Working as a couples therapist, I’ve become adept at helping partners connect in the office and take their connection home with them. But I can still blunder so badly that I risk losing clients, and for the couple dropping out of therapy without having faced basic issues in their relationship, the stakes are much higher—more potentially damaging—than losing clients is for me.
I’d been working with Richard and Tina off and on for about four months. During their 11-year marriage, Richard had done a slow disappearing act on his family responsibilities, which had caused a grinding tension between them. But we’d started to make progress on this front.
Then one morning, as the couple walked in and took their seats, I saw their faces were tight with misery. Tina began the session by telling me that she’d caught Richard on the Internet looking at porn. “You need to stop and stop now!” she hissed at him. “I will not allow that filth in my home!”
Richard nodded. “I won’t do it again, I promise. I know it was wrong,” he said, sounding like a severely scolded child.
I now had two problems. First, I knew that Richard would be unlikely to keep a promise made in the hot seat. Second, Tina’s edict left no room for discussion. What now?
I could go along with Tina’s demand and Richard’s promise and pretend the issue had been tolerably managed, or I could risk going further and try to open up a fruitful discussion of a taboo subject.
I wanted to know whether Tina was upset about the porn itself, about the fact that Richard was looking at it in their home, or about the frequency of his use. Knowing I had to bring this up in a way Tina could hear—or risk losing clients—I felt as if I were about to walk through a minefield.
“Tina, I’d like to ask you a question,” I began. “I know that the issue of porn upsets many people, but the often differ as to why. Can you say why it’s so charged for you?”
She looked at me for a long time. “Of course you’d try to make it my problem,” she said. “You’re a man.”
I’d just exploded a landmine. Four months of goodwill suddenly vaporized and it never returned. We met twice more, but the sessions had lost their spontaneity and energy, and Tina and Richard became excruciatingly polite to each other. They ended therapy with Richard repeating his promise never to watch porn again.
After they left my office, I felt sadness and guilty relief as escaping a case with such an uncomfortably high level of tension: I no longer had to sit in the presence of so much unresolved emotional pain, but I felt that I’d failed. One of the devilishly perplexing facts of life for a couples therapist is that, sometimes, no matter what you say or do and how skillful you become, there still will be troubled endings and the risk of losing clients.
Ellyn Bader, PhD, and Peter Pearson, PhD, couples therapists for more than 25 years, are the founders and directors of The Couples Institute and creators of the Developmental Model of Couples Therapy. They’re the authors of In Quest of the Mythical Mate: A Developmental Approach to Diagnosis and Treatment in Couples Therapy.