How Might Having Therapy Affect My Relationship? What Partners and Carers Need to Know

How will my partner’s therapy influence our relationship?

In the first part of this article,  Alison Jenaway looked at how being in therapy might unsettle long term relationships. She wrote about this from the position of the person going into therapy.

In this, the second part of this article, Alison goes on to consider what you might need to know as a partner or close family member of someone having Cognitive Analytic Therapy (CAT).

Staying alongside your partner while they are in therapy

As someone in a long term relationship with a person going through psychological therapy, how do you make sure you’re not left behind?

In the last article when thinking about relationship patterns between partners, we used a metaphor of going to a music festival together. You dance together in the same tent to the same music. The moves you make are familiar and well-practiced. You know them well and while you’re dancing together there is a sense of things working as they should. This is how patterns of interacting that you’ve each learned seem to fit together well in your relationship.

Often when one partner goes into therapy, it’s as if they go off with a therapist to the main stage to listen to different music and learn a whole new set of steps. They start to question old patterns and might start to change the way they relate to you. You might feel left behind, upset, worried or cross about what’s happening. Without having a way to work through this together, your relationship might become unsettled.  It might help to put some thought into how you can protect and nourish your relationship through the process of therapy.

What can help?

As a partner or close family member of someone having therapy, it may help to keep in mind the “4 C’s” of communication, curiosity, compassion and a little bit of challenge.

Communication

The most important of all is communication. It can be so hard to find the time to have a decent conversation about important things when we all lead such busy lives. Do you have a routine of doing something every few weeks when it is just the two of you and no distractions? Making space to go out for something to eat, have a drink together, go for a long walk? If not, then maybe it is time to try to build that into your life together. This can be a time when you ask your partner how they are finding the therapy and they can tell you what they have discovered about themselves or changes they are making.

Curiosity

It may also help of you can stay curious. Here is where it can get tricky, because what your partner is discovering about themselves may be very different to what you always thought about them.

For example, maybe you thought that they loved looking round old castles for hours with you. After all, that is what you have always done on your holidays together. Your partner has never complained about it before.

Now suddenly, they come back from a therapy session and tell you that they have always hated castles and find them spooky, cold and boring. They announce that they have only done it to please you all these years! They never mentioned it before because they didn’t want to upset you.

Well that can feel like quite a shock, and even a bit of a betrayal. You are likely to have all sorts of confusing feelings in response. You may be tempted to disagree, to dismiss it, to say “but you love castles – that therapy is making you change in weird ways that I don’t like”.

This is an understandable response when you are feeling confused, but the message your partner might hear is “stop talking to me about your therapy”. This might mean they will not share future realisations with you, and the communication channels between you might close down.

So how can curiosity help? Well you could try saying something like “that is interesting, I never saw you in that way. Are there any other things that you haven’t wanted to tell me over the years?”

Try to be ready to hear new things. We all change over the years anyway. Maybe your partner did like castles a bit to begin with but not any more.

Compassion

The first few sessions of CAT can be particularly difficult, as the therapist encourages your partner to go over their life story. They will explore and comment on memories from when your partner was young. For example, the therapist might question someone’s belief that their dad “really loved me” even though he abandoned the family and never stayed in contact after leaving. As they begin to experience the therapist’s curiosity about their past, and hear comments and reflections which offer a different perspective on their story, they may start to question it too. Suddenly they may feel an intense wave of anger towards their dad that they don’t know what to do with. Although the feelings are really about this old parental relationship, they might seep out and come your way.

Here’s where the other person in the partnership needs to be able to respond with compassion and understanding. The person in therapy might need to go on and on about their dad for a bit. They may end up shouting at you, for example when you stay late at work, or forget your child’s birthday. For a moment, they are transferring these newly discovered feelings of anger with their dad onto you. They may be super-sensitive to any hint of you being absent or less available than usual, as this touches on the old pain of being abandoned.

The hope is that in time, through talking things over in therapy, they can process this new way of thinking about their dad and the strong feelings that arise. They may still feel anger with their dad, but understand that it belongs with him, and stop being so angry towards you. However, they may still want to talk with you about how important it feels to them that dads stick around and remain involved with their children. They may ask you to be more aware of that, and be more present if you’ve been a bit far away or distracted by other things.

