Neutrality Is Sabotaging Couples Therapy

How Taking Sides Gets to the Heart of Conflict

Terry Real

Most of us were trained to believe that we needed to be extremely careful when helping clients face the really difficult truths in their lives--especially their own obnoxious, selfish, or self-defeating actions. Nevertheless, my own experience as a couples therapist has taught me that we aren't doing clients a favor by soft-pedaling difficult issues, despite what my early supervisors tried to instill in me. The approach I've developed, Relationship Life Therapy (RLT), is based on the premise that it's disrespectful to clients not to let them in on the truth about what we witness regularly in our offices as they play out their relationships in front of us: the ways they deal with their partners are often self-centered, unfeeling, and counterproductive.

In some ways, the guiding principle of RLT is to be able to say to clients what we might otherwise say only to our colleagues in our supervision group or around the water cooler after a tough session. Instead of confiding, when they're out of earshot, something like, "I can't believe what a witch she is to him. He's such a Caspar Milquetoast," I believe that's what you need to say--skillfully and respectfully--in the session with the couple.

I think the quality of directness I'm talking about is better described as joining through the truth.

"A small thing, a small thing, maybe, but I feel invisible. And as far as I'm concerned, that's why we're here--because David hears what David hears, and David does what David does. There are times when it feels like I don't even exist," Sarah says of her husband, punctuating each word for emphasis.

"This is the story of a small thing turning into a big thing, and then turning into a really big thing."

"Tell me," I say.

"A few weeks ago, we get an e-mail from our daughter's old school. There's a dinner and they'd like us to come. Our daughter went there for many years; David was on their board. It was an important part of the family. So I tell him, 'I think we should go.' Then he gives me all the reasons why we shouldn't: 'It's just a fundraiser. They just want money.'

"A week later, I bring it up again and say I think it's really important to go--and, again, he launches into the same lecture. So now, I'm frustrated. Do I feel listened to? I do not."

Sarah is 40 and describes herself as "small but mighty." Petite, blonde, with ice-blue, fiercely intelligent eyes, she can be a force to be reckoned with.

I squint at David for a minute as he sits back in his chair. Then I break the first of many rules I'd learned in my training--I take sides.

A cardinal principle of couples therapy as I learned it was: Thou Shalt Not Take Sides, and particularly, you're not to side with a woman against a man. Evenhandedness is critical, I learned. If you lost your "therapeutic neutrality," you had to go talk to your supervisor. But I'd heard enough, not just in this moment, but also in others from previous sessions, to convince me that Sarah's complaint had the ring of truth to it. She was right--David didn't listen.

"She's right, David."

"About?"

"Your behavior, which would drive most women crazy," I tell him.

"My diagnosis?" I hold up my hand, as if reading from a marquee. "I'd say, 'David Sharpe, terminally obtuse.'"

"Ouch," he says.

"I'm sorry," I tell him. He seems equal parts abashed and annoyed. "Maybe I'm the one who should be sorry," he says half-heartedly, clearly unconvinced.

"Maybe so," I reply.

For more than 50 years, the mental health field has focused on helping people come up from the one-down position of shame. But we've done a poor job equipping therapists to help entitled clients come down from their one-up perch in life. The trait that clients like David are missing is empathy toward others--and an appreciation of consequences.

The organizing principle that drives David's selective obtuseness is easy to see: selfishness. In fact, with this particular couple, the difficult truth isn't something that's hard to acknowledge. When I bring up David's being, at times, selfish, they both warm to this description surprisingly easily.

"I can see myself doing it," he complains, "but I can't seem to stop." Sometimes the struggle to confront difficult truths may not come in the present, but in the past, where a particular relationship stance was learned.

"I really was perfect. I was a straight-A student. I was captain of the football team and the prom king. I graduated from a top-tier college magna cum laude.” David says. “In fact, it was murder that I missed being summa cum laude. No really," he pursues, "I was depressed for weeks at that. I mean, I was vicious to myself."

