The lost voice
Individuals experiencing relationship issues attending therapy by themselves can be problematic because the partner's voice is often missing. While counsellors always stay with the truth of their client and work towards their own goals for therapy, the voice of the partner is being interpreted by the one that is attending counselling. This article briefly explores why it is important for the absent partner to also attend therapy.
All couples, at some time, reach a point where they experience problems in their relationship. During these moments of disharmony, some couples can address issues through affective communication or symbolic gestures, while for others this can be difficult to achieve. Counselling can either help a couple to reconnect, or separate and disentangle them from a relationship that is not working. If only one partner attends therapy, then the counsellor only hears one partner's story, and therefore the picture may only be half complete. With both partners in attendance, the picture can feel more whole. It also stops the individual not attending feeling left out of the process, which can cause resentment.
Another potential issue is confidentiality, as the right to disclosure only applies to those participating in therapy. Counsellors only have the right to disclose case details in certain circumstances which should be outlined in the therapeutic contract that individuals or couples sign before the beginning of their counselling sessions. Therefore, if both partners attend therapy, then they both can hear the disclosures each other makes because they are within what the counsellor would call the 'circle of confidentiality'; the people that are allowed to hear the details of the case. If only one partner attends, then the other is outside this circle and, unless the significant other chooses to disclose the details of the session, the absent member is not privy to that information.
From a communication perspective, a systemic therapist seeks to develop the way couples communicate. Deborah Tannen, author of the book on communication 'That’s not what I meant', suggests that couples whose communication patterns are adversarial are less likely to solve their differences because the discourse is framed as a fight. This requires someone to win, so it is unlikely that talking through issues is going to result in a positive outcome. With both members of the relationship present in the therapy room, the counsellor can work on encouraging the couple to discuss sensitive issues using more helpful ways of communicating. If one is absent from this process, then only one learns these skills, and this could leave the other unsure what the other is talking about or is trying to achieve.
There are several reasons why those having relationship issues choose to attend therapy on their own, one being the reluctance of the other to attend therapy. They may genuinely feel that there is nothing wrong with the relationship, that they can sort it out themselves, or that therapy will be used by their partner in some way to undermine them and feel that therapy would be a waste of time. Reluctant participants should not be forced into attending therapy. Counsellors respect an individual’s right to autonomy and may say that this would make them less likely to come for therapy.
It is important to allow space for the partner unsure about therapy to come to any revelations on their own, and also, if they do decide to attend, not to question them about the experience, because this may be received as a judgement, confirming a possible bias that counselling was a waste of time or being used to blame them for past indiscretions. I feel the idea that couples use therapy as a way of getting someone else, in this case, the counsellor, to side with them is not totally without merit. It should be pointed out that the role of the counsellor in couples' therapy is not to assign blame. Systemic therapists take a neutral approach and accept the experiences of both parties unless the act is criminal, i.e. domestic violence or sexual assault. In this case, the counsellor could be ethically obliged to take a firm position on that behaviour.
To conclude, it is beneficial for both members of a couple to attend therapy if the issues causing distress stem from the relationship. It is, however, also worth keeping in mind that while there are couples that would be equally open to the idea of therapy, there are others where one person is more open to the idea than the other. Even though this should be respected, this article argues that without the participation of both parties, the counsellor cannot get a truly accurate picture of the couple’s problems, and the absent member may feel they are being excluded in some way. Just because a relationship is going through a rough patch, talking about how you are feeling within any relationship does not mean it has to end. What is useful to consider is that it is more important to learn how to talk to each other than to simply talk for the sake of talking. The best option is for both parties is to attend therapy, largely because it allows the counsellor to observe how both partners relate to each other through their perceptions.