Keeping Secrets in Couples Therapy
Every couples therapist has to decide whether or not to incorporate individual sessions. Whereas there are many benefits to doing so, such as gathering information more quickly and thoroughly, special consideration must be given to confidentiality. Specifically, how should a couples therapist handle a secret? What if one partner tells the therapist something in confidence during the individual session? Does the therapist hold the secret or must it be revealed to the partner? Every couples therapist has to decide what his or her policy is and communicate it from the very beginning of therapy.
Recently I attended a conference featuring a semi-famous couples counselor. During the conference, as we were discussing infidelity, the topic of whether or not to keep secrets arose. The speaker, although she had been trained otherwise, now believes in keeping secrets. That is, she has “complete confidentiality and privacy” in her individual sessions. A lively discussion ensued, in which I found myself publicly disagreeing with her. Here’s how it went.
Before I tell you her position, I need to tell you that never once did she use the words “research” or “evidence-based.” Instead, she acknowledged that these were her opinions, although there had “recently been articles backing me up.” What kind and how many she did not say. Nor did anyone ask.
The speaker, whom I will call Ms. X, stated that in order to do couples therapy you must keep secrets. Meaning, if one partner told you something they didn’t want the other partner to know then you couldn’t tell the other partner. She gave three main reasons for this. The first is that she “doesn’t want to be the village idiot, the fool who doesn’t have all of the facts.” Second, she also thinks that when people aren’t guaranteed complete confidentiality they will lie in their individual sessions. Third, she thinks counselors are willing to keep secrets in other areas, so why not sex? This last point is based upon her view that Americans are irrational about sex; that in other parts of the world infidelity is much more accepted.
Let me refute her points one by one.
1. I would never make a judgement about what to do in therapy to avoid looking foolish. All of my decisions in the couples therapy process are to benefit the couple. I don’t care what I look like. My ego stays at home where it belongs. The couple’s relationship is my client, and I will do whatever I can in whatever way to benefit that client.
2. Sure, people can lie in their individual sessions. Sometimes people do that. However, if people know they aren’t going to be held accountable for what they say in their individual sessions, doesn’t that create a situation in which they would be more tempted to attempt to manipulate the therapist? On the other hand, by telling both partners up front that anything they share in an individual session that affects the relationship is fodder for future couples sessions, they know they will be held accountable.
3. My policy is consistent whether we are talking about sex or not. There are certain things partners have the right to know. In an attempt to prove her point, Ms. X asked me if stealing $50,000 was a secret that has to be revealed. Yes, it is. What about the fact they were never sexually attracted to their partner? Yes, also a secret I cannot keep. Why? Because these are two very important facts that the other partner has a right to know. Don’t you think that perhaps they may change their mind about being in the relationship if they knew all of the facts? Don’t they have a right to make informed choices? Even though my client is the relationship, sometimes relationships shouldn’t be maintained. And this isn’t my decision to make. Which is what I could be doing if I withheld information.
With all that said, I don’t “out” people by reporting to their partner what they said. Rather, I work with them to communicate the information to the partner themselves.
But my biggest worry about keeping secrets in couples therapy has nothing to do with any of these arguments. It is simply that I have an allegiance to the couple. Not any individual. It is the couple that has sought help, not the individual. If I keep a secret, that affects both my relationship with the couple, and each individual, because I could be perceived as forming an alliance with one partner to the detriment of the other. How is that helpful?
And I until I see evidence to the contrary, this will be my position. No matter how many semi-famous people publicly disagree with me.