For years, my clinical specialty has been working with couples in couple therapy. When I started, I had a “no-secrets” policy in that work: Anything that one partner would tell me individually, I reserved the right to bring up in the couple setting.
I hoped that this policy would make it clear that I saw the relationship as my client. Keeping individual secrets — affairs, substance abuse, gambling, or anything else — could easily undermine the therapy or put me in an awkward position. I wanted nothing to do with them.
This is the philosophy many instructors encourage new couple therapists to adopt.
The problem with secrets
Keeping an individual secret is awkward at best, and represents triangulation at worst. It also is difficult on a practical level: Once you start keeping individual confidences, you have to remember what information you learned from each partner that is expected to remain confidential — and you have to keep track of that for every couple you see.
For me, the concern about the clinical impact of secrets took a backseat to the concern that I would simply screw up — that I wouldn’t be able to remember it all, and an individual’s secret would spill out.
Over time, though, my philosophy on this has changed. I’m not necessarily suggesting that yours should as well; we each need to find the secrets policy that works best for our practices. But I hope that my own journey on this can be useful to know.
When I had my clients sign a no-secrets policy, they still had secrets. Only now, in addition to keeping those secrets from each other, they were also keeping those same secrets from me. Anything that either partner might have been willing to tell me about in confidence, but not in front of their partner, became something that I was never going to know.
For example, despite strong research showing high prevalence of violence among couples, very few ever reported a history of violence to me. Affairs, when finally revealed, blindsided me as well as the other partner.
I kept starting therapy without critical information.
A different approach to couple therapy
My policy now is more nuanced, and it gives me more freedom of movement. Now, clients agree at the beginning of couple therapy that I have the right but not the obligation to share anything that they share with me individually. I’m asking them to trust my clinical judgment about what I will and will not reveal.
When I made that change, the couples I work with immediately became more honest with me at the assessment stage. I learned about substance abuse, violent arguments, and affairs early on, often from individuals who wanted desperately for their partners to know without blowing up the relationship. With that knowledge in hand, I could work with the person keeping the secret on how and when they should inform their partner, and what I could do to plan treatment in a way that could repair their bond.
The newer policy asks more of me, to be sure. It requires me to own complete responsibility for the clinical decisions I make around secrets. Sometimes, it means pretending not to know something I’m aware of — the very position that a no-secrets policy is designed to help therapists avoid. And it means that, on rare occasions, I have indeed simply made a mistake, and revealed something before the person with the secret was ready.
My treatment has also grown more successful, precisely because I now get critical information that needs to be part of treatment planning.
New levels of respect
And one other thing changed that I didn’t expect. Clients respected me more. When I brought these decisions under the umbrella of clinical judgment, rather than trying to address them through a blanket policy, clients saw me as more professional, more willing to fully embrace the professional role I was already in.
The freedom of movement that a “some-secrets” policy provides made me anxious at first.
It also made me better.
To learn more about policy options for handling secrets, and additional issues surrounding the ethics of secrets and lies in therapy, check out my continuing education course Secrets and Lies: The Ethics of Truth in Therapy.
Additional Reading from Dr. Ben Caldwell
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