In couples counselling, do I have to talk about everything in front of my partner? -Top 6 things about couple counselling people want to know most: Part 5 of 6

This is part five of a series addressing the top 6 things people want to know about couples counselling. Quite simply, these are the questions I’m asked most often by those who consider coming for couples counselling. While it is difficult to properly answer such questions in a short series of blogs like this, I’m doing my best. For a list of all 6 questions, please see part one of this series. This blog addresses the 5th most often asked question: In couples counselling, do I have to talk about everything in front of my partner?

Answer: If I am truthful here, I’m almost never specifically asked this question. It is however one that I regularly see in the eyes of one member of a relationship. I see the question in their eyes rather than hearing it from their lips because in asking the question one reveals that there are likely things the other doesn’t know about, or that the one asking would find difficult to speak about in the presence of the other.

I cannot stress enough here however that just because this question is being asked (even if only through body language), doesn’t mean that the material in question is something that the asker should feel guilty about. There are many reasons why someone might not wish to speak openly about a particular topic in front of a partner or spouse. Some of these reasons have great validity, whilst others… not so much. This is where my skills and experience as a relationship counsellor come in. It is my job to be able to tell the difference between those areas  that are appropriate to keep private, from those that a person is trying to keep hidden because they don’t want to get into trouble about something. At other times it is not so much a matter of keeping a particular topic out of couples counselling sessions entirely, but of knowing the appropriate depth of those discussions.

This brings us to something that I call: Psychic privacy. Psychic privacy is the right of every individual to have certain things inside of our own minds that are quite frankly, nobody’s business but our own. This can be something as simple as what we really think of our colleague’s new hairstyle to the deep trauma of childhood abuse.

The idea of psychic privacy aside, generally speaking I would conduct as many couples counselling sessions with both members present as I possibly can. It usually isn’t helpful for a couple overall for me to sit with member A alone, whilst discussing what member B might think or want. Yes, it is true that there are certain, specific circumstances where I might interrupt the couple work to meet with member A one week, and then member B the next, but these are almost always one-off sessions designed to allow one member to discuss something with me that might be inappropriate to talk about in front of the other. Always in such instances specific boundaries of these individual sessions are discussed and agreed between myself and both members of the relationship before we would introduce such a break in the joint, couple work.

As we work together, focusing on the needs of the relationship as described in part one of this blog series, it will often become apparent to me where there are areas of psychic privacy that need to be respected. At the same time, it can become apparent that one person is simply trying to hide something from the other. Again, knowing when to push a little deeper and when to relax and allow someone the space they need requires a delicate touch that only comes with experience.

Where it is clear to me that a topic should not be delved into further, I will offer that member the opportunity to simply acknowledge that it is there, and that there may be fallout from it that is affecting the dynamic within the relationship. We might even take a few moments to decide together whether at least some of it might be work talking about, or whether all of it should remain private. On the other hand, where it is clear that a person is simply trying to dodge a topic, I will ask them straight out what their reasons are for doing so. While I am unable to force anybody to talk about any particular thing, where it is obvious that an individual is squirming away in their chair trying to hide some fact that is potentially damaging to themselves, I will at least make it clear that I believe this is happening.

Again, this is a fine line that has to be walked by every professional couples counsellor. Ultimately, the amount of information that can, or cannot be brought into our discussions has a big impact on the final question for this blog series: How long does couples counselling take?