Strangers who know too much

When a person decides to see a therapist, friends and relatives can end up feeling jealous and threatened. Midge Gillies talks to them
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Jane's psychotherapist always knew when she had arrived because he would hear her car tyres screech outside before she knocked frantically at his door. Her husband felt so strongly that psychotherapy represented a breach of marital trust that he w ould follow her in his car and try to stop her entering the house. After the session he would ring the psychotherapist and demand to "give his side of the story".

Not everyone feels so vulnerable when a friend or relative decides to see a therapist, but it is rare for it not to cause at least a ripple of unease in a relationship.

The UK Council for Psychotherapy, representing most of the large psychotherapy organisations, estimates its members are treating between 50,000 to 60,000 people at any one time. This means almost a quarter of a million parents, siblings, children and partners are coping with the day-to-day effects of psychotherapy. Living with someone who is seeing a therapist can, at times, be as traumatic as the psychotherapy itself.

Fay Weldon used her novel Affliction to attack therapy and the havoc it can cause in a marriage. Many relationships disintegrate during therapy, although therapy may simply be the catalyst for an inevitable collapse. Even when someone supports a partner's decision to seek help, he or she can end up battling with feelings of jealousy or resentment towards the therapist. Knowing your sex life is being picked over, or family tiffs dissected by a stranger can be too much to bear, while some resent the fact that a friend or relative has turned to someone else for help (especially as a session can cost more than £40).

Whatever the final outcome for the person in therapy, one thing is certain - the repercussions of a session stretch far beyond the patient, the practitioner and the couch.

What did the bitch say today?

Jack, 35, is a lawyer living in north London. He had been seeing a psychotherapist for 18 months when his partner, Stewart, decided to see one, too.

Stewart wanted to deal with his childhood and his mother and father (who didn't know he was gay), but I didn't like his mother at that point and didn't think it would be very useful for him to talk to me about her.

I suggested he inquire about a therapist at a local holistic, vegetarian, knit-your-own-type centre. But even though I had made the suggestion, I immediately started to feel very strangely towards the therapist.

Stewart divulged bits of information about her, and I started to feel quite competitive, even though I knew he had agreed to visit her for only a set number of sessions. I would try to elicitinformation about her in subtle ways and sometimes I'd ask outright, "What did that stupid bitch say today?", if I was feeling particularly threatened.

I started to feel unnerved because it was clear that he really liked her. One of the pieces of information he'd given me was that she was a lesbian and I thought, "Oh damn, she would be!", which was ridiculous because it didn't matter what her sexuality was, but somehow I felt more threatened that she was gay, like we are.

My image of her was very demeaning, but very vivid. I imagined she'd wear ethnic jewellery and kaftans, burn joss sticks and have Joni Mitchell records playing in the background. I was sure she'd be a vegetarian and have 100 cats. In fact, she did live in Dalston, which is a cliche dyke area.

Finally, I thought: "What can I do that will really undermine his confidence in her?" I thought, "Right, I'm going to look her up and see if she's a registered psychotherapist". To my joy I found she wasn't, but Stewart said it didn't make any difference.

From time to time Stewart will still make comments that are like analysis: "You said x because of y". I'm always very keen to cut all that down and I say, "Well thank you, amateur psychiatrist, I don't think I'll be paying you £55 an hour for that."

When he stopped seeing her I felt really pleased and because I was still in therapy, I felt I had re-established myself and was able to be more generous about her. I am now able to say she was a good thing, but I say that only with the knowledge that she's not around any more.

I knew, her husband didn't

P at is a 29-year-old groom living in Bedfordshire. Her sister, Kathy, who is two years older, started seeing a psychotherapist after confronting her anguish at being sexually abused by a schoolteacher for five years from the age of 12.

The first I knew that something was wrong was when my sister came to stay with me and my boyfriend for a weekend. She said she was having problems with men, not just her husband, that she was worried about being in the same room as a man and that she didn't want to be left alone with my boyfriend.

I only found out a few months later that she had been abused and that she was seeing a therapist. She didn't tell anybody about the therapist for a long time and I was the first to know - before even her husband. She thought he might pack his bags and leave, she felt guilty and worthless and she didn't want to lose something else in her life. Telling me was testing the water.

She had these little stars on the calendar for her (therapy) appointments but no one really knew what they meant. I felt a bit pressurised because her husband would ask me questions and I didn't know if I knew more than him. He was going through feelingsof tremendous doubt because she wouldn't let him touch her and wouldn't tell him why. He kept saying, "I don't know whether she's got another man". Some members of the family still don't know, which is quite difficult because she can freeze up when somebody comes within a couple of feet to hug her.

