Lasting the Course
by Rosemary Cowan
This article first appeared in July 2012's edition of BACP's Therapy Today
‘Looks like someone’s beaten you to it,’ said my colleague, passing me a copy of Therapy Today, open at EM Cunningham’s article, ‘Make or break’.1 It was June 2009 and I was halfway through a research project exploring the effects on a couple’s relationship when one partner undertakes training in psychotherapy.
In the article Cunningham writes that some of her tutors thought courses ought to carry a Government health warning about the likelihood of relationship break-up, because it was so common. I agree; a number of my fellow students split with their partner during our training and my husband and I had to survive a double-whammy, because we trained at the same time. We didn’t break up but, particularly in the early days, it felt as if the solid foundation of our relationship was being threatened. Out of insecurity, we responded by regressing to the level of a couple of warring toddlers. With hindsight I can see that our early patterns of relating were being triggered.
My husband, usually so supportive and encouraging, became my rival, competing about every aspect of the training, from courses, colleges and tutors to placements, assignments and client hours. I began with a Foundation year so I had been training for two years before he began his course. The timing exactly paralleled my experience of being the eldest child and losing my special position at age two, when my longed-for brother was born. I felt just like a jealous child throwing a tantrum and even wrote in my journal, ‘This is my area; this is what I want to do. Not you! Not you!’
Psychotherapy training courses are designed not only to teach theory and best practice but also to help trainee psychotherapists become more conscious of their own material, so they do the essential inner work on their issues. But this necessarily results in them changing. When the trainee has a partner, the established relationship dynamic is, as we found, upset and upsetting. Adjustments need to be made to restore balance and this places an unexpected demand on the non-trainee partner, who may quite reasonably resent and resist the pressure to change. Moreover, training also makes many other demands – time, money, energy, to mention only a few– that are well known to be stressful.2
Training as a psychotherapist can have serious effects on your relationship with your partner.
This article is based on research I conducted in 2009–10 for an MA in Transpersonal Psychotherapy and Counselling. I wanted to research this subject not only to validate my own experience and explore how others managed but also because I hoped something useful would emerge that would help future trainees and their partners negotiate the experience more smoothly. Sure, some relationships are not meant to last, but if the chief cause of a couple splitting up is the pressure of training, then it can be avoided – and our profession, above all, ought to be able to help. I believe that a loving, stable relationship is a great benefit to a therapist and, indirectly, to their clients.
Now, nearly three years later, after hours of interviewing trainees and partners of trainees and studying the (surprisingly limited) literature on the subject, this article summarises my findings. Almost all those I interviewed were in relationships that had survived at least three years of training; one person had divorced and was in a new relationship with another trainee and one was at the beginning of their course. In this article I shall refer to the trainee partners as ‘trainees’ and to the non-trainee partners as ‘partners’.
Coping with change
The majority of problems between couples occurred early in the training. This was a period of steep adjustment for both parties: as trainees engaged with multi-faceted, new demands and began to question old ways of being, partners often felt a range of confused emotions, from exclusion to irritation. Sometimes they objected quite strongly to the new way the trainee was behaving. A female trainee explained her concerns about the survival of her relationship: ‘For me it was kind of a whole way of being that was changing and [I wondered], “Can we actually sustain this relationship, where I’m this way now and that drives you up the wall?”… I’m sure he felt that I was being superior… a big part of the problems we were having was that I was fed up with some of our behaviours and things like that, so I made changes in myself [but I] felt like he was lagging behind. He would kind of say to me, “Look, just because you’ve done all this therapy and you’ve done this training and you’ve decided to stop doing X, Y, Z doesn’t mean I have to!”’ (Female trainee).
However, by the second year of the training, both partners would usually have realised the extent of the commitment and the need for flexibility, resilience and determination. Over time these early difficulties were mostly resolved and the far longer-term benefits became evident. The same female trainee quoted above spoke for many when she said of her relationship: ‘It’s a zillion times better… it’s not only better from when it was terrible; it’s better than it’s ever been, I think. Because, through the whole training and the therapy, I’m comfortable with who I am; I’m happy with who I am and what I’m doing and my choices… that makes me a better partner because I’m not taking out all my issues in lots of different ways on him any more, which I probably was doing before’ (Female trainee).
Sometimes, as a consequence of the changes trainees were making, partners, and in some cases children and the wider family, also began to change: ‘I think that certainly it was very good for all of us as a family, not just S and myself – for the whole family actually – because I think it helped to… get us talking at, you know, possibly at a deeper level than we’d been used to’ (Male partner).
