John and Amy were having difficulty in their marriage. They were fighting a lot and had little sex or intimacy. They felt like they were drifting apart.
Amy suggested that the two of them see a couples counselor. John begrudgingly agreed.
In the first session, the couples therapist explained that she would meet with them each individually in order to gain a deeper understanding of each of their positions in the relationship.
She went on to tell them that she has a no-secrets policy- that what information is shared during these individual sessions can and may be shared with their partner. They agreed.
Two weeks later, during John’s session with the therapist, John disclosed that last year he had had an affair. He said he felt guilty about being with another woman and never meant to hurt Amy.
The therapist told John that he would have to tell Amy about the affair. While John felt guilty, he was certain that telling Amy was the last thing he wanted to do. John explained that the affair was over and didn’t see how telling Amy would be helpful. The therapist reiterated the no-secrets policy and explained that unless John told Amy, she could no longer work with them.
A few days later Amy received a call from the therapist explaining that she could no longer see them. Bewildered, Amy asked why. The therapist apologized and simply stated again that she could not see them and hung up.
Amy asked John, who denied knowing what happened. John simply said that he knew seeing a couples therapist wasn’t going to help and that he had been right all along.
This is a story that unfortunately occurs quite often in couples therapy. The therapist means well but leaves this couple hurt and confused. They’ll likely never call another therapist again.
The therapist believes that holding a secret changes the power dynamic of the relationship and the therapist can no longer remain neutral or act in the best interest of the couple.
But couples therapists keep secrets all the time
If a woman discloses to her therapist that she has never enjoyed sex with her husband and has faked it for the entirety of their relationship, the therapist doesn’t insist she disclose this information to her partner.
If a man tells his therapist that, while he enjoys sex with his partner, he often fantasizes about past lovers (though he has never physically cheated), the therapist is more likely to hold the secret.
If a therapist discovers that one partner has been spending money outside their budget and has hidden these purchased from their spouse, they wouldn’t rush to say that they have to confess in order to move on with therapy.
The truth is that couples therapist are often uncomfortable with infidelity. We strive to help couples work toward having more honesty in their relationship, yet when it comes to infidelity, it’s an all-or-nothing scenario. Why are some secrets okay and others not?
Abandoning couples when they need help the most is not okay
What other issue do we as therapists treat with such disdain as infidelity that we insist the behavior must stop for therapy to continue?
We don’t tell a depressed teenager that they must immediately stop feeling sad or else we will stop seeing them.
Do we insist that a client who comes to us for help managing their weight immediately change their diet and tell them that if they eat at McDonald’s again that we will have to stop seeing them?
No. We meet these clients where they are and help them process their experience, unpack the meaning behind their behavior, and help them achieve a healthier way of living.
Why is this not how we approach infidelity? Instead, a client comes to us, says they have a problem and are uncertain how to handle it, and we respond by telling them that we cannot see them unless they do exactly what we tell them to do.
I don’t have a no-secrets policy
While I understand it’s premise, I often disagree with the execution of a no-secrets policy. For one, it seems to apply only to infidelity.
There is a judgment and bias inherent in having this position. How is it that the therapist gets to pick and choose what information is important or imperative to share with one’s partner?
Therapists often claim that they provide a non-judgmental space for their clients, yet their actions seem to contradict this.
Each individual that I see has the privilege of speaking with me in confidence. This isn’t done for infidelity; it’s just done. Sometimes, there are things that need to be said that don’t need to be said in front of your partner.
Disclosure isn’t always helpful
I’m not saying that I don’t help individuals work toward disclosing infidelity to their partners, I do. I’m not saying that couples counseling can be effective in the shadow of an affair. But I also don’t think that giving clients ultimatums is helpful.
The disclosure of infidelity also causes a shattering, and quite frankly, there are times when I’d rather that shattering occur in my office than elsewhere.
In my office, I can manage the crisis, ensure each partner’s safety, and help them start picking up the pieces. It’s certainly not easy, but it’s what I have chosen for myself and my clients.
Ask me again in five years, and I might give you a different answer. I remain open to suggestions and realize that I don’t have all the answers.
I think that we as therapists need to think about things more critically before accepting them as truth- both in and out of the office.
Mark Cagle LPC
Mark Cagle is an affair recovery specialist in Dallas, TX. He helps couples turn the devastation of an affair into an opportunity to revitalize and reinvigorate their relationship.
When he's not helping couples, he enjoys playing with his three wonderful daughters and spending time with his wife of 11 years. He loves card, board, and video games and is still a kid at heart.