"Welcome to the joys of perfection," I tell him. But he's deep in thought, seeing things, learning things quickly. "You know," he says, "I think that's why I get so angry and defensive with Sarah."

"Go on," I say.

"I think I can't stand it that she thinks I'm not perfect. I mean, I can't stand it."

"So, whatever she says must be wrong," I offer.

"Whatever she says is nuts," he affirms.

Before this session, David had never questioned his need to be perfect. He hadn't thought about it one way or another; he'd just acted it out. For the first time in his life, he found himself holding this belief, this self-image, this stance at arm's length.

"Tell me what you're feeling right now," I ask.

"My kids love me," he says. "Down deep and all, they respect me. But...I don't know...the warmth factor is missing."

This is a moment in the therapy I've been waiting for. David's sadness about his children is a heightened appreciation for the negative consequence of his selfishness, a break from his grandiose inattention. We are, for a moment, on the same page. This is the mature part of David I want to form an alliance with.

"You know David," I say, "we have to stop this. If this were to go on, you'd be one of those guys who, you know, the kids call up and say, 'Hi, Dad. Lemme talk to Mom."

"You don't get it," he tells me, looking suddenly deflated, all the bellicosity knocked out of him. "I already am that guy. It's already happened." Tears fill his eyes.

Turning to her husband, Sarah says, "You're lovable, you stupid lunk. That's what you are. You've never been so lovable!"

"Great," David muses, wiping his face with the back of his hand. "I've never felt like such shit and you two are throwing a party." I hold out a tissue box for him.

"Welcome to the real world," I say.

"You're in the dark night of the soul," I tell him. "Everything you've ever known, ever lived for, has cracked open. And you're not sure what to replace it with yet, but you will be. Trust me, David, it'll come to you."

"What will come to me?" his voice is full of despair. I glance at Sarah, who, without hesitation, turns to her husband. "For one thing," she tells him, "I'll come. I have come. I've never felt closer to you. I'm right here."

It took David many weeks to let go of his need to be perfect, weeks to accept something he'd seldom allowed himself before: feeling the support from his wife.

It's good for someone like David to come unglued; it's been a long time coming, and he needs to. Although it's painful, his collision with his own humanity won't damage him. It'll bring him back to his real, imperfect self. And back to Sarah.

"I'm kinder," he says looking at his wife. "Softer."

"Sweeter," she pipes in.

"Maybe," he says. "Maybe a little."

"David," Sarah goes on. "Face it, admit it. You're becoming a mensch, a true human being."

More than adopting any particular methodology of change, we can be far more direct and challenging to the clients who come to us than we've previously acknowledged. I operate with the assumption that, by and large, people are neither fragile nor stupid. If you show them how they're getting in their own way and what behaving more skillfully looks like, they'll be grateful. Rather than the expectation that telling tough truths will send clients out of the room screaming, I've seen over and over that, if done with love, grace, skill, and even an occasional dose of real wisdom, therapeutic coaching brings clients back for more. I've found that the couples I see are ready to meet the challenge of examining themselves, of becoming explorers in what is, for them, uncharted territory. The question for the field of psychotherapy is whether we're ready to meet that challenge ourselves.

***

Terry Real, LICSW, is the author of the bestseller I Don’t Want to Talk about It: Overcoming the Secret Legacy of Male Depression and has been featured on numerous national news programs. He’s been in private practice for 30 years and is the founder of The Relational Life Institute, where he teaches therapist trainings and workshops for couples.

This blog is excerpted from "Joining Through the Truth" by Terry Real. The full version is available in the November/December 2012 issue, The Rise of Therapeutic Coaching: Is the Game Changing?

Illustration © Art Valero/SIS

Get the latest issue of Psychotherapy Networker

Subscribe for a full year of clinical insight and creative inspiration from the field’s innovators like Brené Brown, Bessel van der Kolk, Dan Siegel, Esther Perel, and many more. Plus, earn 2 CE hours every issue!