I believe there is a role for colleges to help couples keep a perspective and persist through difficulties by being aware that they are normal and that there will be long-lasting benefits. I found the developmental model that my college suggested very helpful: trainees in the first year were likened to wide-eyed, enthusiastic primary school children; in the second year, like pre-teens, they gain confidence and independence but may also be ‘know-alls’ who overstretch themselves; in the third year they reach the rebellious, argumentative, difficult teenager stage; in the fourth year, with increased maturity and stability, they become more rounded, finished characters.
People’s motivation for undertaking training was very often what might be called ‘wounded-healer syndrome’. Trainees reported that dealing with problems such as mid-life crises, physical and mental ill health and relationship and family issues had sparked an interest in becoming a therapist. This means that there was often pre-existing stress – and possible fragility – right at the beginning of the training. This suggests that trainees may need more support than most other students in other disciplines. This is why, of course, trainees have to be in therapy. However, while therapy will ultimately be helpful to them, it may initially bring up more difficulties and it was often problematic for partners, stirring suspicion, jealousy and resentment that the trainee was talking about them to someone else. This, for example, was one partner’s response: ‘In the arguments that we had I brought that up quite a lot, actually. I used to say, “Why don’t you go and speak to [your therapist] about that?” You know, “Don’t ask me why we’ve got these problems!” I was very resentful of her therapist, I really was.’
‘I say I’ve changed a lot but it was the training that was the really concentrated period of change … that was the massive change for me and put a huge strain on the relationship’
Feeling excluded also triggered emotional reactions: the partner had often been the trainee’s main source of support in the past. Indeed, research among qualified psychology professionals (psychiatrists, clinical psychologists, counsellors, social workers, mental health nurses as well as psychotherapists) shows that partners, along with colleagues and friends, are a therapist’s most important source of support.2–5 There is an irony here: it seems that therapists tend to rely on a group of people who are, in all probability, not only largely untrained but also unsupported.
I suggest that colleges could offer partners (or couples) access to support and, since the training and its associated costs are considerable, this would need to be free or very low cost. Even if they don’t take up the offer – and there are indications that many may not, as they view therapy as their partner’s concern, not theirs – it might at least communicate to partners that colleges value their contribution and are aware of the benefits of a healthy relationship to practising therapists in the long term.
When a spouse decides to undertake a course that fascinates and fulfils them, whatever the topic, most partners want to be supportive and encouraging. But when your partner wants to study psychotherapy, as one of my research participants put it: ‘You don’t quite realise what it is to say “Yes”.’ She wasn’t talking only about the demanding nature of psychotherapy training, the extra requirements that all have financial, time and energy costs, the drop in income (her partner went part-time to complete all the course requirements): unlike other courses, the partner will be irrevocably changed by the experience. With their increasing awareness of unconscious processes and their growing realisation that they have choices, trainees developed personally in ways that could be disconcerting, especially at first: ‘In terms of my relationship, I’ve been with R for about 14 years… so we’ve both changed a lot. I say I’ve changed a lot but it was the training that was the really concentrated period of change… that was the massive kind of change for me and put a huge kind of strain on the relationship’ (Female trainee).
Maybe colleges are afraid to reveal to potential students the full extent of what to expect – maybe it is a daunting amount to take in – but, even if it’s not possible to predict how trainees will change, it’s important to be as transparent as possible about the likelihood that they will and the demands the course will place upon the couple unit as a whole. A reality check on the practical, time and financial commitments should be the minimum. It all adds up: the courses, weekend training, residential courses, client hours, supervision, placements, study time, written assignments, insurance, professional memberships, books, printing, photocopying etc.
Of all the issues that upset partners, the biggest was when trainees practised their new-found skills on them, which seemed to be almost irresistible: ‘Me offering my sort of interpretations of why she was the way she was, and… you know, my digging in her childhood, basically. She didn’t particularly enjoy that process, understandably… And when I used to get pissed off, I couldn’t resist, you know, doing some analysis’ (Male trainee).
‘Especially when they’re at the beginning of the training, it’s pretty painful because they’re learning the ropes and there’s a lot of, you know, very bad therapy trying to be done on you, which is, I can tell you, very annoying! So I didn’t like that at all. He doesn’t do it now – but at the beginning, he’d be trying things out and it was very difficult to deal with… And at the beginning it’s just very dangerous, I think, because they don’t know how to do it and it’s very patronising.’ (Female partner).
