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Who shouldn't be your marriage counselor?

marblefawn's picture

Looking for opinions on whether one spouse's longtime individual therapist is an appropriate choice for the couple's marriage counseling.

Say Terry is married and childhood trauma issues surface so Terry begins seeing a therapist. This therapist/patient relationship would go on for 20 years, and at some points, Terry's therapist also saw Terry's child and Terry's then spouse because it was a very high-conflict marriage.

Terry's first marriage couldn't be saved, so the therapist then also helped Terry negotiate leaving that marriage, the fallout that came with that very high-conflict divorce, etc. Eventually, after 20 years, Terry's therapist said Terry got as much as possible from therapy, so Terry stopped going to therapy.

Flash forward.

Years later, Terry is remarried. Now Terry's enmeshed relationship with that child from the first marriage (who is now an adult) has caused problems in Terry's second marriage, so Terry has landed back in marriage counseling with that same therapist and his second spouse.

So here's my question: Should Terry and the second spouse be seeing Terry's longtime individual therapist for marriage counseling...this being the same therapist who saw Terry's first family 30 years ago when that marriage was on the rocks, and treated Terry for 20 years for trauma going back to when he was a little child?

I'd especially appreciate any counselors or therapists who can weigh in on the ethics of this or any conflict that might result from a new person entering what is an already-long established patient/therapist relationship.

Thanks in advance.

tog redux's picture

No, the long-time individual therapist should not be the marriage counselor. If you are the other spouse in question, demand a neutral therapist. Of course the long-time individual therapist is going to be biased towards his/her patient.

The neutral marriage therapist might want to meet with each of you alone, but that's different, obviously.

ETA: I am a mental health professional, though I have mostly worked with kids and families. I did do some adult/marriage therapy work, but it made me want to poke my eyes out with sharp sticks.  IMO, most of the couples I saw were long past the need for divorce.

Kes's picture

I was a marriage counsellor for 8 yrs, and no, this should not happen.  The long term therapist has already formed a longstanding therapeutic alliance with their client - which is as it should be - but this is not then helpful to the client's partner, as she or he will feel an "interloper" and that the therapist knows a lot more about their original client than the spouse now joining. What would normally happen is that if joint work is required, the counsellor should refer the couple to another therapist for this. 

Sandybeaches's picture


The therapist already knows way too much and I would also say the therapist more than likely knows enough about the new spouse through their individual visits to have formed an opinion. 

Although they would say they are neutral they are human and I sure it is more than likely not the case.  The world is full of therapists and a good one would make a a referral to someone for marriage counseling, they would not attempt to take it on themselves.  

tog redux's picture

An ethical therapist would not do marriage therapy with a long-time individual patient and their SO. So the fact that he/she is willing to speaks volumes about his/her competence and ethics.

grace8205's picture

It depends on the Therapist and the couple.

I saw a few therapists with my ex and some of them looking back were terrible. They did not know to seem impartial, they would out right tell him he was absusive and he would shut down and would not go back. Then we found a wonderful Counsellor. He respected what she said as did I, she was always on the side of the marriage. Obviously our marriage did not work out but it held it together for 7 more years as my son got older and I found the strength to leave. 

Fast foward to my current DH. We say her together and it made a world of difference. We saw her about issues in our marriage centered around his entitled  son and lack parenting. If we went somewhere else it would have taken months or even a year Counselling to help. Where this therapist does not work on a traditional clock, your first appointment could be 4 hours long and subsequent appointments 3 hours. 

Before Dh and I went to her, I disclosed how I knew her and how long I have seen her in the past. He was willing her see her. Now he has recommended her to one of his friends that was seeking marriage counselling.

so as I said it depends on the therapist and the couple. But everything should be disclosed to the new party. 

Curious Georgetta's picture

about a person who has been conflicted at every stage of his,/her life and therapy appears to have had no lasting effect.

Terry may be so damaged that the therapist, old or new, will only be covering the same  much covered ground.

Your real concern should not be about the therapist's  prior relationship with Terry, but rather is Terry so badly damaged that he cannot be fixed in a way that will make your relationship work.

It appears that Terry has had the  benefit of therapy throughout the entirety of his/her adult life, and yet here you are. I do not think that in this case , I would be counting on any therapist to move Terry,''s needle very far. 

Perhaps, you might want to seek  individual counseling to determine if this relationship is a good fit for you.