I felt a little bit hurt that she'd never felt she could tell anybody. You look back and you think, "Perhaps I should have noticed". I was glad that she wanted to see someone but I try not to think about the sessions too much because I'm sure she must have a lot of feelings of resentment towards me and my other sister because it didn't happen to us. She'll sometimes say, "You're lucky because you always land on your feet".

Often I wonder what the therapist looks like. Kathy stayed in a centre for a while and I used to visit her every day. I thought, "I've probably walked past her in the foyer and she might even know I'm Kathy's sister". I knew which car was hers because mysister had told me her number plate. Kathy said she looked a bit like Mum, which helped me to relate to her.

When Kathy's through this she might be a different person from the one we've all known for the past 15 years. That's pretty scary because you think, "I liked her as she was". But I'd love her anyway because she's my sister.

Mum took all the attention

Mark,30, is a marketing manager at a computer software company. He is married with one child and lives in Reading.

I was never really aware of my mother deciding to see a therapist; it was just one of those things that seemed to evolve. Having been brought up in a medical family in which both parents were doctors, I tended to assume that whatever was going on in our family was relatively normal. But looking back, some of the events that occurred when we were growing up were pretty extraordinary.

My sister Kate had an alcohol problem in her late teens and one day my parents decided they had had enough of her drinking in the house. Dad went up to her room, pulled out 250 empty beer cans and put them on her bedroom floor to give her an indication of just how extensive the problem was. It's one of the few times I've seen him go absolutely ballistic. I heard this racket going on and rushed in to see Dad throwing the beer cans into our front garden. I think the quiet Asian family next to us wondered what had hit them.

Knowing Mum was in therapy never made me feel I had failed her, though I felt at times it was she who had failed. I thought: "Here am I, a teenager going through one of the most difficult times of my life, trying to do my A-levels and to get to university, and yet my mother's taking all the attention".

Now I treat any discussions about therapy lightheartedly and refer to Mum's "shrink". Sometimes she'll lapse into shrink-speak, shoot you an intense look and say, "How does that make you feel?", followed by a sympathetic "mmm" listening noise. I immediately tell her off.

What seems strange to me is that my father's started having therapy. He's such a nice, ordinary, peaceful, lovely sort of character. I wonder how much he's doing it for himself and how much he's doing it because Mum thinks he should.

Therapy can make you overly introspective, too. One Christmas morning a few years ago, my parents decided they wanted a trial separation and took me aside one by one to act as therapist. But, frankly, I didn't want to know why Dad found Mum unattractive or why Mum couldn't stand Dad. My wife had just had a miscarriage and I was already feeling emotionally battered. I thought the time had come for them both to spend less time looking into their own problems and perhaps paying more attention to other people.

I took her once; not again

Richard, 35, is a stockbroker who lives with his wife, Anna, and three children in Oxfordshire. Anna recently stopped seeing a psychotherapist after six years of twice-weekly sessions.

Our first baby, Kate, had a very tricky birth and was separated from Anna for the first two days of her life. It proved to be the shot in the arm that made Anna seek therapy. She became much more aware of the gaps in her own infancy and thought she wouldbe a diabolical mother, just like hers had been.

Anna's parents were divorced when she was three. Her mother was a serious alcoholic and Anna suffered sexual abuse from her mother's boyfriend, Henry, when she was five. She'd spent years blocking out those experiences but it was the security of our relationship, as well as becoming a mother, that prompted her to do something about the past.

We discussed psychotherapy and recognised the possibility that I might feel rivalry. The conclusion we reached was that if there was something wrong with our relationship then so be it, we would have to look at that. It was a question of faith.

We lived eight miles from the psychotherapist and it hadn't occurred to us that there would be anything inappropriate if I took her over and sat in the waiting-room. But when we got there, there was no waiting-room and the psychotherapist reluctantly satme down in his house.

It was a major point because he questioned why she had brought me, and I think he would rather we'd never met. It was a bit awkward. I sat and waited and never went again.

She didn't want to talk about our sex life to the therapist but I thought that if you are going to do something like this, you have to lay yourself open. Every so often she would be particularly turned off because therapy had brought up memories of Henryand she would cry. But if you have to take care of another feeling rather than passionate sex, then that's fine.

Sometimes she thought I wanted her to give up therapy because of money but that's the closest we've come to having a row about it, although sometimes she'd come back from the sessions angry or tearful.

It was a financial burden but I never questioned the value of it. It cost about £l,600 a year and we had to make sacrifices. But I believe therapy improved the children's upbringing.

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