Topic: Couples | Families

Tags: Couples & Family | couples conflict | couples counseling | couples therapist | couples/family | divorce | divorce counseling | divorces | healthy relationships | love and relationships | Men | Men and Intimacy | relationship | Terry Real | truth

Comments - (existing users please login first)
Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*
*
*
5 Comments

Friday, July 22, 2016 3:32:08 PM | posted by Annie
Thank you Terry. I am not a clinician but I am an avid reader of all your books. You have helped my husband and me so much! You are right. We need to hear the hard truths about ourselves. We need you to tell us how we get in our own way. Life is so much better when we learn to get outta the way.

Sunday, July 24, 2016 11:40:32 AM | posted by Harper West, MA, LLP
Bravo! I struggle with this same balance of being accepting and direct/challenging. I'm EFCT trained, but struggle to remain "neutral" in some cases. Also loved this: "For more than 50 years, the mental health field has focused on helping people come up from the one-down position of shame. But we've done a poor job equipping therapists to help entitled clients come down from their one-up perch in life. The trait that clients like David are missing is empathy toward others--and an appreciation of consequences." This speaks directly to my Self-Acceptance Psychology paradigm, which identifies that people manage shame in three key ways: "Other-Blaming", "Self-Blaming," and "Avoiding Blame." David sounds like an Other-Blamer and they are very difficult to be in relationship with because, as you identified, his self-criticism and perfectionism and also fear of being criticized were making it impossible for him to connect, empathize or even be accountable for his behaviors. Therapy clients are usually "Self-Blamers", because "Other-Blamers", who lack accountability due to poor shame intolerance, rarely attend therapy voluntarily. So as you note, traditional therapy has been about helping "Self-Blamers" tolerate shame. The idea of directly confronting them would probably be counter-therapeutic. But "Other-Blamers" can only be successfully managed by assertive, firm but kind interventions. For more on how shame intolerance affects personalities and relationships, go to www.SelfAcceptancePsychology.com

Saturday, November 19, 2016 12:58:59 PM | posted by Lee Horton
In my work, I would have focused on helping this couple to negotiate their differences. If you confront someone is Terry does , you run a huge risk that he'll simply walk away . It is much better to help each partner to recognize that they have a role in negotiating these differences.

Sunday, November 20, 2016 6:22:32 PM | posted by Barbara
I entirely endorse therapy from this standpoint. I was surprised by you noting that the old cardinal principle you learned in couples therapy "Thou shalt not takes sides" (I know that principle), but then you add; "especially the woman's side against the man." Really, that was part of the principle? You then go on to speak of neutrality. This certainly would not have been neutral. It is a perfect reminder of how we used to and still often believe that we think we treat both genders equally but do not. We still have a long way to go. How interesting. I would love for you to unpack how your training arrived at this extra principle. I am actually curious. Was it that we were afraid the man would not hear it? What was behind the theory? So interesting. Much appreciated how candid you are and I have do doubt you understand that taking the 'woman's side' was some version of less than neutral. The neutrality principle was not at all neutral. My guess is that this imbalance still persists, as it does in so many aspects of our lives. So insidious that even women do not realize it....or rather, we have been asked to put up with the imbalance for so long that we hardly notice. I have lived this imbalance for decades and many of us have been so often critiqued for speaking this truth (so threatening the imbalance is for the other gender), that we have put up with far more than we have needed to put up with. Seems subtle but it is so powerfully offensive. "Especially taking the woman's side." And I know you know this. In general however, this aspect of long term harm (of being lesser than as a woman) gets a bit too glossed over in my opinion. We are all still putting up with it. I worked with adolescents and their parents for years. Naming behaviours on both sides of the coin (child or parent) was an obligation I felt necessary. We all struggle with our blind spots. It is always worth shedding the light. Thank you for outlining an approach that is the only one that has power. Truth is where it is at.

Saturday, July 6, 2019 4:41:58 PM | posted by John Maine
Real speaks of empathy, but show little. Like most modernistic, structuralists he seems to think he knows how ALL couples should be. Avoid this charatan like the plague.