Cunningham described the trainee as being given a set of ‘tools that you need to handle like a surgeon’s knife’1 – a simile that struck a chord with partners: ‘Certainly there have been times [when my partner said things like] “And how do you really feel about it?”… We would have a discussion and I would suddenly realise that I was being led down a path… Would a surgeon practise on members of his own family? You’d probably get experts to do it!’ (Male partner).
Guy6 goes further, describing this behaviour as being ‘as though the therapist psychologically rapes his or her spouse, exploring and unveiling sensitive material without permission’. I’m convinced that most trainees are genuinely unaware that this behaviour can be experienced as very aggressive.
‘Especially when they’re at the beginning of the training, it’s pretty painful because there’s a lot of very bad therapy trying to be done on you, which, I can tell you, is very annoying’
If partners understood that the trainee may be going through a particularly immature phase and projecting their own ‘stuff’, which they need to deal with, onto their partner, it might help them to challenge it and/or bear it with composure. Colleges need to emphasise the seriousness of this behaviour. Instead of interpreting, trainees could be encouraged to explore more acceptable techniques that improve communication, such as noticing their own reactivity and desire to offer interpretations; improving their listening skills; clarifying and summarising and, as with clients, above all doing no harm.
Give and take
Making time for a relationship is fundamental to keeping it alive.7-8 As noted earlier, talking to one’s partner is a proven stress reliever, but for this to happen a couple must actually spend time together, despite the demands of the course and, ultimately, of their new profession, so that the relationship continues to provide all-important mutual support. How about candlelit dinners; walks together; holiday breaks; shared experiences; incorporating fun and creating positive memories; talking about how you first met and what you find most appealing about each other or following the Obamas’ example by booking regular date-nights?
My interviewees told me that the course made huge demands on trainees’ physical and mental stamina; a very important element was remaining healthy and not getting exhausted. Partners were a great resource here, helping their loved-one to realise when they were near burnout and urging a less strenuous lifestyle. ‘After he got ill we also negotiated that he saw fewer clients because it was literally killing him. He was trying to see four or five in a day [while also working full-time], which is ridiculous. So we talked about him seeing fewer and then delaying writing up his dissertation until a year later just to get his hours up slower’ (Female partner).
Often partners I interviewed were making considerable sacrifices so that trainees could follow their dream – taking on extra financial and childcare burdens, giving up outings and holidays because their partner was studying or had deadlines to meet – so it could feel a very one-sided arrangement. They often talked about ‘when it’s my turn’ and had plans for courses or career switches that were different, yet aligned, to the changes their partners were making. Encouraging and fostering these ambitions would seem to be the least a trainee could do. Having said that, some trainees were impatient with their partner for not having as much ambition or changing as quickly as they had. I heard this complaint from partners too, though; some were impatient to see the benefits of all this training: ‘You’ve done this training and this should be kicking in by now… you’ve been doing this for three years, when am I going to see the results?’ (Female partner).
I agree with Cunningham, psychotherapy trainings should come with a health warning: This training will seriously change you and affect your intimate relationships – initially for the worse, but ultimately for the better. I hope my suggestions for addressing the negative effects will help trainee couples cope with the difficulties so they can reap the benefits that develop later. Partners of trainees are owed a debt of gratitude, not only by their spouse but also by the psychotherapeutic community. They are also contributing to the profession, to clients and hence to society.
1. Cunningham EM. Make or break. Therapy Today. 2009; 20(5): 28–29.
2. Cushway D. Stress in trainee psychotherapists. In: VP Varma (ed). Stress in psychotherapists. London: Routledge; 1997 (pp24–43).
3. Deutsch CJ. A survey of therapists’ personal problems and treatment. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice 1984; 16(2): 305–315.
4. Haga E. The psychoanalytic therapist and his family: An essay for young therapists and their spouses. Nordic Journal of Psychiatry. 1995; 49(3): 203–207.
5. Stevanovic P, Rupert PA. (2004). Career sustaining behaviors, satisfactions, and stressors of professional psychologists. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training 2004; 41 (3): 301–309.
6. Guy J. (1987). The personal life of the psychotherapist. New York: John Wiley & Sons; 1987.
7. Gottman JM. Marriage clinic: a scientifically based marital therapy. London: Norton & Co; 1999.
8. Lewis T, Amini F, Lannon R. A general theory of love. New York: Vintage; 2001.