How is it possible not to “take sides” when working with a couple in therapy? I get that question from time to time. It’s understandable. If I want to go to a “neutral third party” to work on a problem, the “neutral” part is important. After all, working on a relationship is about both people feeling good about each other. If one seems like “the bad guy,” will they get a fair shake?
Great question. There is something called “unconditional positive regard” that’s taught in counseling programs. It’s a concept that is not unique to counseling, of course. It’s the whole idea that everyone has both good and bad in them, and focusing on the good helps us truly understand someone. We all have the ability to do this. And many of us do. But in counseling, it’s a crucial part of a successful outcome.
If counselors aren’t able to put aside their prejudices and really learn about the person in front of them, we can’t be much help.
Q: What if I’m clearly right?!
A: Everyone is “right” about what they feel, if they are being honest. It may not seem like they “should” feel that way, but if they do, they do. It’s what they do with those feelings that counts. But unlike a judge or jury, a counselor is not focusing on choosing who “makes the best case” and convinces everyone of their side. Instead, the counselor looks for how to foster understanding and connection. This can ultimately can help people to resolve long standing problems. You ARE right to feel the way you do. The feeling is accurately telling you something, even if your brain is confused about what it is. The question is, can I help you to understand yourself? I want help you to feel understood, to get your needs met, to resolve problems, and to feel better. This is the counselor’s wish for both people.
Q: What If My Partner Has Hurt Me!?
A: Not “taking sides” never means condoning abuse. In fact, if I feel that one person in a relationship is being harmed by the other, I won’t begin or continue counseling. This needs to be addressed first and foremost, and it will. Actually I don’t see this as not being on the abuser’s “side.” When someone is hurting someone else, they need help. Telling them that is actually taking their “side” too.
Q: I’ve Been Emotionally Hurt. How Is That Okay?
A: It’s not. It hurts. You need to have someone hear and understand that and help with it. Most of all, it would help if the person who did the hurting can come to understand and support you. That’s why taking sides and becoming polarized ultimately backfires. Because if you love the person who hurt you, and you are seeking repair, you ultimately need to connect. Proving they are “bad” really doesn’t serve that purpose. Showing how bad their impact has been on you is what matters most. You need to know if they are safe first, and if they want the same thing as you. That’s where the counselor can help, by being the bridge until you can find your way back.
Q: Come On, You’re Human. You Must Secretly Take Sides!
A: Nope. Even when one person is truly guilty of doing something awful, I am on their side too. That doesn’t mean I would support trusting them or even, necessarily, being near them again if there is a threat. It doesn’t mean I would suggest both people have a share in causing the problem. It’s just that even when someone is behaving badly, I “take their side” in trying to understand instead of judge. That’s because judgment blocks curiosity and it blocks healing. I may not like everyone equally, but I respect the human being behind the bad behavior or the negative traits. If I didn’t, I would be far less able to help you build connection to the person you love.
Margie Wheelhouse is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. She provides couples and individual counseling in her office in Springfield, Illinois, and throughout the state by phone and web. She helps couples build great relationships and repair broken ones. She is guilty of taking her own side in her relationships, but she’s working on it.