Real Lives: For Freud's sake!

You, your squeeze and the shrink - relationships can be crowded when a partner goes into counselling. By EMMA COOK
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Fay Weldon once said, "A man - or a woman - under therapy has to decide who he is going to believe, the therapist or the spouse." Her pronouncement may seem a little extreme but then so was her experience; her husband ran off with his therapist. Betrayal doesn't get much worse. Inevitably, Fay doesn't have a great respect for the therapeutic process. She recently told one journalist, "Therapists always try to persuade their client the last thing they need is a spouse. Then once the spouse is out of the way they can get two or three years' fees while they guide their client through the tricky time."

Cynical, maybe. But it does give some insight into how excluded one party can feel when another seeks therapy. It's easy to see why; your partner creeps off weekly to spill his or her innermost thoughts to a complete stranger. You may or may not be the subject of these discussions but the point is you'll probably never know. What can be more galling is that you generally assume you're in a relationship together, for better and for worse. So if one person ventures outside for support - and is willing to pay - it can seem like emotional prostitution.

When Kate, 33, a lecturer living in London, met her partner six years ago, he had already spent two years in therapy. "It was a little like my partner having another lover. I definitely felt in competition," says Kate.

Meanwhile her partner, Tim, 35, a teacher, says, "Unquestionably, I was discussing my relationship in therapy. No, Kate didn't ask any questions about it and I didn't tell her - perhaps I didn't want to bore her with the details. But it was the first time I went into a relationship while talking about it to someone else. I think it made me very careful not to repeat the same old patterns. I was much wiser and didn't let previous illusions get in the way of my new relationship."

Although Kate was deeply curious about the content of those weekly sessions, she never allowed herself to dig for details. "Partly I felt that I wouldn't get a full answer. Also, I wanted to be careful about not intruding or muscling in on that part of his life. It's business between your partner and the therapist." Until, of course, that person decides to bring their "business" home. Which can be disastrous or beneficial.

For Kate, the results were positive. One benefit was that Tim became a more sympathetic listener. "There was more honesty between us. He became a fantastic therapist himself." For others the advantages are less evident. One particular friend still recounts, with irritation, the way his ex- girlfriend would quote verbatim a mix of her therapist's observations and John Gray's Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. "She'd come out with these awful cliches about men going to their caves and women wanting to share their feelings. At first I'd laugh because I found the language, the American psychobabble, ridiculous. But the more she tried to analyse my responses and tell me things, like the reason I didn't open up was because I came from an `emotionally distant' family, the more I'd shrug and become less talkative." If they weren't speaking different languages when she picked up the book up, they were by the time she finished it.

According to marital counsellor Carol Martin-Sperry, anyone seeking counselling should think carefully about what they tell their partner - and more importantly how they go about telling them. That's what seems to divide the success stories from the failures. "It can have a positive spin-off if they can share an insight. Then again it can be very unhelpful if the client comes back and says, `My therapist and I agree that you shouldn't do X,Y or Z.' It can get very polarised."

Yet in a lot of cases the knowledge one partner gains through therapy can benefit the other, depending on the type of therapy. Deborah, 34, a market researcher living in Manchester, went into cognitive therapy two years ago and believes her relationship has survived as a result of what she learned and passed on to her partner. Rather than delve into the recesses of her childhood, the cognitive therapist concentrates on solving the problem in hand. It was a very practical approach, or as Deborah puts it, "I'd never come out with mad stuff when I talked to him".

Instead, she'd recount certain situations when they argued. She'd get upset, then feel unable to express herself. "My therapist would say, `Perhaps you could say, "Do you realise you upset me when you do that?"' rather than panicking." She would never tell Jon, her partner, what the therapist advised but simply adopted a different approach when they rowed. "I was able to talk to Jon in a succinct way without going over the top. It worked immediately - he took on board what I told him and actually thought about what I told him. He rarely criticises me now in the way he did before. Looking back, I needed to learn how to assert myself." Something she could never have learnt from her partner or close friends. "Friends would have said, finish the relationship. My therapist, though, was never judgmental. She'd never have led me down a certain path. But I did make a point of not giving out jargon and he has no idea to this day that some of the things I told him were what my therapist advised me."

Even the subtle approach, though, is no guarantee that the relationship will improve after therapy. It can seem unfair but the partner who hasn't chosen therapy still has to work just as hard to change and move on. Psychotherapist Gladeana McMahon explains, "It really depends on the personality of the other person in the couple. A classic case is where one partner complains the other isn't assertive enough. So he or she seeks therapy and stands up to their partner who then leaves. What the partner really meant is: be more assertive but not with me."

McMahon always encourages clients to talk these issues through and to emphasise that, if they begin to behave differently, to some extent so must their partner. "If a person changes then that's the person they want to be - all the therapist can do is help them reach that goal." Perhaps if you feel the main reason you're choosing therapy is your relationship, the answer could be to seek joint counselling, like Courtney Cox and her partner David Arquette. At least this rules out any feelings of exclusion. It also shows a shared commitment to improving the relationship - another inequality that individual therapy can highlight. Then again, there are benefits in being able to tell your therapist things you'd never express to your partner. As Deborah says, "Jon was probably quite relieved when I began to offload some of my frustrations onto the therapist instead of him. I was dealing with certain problems and sorting things out for myself. I learnt to stand up for myself without relying on him and that's really what improved our relationship."

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