My Therapist Fell Asleep During Our Session! (And Other Reasons You May Have Been Burned by Therapy): Part II

Now that you’ve read Part I on being burned by therapy…

Here are the common reasons I’ve heard from clients over the years about being burned by therapy.

Obviously, this list can’t possibly cover EVERY reason someone may have been burned by therapy (and therefore may not represent your own experiences). This is simply based on my experience as a therapist with nearly 15 years under my belt of working with clients.

But it does cover the scenarios I’ve personally heard more than once from my own clients as well as from listening to the experiences of my trusted (and responsible!) colleagues.

My Therapist Fell Asleep During My Session

Ouch! If this has every happened to you all I can say is I’m very sorry you dealt with this.

Unlike a pilot or a surgeon, likely no one will die if a therapist falls asleep on the job.

However, there’s no excuse for this to ever happen. And yet I’ve heard about it happening to more than one client.

Yes, us therapists are people too. Busy, overwhelmed, and often overworked people. But this just can’t happen during a session.

Personally, if I was ever so tired that I felt like I’m too fatigued to be attentive and present for my clients (this hasn’t happened yet, but whose to say I won’t ever be in that position), I’d call off my sessions and take a sick day. No different if I had a cold or the flu.

It’s clearly going to do damage to your counseling process and create bad feelings towards your therapist if this happens.

If this has happened to you before, again, I’m sorry! Should I be your next therapist I can assure you I’ll stay awake in our sessions:)

My Therapist Ruined My Marriage

This is a super tricky one. I’ve heard this before and it always requires probing deeper to figure out what really happened.

Most of us therapists aren’t set out to ruin marriages. We care deeply about our client’s relationships and their well-being.

Plus, it’s simply bad for business.

In many cases, when I’ve had a client tell me they’ve been burned by therapy in this way it turns out that either they were in individual therapy or their spouse was in individual therapy.

And any experienced and well-trained couples therapy will tell you that doing individual therapy to work on marital issues is not ideal AT ALL.

Let’s look at this a bit closer… first in the case of individual therapy.

I do provide individual therapy for relationship issues myself – in most cases for people who are having trouble in their dating life, having a hard time adjusting to separation or divorce, or having problems in their relationships with family members.

However, in rare cases I also provide individual therapy for people who want to improve their marriage or partnership with a significant other.

For example, if you need relationship help but your partner refuses to join you in therapy or simply cannot attend sessions due to special circumstances (e.g., deployment, very frequent work travel) then seeing you alone without your partner may be better than no therapy at all.

That said, the potential pitfalls of using individual therapy to fix a relationship are obvious:

  • Your therapist only hears one version of your relationship narrative, and oftentimes this version will paint your (non-present) partner in a negative light – it’s human nature to not see our own faults as well as we can see faults of our partner
  • Your therapist can’t use their training and experience to help you and your partner work through your issues in a live setting
  • Any insight your therapist helps you find or tips he or she may offer may be communicated to your partner in a different way than what your therapist intended to convey (remember the old telephone game!)

I’m aware that these are common issues with individual therapy for relationship problems and therefore treat this form of therapy with very special care.

I go out of my way to include the non-attending partner in at least one session and help clients understand that focusing on their personal role in the relationship problems and the changes THEY can make (not changes from their partner) is best.

Now, not to toot my own horn here but…

However, you can imagine that a therapist with limited experience or inadequate training may not understand these factors.

(FYI – not all therapists who provide couples therapy are actually trained in it!)

Meaning to do no harm and wanting to be there for their clients, such therapists then proceed to work on relationship issues with just one half of the relationship. And that’s when…

SHIT. GOES. WRONG.

Therapists ruin things all the time this way. And it’s heartbreaking to hear about.

In these cases, it’s not that the therapist CAUSED the relationship to end. But by seeing just one half of a couple without a nuanced understanding of what can go wrong with this form of therapy is irresponsible and often doesn’t help the relationship at all.

Instead, the non-attending partner becomes vilified, confirmation bias takes over, and the client who came in believing that their relationship was bad gets even more support for this viewpoint and thus, may lean ever closer to ending it than when they began therapy.

Now let’s look at this a bit closer… in the case of couples therapy.

I’ve worked with clients who’ve been burned by past therapy because, as they report, they went to couples therapy with their current spouse/partner or with an ex-spouse/partner and the therapist didn’t do anything to save the relationship.

Again, this is a super tricky issue. And I’ve been accused of this myself. The rare couple of times when this happened were cases that had a very big factor in common:

The spouse who ended the marriage had already made up their mind to do so long before the first session ever took place.

In fact, you may be surprised to hear that it’s often that spouse who makes the initial call for therapy.  I, as the therapist, wasn’t made aware that this partner called in wanting to have a session with the explicit purpose of announcing their decision until the session itself.

So the partner who called in for marriage counseling so “we can work on things” brings their hopeful spouse to session and then says “I want a divorce” (and maybe even “I’ve already hired an attorney”).  And I’m hearing this decision at the same time as their spouse is hearing it.

To be blunt… this sucks. Big time.

I know that many unhappy marriages can and are saved all the time so I do what I can to help draw out the issues and encourage both partners to but the decision on hold to see give therapy a chance to possibly repair the marriage.

But in these rare instances described above it has NEVER worked.

The spouse has often decided months before that first session to end their marriage and have their reasons for wanting to announce this with a therapist present. Usually, because they fear a big, emotional, and out-of-control reaction from their spouse or have safety concerns. Very valid reasons but still tough for all of us.

So in this scenario, the spouse that just got dumped is upset, hurt, and feeling abandoned. Then, either in session or afterward says to me, as the therapist, “you ruined my marriage” or “you didn’t save my marriage.”

Upsetting for me? Yup. Very.

But I know that I’m seeing this person at one of the worst points of their life and can’t possibly expect them to look at the situation calmly or even rationally.

So in the end, I do what I can to offer further help and then have no choice but to leave it at that.

If you feel that a therapist ruined your marriage, I’d challenge you to look very closely at what happened. What really took place in the months leading up to therapy?

Did you give the therapist a real chance to help your relationship or were their hands tied in some way? Did you find a therapist who truly had the experience to help with your case, or simply settle for the first one who popped up on Google?

What factors were in your control and which weren’t?

And most importantly, how did you bounce back from this situation and muster the courage to give counseling another try?

Have you been burned by therapy before? If so, would you be open to trying it again? Why or why not?

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