa. This psychoanalytic style of relatedness is not typical of most therapists today, who instead sit across from their patients, face to face. The photo comes from http://www.Londonleben.co.uk/ The third image is Sigmund Freud taken in 1926 by Ferdinand Schmutzer. The bottom picture is of Light at the Eastern End of Newchurch No. 2 Tunnel, taken on September 18, 2008 by Alexander P. Kapp and featured on http://www.geograph.org.uk/ The last three images are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.