It seems as though you have chosen a long broken partner and want to fix him/her.  It might be easier and far less stressful to find a new partner who is not broken and does not require fixing.

ldvilen's picture

There is no way any ethical counselor would agree to counsel a couple after counseling only one for some time.  This is not done or recommended because a strong relationship has already been created between the counselor and the one he has been counseling.  On the other hand, the counselor has no bond with the other partner.  Thus, biases have already been formed in the counselor's mind one way or the other regarding his/ her client.

Actually, you could even say that 2nd partner coming into such a situation would be at the same disadvantage as many a SM, meaning the counselor and the 1st partner already know the rules, nuances, are comfortable with each other, etc., and then now the 2nd partner has to come into this situation not knowing or having none of that and will have to try to either quickly fit in or risk becoming the odd one out.

Therefore, I would definitely not recommend this, especially for a married couple where one or both are step-parents.  Fortunately, mature, well experienced people know that a good marriage isn't requiring your partner to fit you perfectly at all times.  Instead, they know it’s not uncommon for marriages to have problems. But unless the problems involve abuse or an affair, over time the problems that arise in a marriage can be ironed out.

With a married partner there is a history, love, time and effort, familiarity, the good, the bad and the ugly, children, challenges, differences, acceptance for flaws, and commitment (vows) that all come into play.  Divorce can be rather expensive and defeating, long and drawn out, and can alienate one’s family and social circle.  Divorces have a detrimental impact on children, and studies show that even if parents are happy in their post-marriage their children do not necessarily share that happiness.  And, there is a correlation between seperated families and higher crime (largely due to lack of father figure).

SO, no it isn’t as simple as saying to your partner, “I’m bored,” or “I’ve done enough,” “You’re not worth it,” “You’re too badly damaged,” “You’re too broken,” etc.  Many, many things have to be weighed, and ONLY THE PERSON in that situation can do so.  Advise is not needed from clueless inexperienced young n’s.

ITB2012's picture

The marriage counselor for the couple. I saw a therapist when dealing with my XHs TBI and she was helpful enough that I sought her out now to work through some frustrations with my current marriage. But I would not want her to see both DH and I. I feel like she would be coming in with just my side so skewed against DH but she may also know some things about how I feel and bring them up in front of DH that don't need to be said. I suggested to DH that he see a therapist and he said no but he'd go together to someone. I'm not big on that idea because we tried it a few times and all he listened for was stuff that meant he was fine/right and didn't hear the whole message from the therapist on stuff we both should work on.

Letti.R's picture

An ethical therapist obviously will see it as a conflict of interest to counsel the couple relating to marriage.
If this person has any scruples,  they themself would step aside on this issue and recommend someone suitable who is specialised and licenced in marriage therapy.

Even if this person does not step aside, do not agree to go to counselling with a long term therapist of "Terry".

(BTW, I don't mean to be rude, but counselling is generally seen as a short or mid term intervention.
I am not American, but this idea that you stay with a counsellor for years on end on the same issue  is weird to me: either they are able to help you help yourself or they are ineffective IMO.)

As to who SHOULD NOT be your therapist, the worst case I read on here was where the therapist had an affair with and then married someone's husband when they were doing "marriage counselling".
This  would be someone who SHOULD NOT be your therapist.
"Terry's counsellor" goes on this list too.

Good luck with therapy because choosing the right one can be of great assistance!

susanm's picture

I have to agree with this.  In therapy with the same counselor for 20 years?  And then they need to go back because they still do not have the tools to make good life choices?  That does not sound like successful treatment at all.  I would question whether this person kept cashing the checks of a "therapy junkie" or failed to recognize and refer someone who needed more advanced psychiatric care with medication that they were not licensed to prescribe.

marblefawn's picture

Thanks so much, everyone, but especially those who answered exactly what I asked and didn't try to read into my question and go well beyond its scope on assumptions. (I didn't offer enough info for anyone to go beyond the scope of my specific question.) This is really helpful.

MissTexas's picture

ethical obligation to refer, or allow Terry to find a new therapist. "...Terry's therapist said he got as much as he could from therapy, so Terry stopped going to therapy." This therapist has admitted they have reached their therapeutic peak in the therapy/client relationship. Even though new circumstances, new spouse, issues are presented, that is the therapists way of ending their relationship.

New therapist is in order. This allows the therapist to see both people with a fresh set of unbiased eyes.

Rags's picture

Just no.

A neutral new therapist should be found.