Challenge

The last C is a little bit of challenge. This has two aspects to it. It may be that your partner is learning some useful things in therapy that will help improve your relationship. Maybe they’re feeling brave enough to speak out and to tell you things that they have kept hidden so far. Maybe they’re going to ask you to do things differently. They might ask a bit more of you. Instead of staying quiet when something you do upsets them, they may express the upset instead. Try to see these things as a positive challenge and to welcome them as a new phase of growth in your relationship.

It cuts both ways too. This new way of communicating might invite you to take the opportunity to challenge your partner on some of the things that you have kept to yourself over the years. Perhaps you don’t even like looking around castles any more, but do it because it’s a well-worn habit. After all, you thought your partner still loved it!

So, for years, you may have both been doing things you don’t want to do in order not to upset each other. This could be a great opportunity to start being more open with each other.  You might end up doing things that are new and different, and find ways to be closer. Try to embrace it.

Pace, safety and boundaries

Sometimes in therapy people start to talk about things from their past which they’ve had to seal off because they were too distressing and traumatic at the time. It can be hard to feel safe enough to do this. Often people need to build up a lot of trust with a therapist before they can start to talk about such difficult issues.

The therapist’s stance and the way therapy sessions are set up help to create a safe space for this. Boundaries are in place, such as how often the sessions take place and how long they last. There are clear limits around what stays private and confidential.

While your partner is likely to talk about very personal things with the therapist, this will only happen during sessions. There will be no day-to-day contact between your partner and the therapist. If by accident they meet each other outside of sessions, they will talk about how this felt and how to manage it if it happens again.

From the outside it might feel to you that your partner is having a very intense relationship with the therapist. You might even feel they are closer to the therapist than they are to you. This can be a challenge and feel threatening. You might feel very curious about what’s said in sessions, and perhaps feel very left out.

It’s important to remember that the relationship with the therapist is a temporary one.   It is you that is the longstanding person in their lives, with both a  past and a future together.

It’s also important to remember that therapy takes place under strict and controlled therapeutic settings.  CAT therapists who are accredited with ACAT operate under a strict ethical code of conduct.  Most have their own profession’s code to follow too.

It’s also useful to keep in mind that your partner may be dealing with very challenging things in therapy.  Talking about these may feel very hard to do, even with a professional. They may not be ready to share things with you and it may take time before they feel they can. It might be that they will never want to tell you because they feel concerned about how you might react. They might fear you’ll become very angry with others who hurt them or let them down. They might worry that you’ll judge them in some way, or think less of them.

Putting it all together – communication, curiosity, compassion and challenge

So to sum up:

  • It’s important to try to control your curiosity, to allow your partner time and space to work though things at a pace they can cope with.
  • It’s also important to respond with compassion if they do tell you something that’s very challenging.
  • Remaining available, and keeping communication open will be a big help to your partner as they work things through.
  • Responding in a positive way to the challenges that therapy can bring will also be be an important way to support your partner as they are changing.

Supporting your partner when therapy ends

Like the start of therapy, the ending can also throw up some strong feelings. Your partner may be more upset around the time the sessions are finishing. In CAT there will be various letters and diagrams for your partner to keep and look at afterwards. Follow up sessions can also help manage the ending.  The therapist will usually offer at least one follow up session, two or three months after the last session.

If they seem to be struggling after the sessions end, you could remind them to re-read the letters and diagrams. Or perhaps it might be helpful for them to make notes about how they feel, to take along to the follow up session, or to their GP.

Things may not be the same between you after your partner’s therapy. We hope that whatever changes take place for you both, they offer positive opportunities for you both and for your relationship together.

Dr Alison Jenaway is a Consultant Psychiatrist in Psychotherapy in the Liaison Psychiatry Service in Cambridge. She is a CAT therapist and supervisor and has been using CAT for around 20 years.  She is a past Chair of the national Association for Cognitive Analytic Therapy and is currently a trustee.

How Might Having Therapy Affect My Relationship? What Partners and Carers Need To Know by Alison Jenaway for ACAT
CC BY-SA 4.0