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The Private Lives of Psychotherapists: What You Don’t Know About Your Counselor

private

Sometimes, it feels like the world expects psychotherapists to some how be perfect or at least superior to other people when it comes to managing our relationships. As a therapist myself, I would like to flesh out a few helpful truths about the personal lives of therapists. Yes, some of this research is dated, but I felt it still worthy of conversation.  Psychotherapists are people first and counselors second.

We All Have Personal Problems at Times

Deutsch (1985) published an exploratory study of the problems and treatment of these problems for psychotherapists through self-report data. Of those who responded, 82% of the therapists surveyed reported having had relational difficulties, and 47% reported having been in therapy themselves for relational issues. It is also worth noting that 57% reported having experienced depression in their lifetime, and 11% said that they have taken medication for that reason. Included in the research findings were some very personal comments by the therapists. Deutsch made the following statement in response to this:

Many wrote about relationship conflicts with partners or children. They described difficulties that arose from their being therapists—the spouse or lover refusing to enter couple counseling out of fear that another professional would side with the therapist. Couples made up of two clinicians reported the unique problems of “over-processing” or “overanalyzing” their own dynamics. (p. 309)

Another finding was that doctoral-level therapists were less likely than master’s-level therapists to receive therapy for depression or relational problems. Doctoral-level therapists were also less likely to report depression than master’s-level therapists. I guess that is a good reason to go back to school, right?

Therapists’ Marriages are Not Better or Worse Overall

A study was conducted that compared marital adjustment scores for couples in which one or both partners were psychotherapists and in which neither were therapists (Murstein & Mink, 2004). The researchers reported that average marital adjustment scores of couples composed of one or two therapists showed little difference when compared to the non-therapist couples’ average scores. There was also very little difference found for average male and female therapist marital adjustment scores. It was also reported that having general therapy training or having marital therapy training was not related to marital adjustment. For male therapists, experience as a marital therapist, self ratings as a therapist, and self ratings as a marital therapist all were found to have a positive relationship with the marital adjustment score. For females, only the self-ratings as a marital therapist were found significantly correlated with the marital adjustment score. The lowest reported marital adjustment scores were male therapists married to female therapists (oh my poor husband, we are both therapists). The couples with the highest marital adjustment scores were male therapists married to non-therapist women. Also, men (both therapist and non-therapist) married to therapists had lower marital adjustment scores than men with non-therapist wives.

wedding day

Walh, Guy, and Brown (1993) conducted a study on psychotherapists work related stressors and their marital satisfaction. According to this study, the actual practice of psychotherapy has little or no impact on marital satisfaction. They report that male respondents had significantly higher marital satisfaction than females. Lower marital satisfaction scores were reported for ages 38-44, as compared to other ages. The researchers also speculated that therapist personality, among other extraneous factors, could account for the lack of significant negative correlation between marital satisfaction and work related stress in this study.

Being a Therapist Can Be Very Stressful

Hellman, Morrison, and Abramowitz (1987) researched the relationship between the amount of time spent providing therapy and their level of work related stress. The researchers identified five stressors that were linked to therapeutic work:

  1. Maintaining the therapeutic relationship
  2. Scheduling
  3. Professional doubt
  4. Work over involvement
  5. Personal depletion

Additionally, they identified five stressors associated with client behaviors:

  1. Negative affect
  2. Resistance
  3. Psychopathological symptoms
  4. Suicidal threats
  5. Passive-aggressive behaviors

Several interesting findings were noted in this research. Older therapists reported less stress in all five therapeutic work stressors. Therapists with light (less than 11 hours weekly) and heavy (greater than 32 hours weekly) caseloads each reported higher levels of stress. Those with moderate caseloads reported less stress from professional doubt, scheduling, and maintaining the therapeutic relationship as compared to those with light or heavy caseloads.

Being a Psychotherapist Changes You

Farber conducted a study in 1983 to explore the effects of psychotherapeutic practice on the psychotherapist. Farber reported that 88% of therapists interviewed confirmed that they had thought about how their psychotherapeutic practice affected them (p. 176). This study identified three major outcomes of therapeutic work, including “therapists become increasingly psychological-minded in their relations with others,” “therapeutic work raises personal issues in therapists and provokes increased introspection,” and “therapeutic work enhances therapists’ self-esteem and self confidence” (p. 176).

Therapists Get Divorced Too

Pappas (1989) wrote about the specific challenges a practicing psychotherapist may experience during their own divorce. Pappas viewed divorce in terms of a grief process.

Specific suggestions were given for maintaining quality therapeutic work through this process, such as awareness of “strong internal pressures to use their work with patients to meet personal needs,” utilization of clinical supervision, and consultation with professional colleagues (p. 515). On a positive note, Pappas stated:

Successful completion of the divorce process, although painful and time-consuming, may produce a health self-object differentiation that benefits psychotherapists and their patients. Remaining aware of and keeping separate their own and the patients’ needs will help ensure that both parties will survive this difficult process. (p. 515)

The “dilemma of self-disclosure” is also discussed in the article. Pappas suggested several pros and cons of therapists sharing that they are divorcing with their clients, concluding that this should be shared only when it is clearly in the best interest of the client. Pappas further stated, “Knowing that the therapist is divorced may affirm for a patient that the therapist is human” (p. 514). She further stated, “But patients can also experience the knowledge as an unwelcome burden or as something irrelevant to their concerns. Divorcing therapists must be circumspect about patient-initiated disclosures, and even more so about those they initiate” (p. 514). Pappas clearly believed therapists should take all circumstances and possible consequences into account when self-disclosing.

A Personal Note

I have definitely felt and still feel some social pressures to have a perfect marriage. I think many non-therapists feel the same way, but in my experience it is worse as a marriage and family therapist. People make comments, to my husband and I, about how we must have the perfect relationship since we are both therapists. I generally avoid telling people what we do for a living. What I, and many of my colleagues, want others to know is that no one has a perfect marriage. We argue, we make up, we make bad decisions, we love, we fall, and we learn. That does not make us bad therapists. We are actually better counselors when the joy and pain of experience informs our practice.

Thanks for reading and I would love to hear your thoughts!


References

  1. Deutsch, C. J. (1985). A survey of therapists’ personal problems and treatment. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 16(2), 305-315.
  2. Farber, B. A. (1983). The effects of psychotherapeutic practice upon psychotherapists. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice, 20(2), 174-182.
  3. Hellman, I. D., Morrison, T. L., & Abramowitz, S. I. (1987). Therapist flexibility/rigidity and work stress. Professional Psychology: Research And Practice, 18(1), 21-27.
  4. Murstein, B. I., & Mink, D. (2004). Do psychotherapists have better marriages than nonpsychotherapists? Do therapeutic skills and experience relate to marriage adjustment? Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, 41(3), 292-300.
  5. Pappas, P. A. (1989). Divorce and the psychotherapist. American Journal of Psychotherapy, 43(4), 506-517.
  6. Wahl, W. K., Guy, J. D., & Brown, C. K. (1993). Conducting psychotherapy: Impact upon the therapist’s marital relationship. Psychotherapy In Private Practice, 12(1), 57-65.
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About Courtney Stivers, PhD (25 Articles)
Courtney Stivers, PhD, LMFT, LPC is a subject matter expert in Marriage and Family Therapy. Her professional experience includes residential adolescent addiction, school-based therapy, community mental health, teaching, research, public speaking, professional consultation, missionary fieldwork, youth ministry, and administrative positions in a juvenile drug court, marriage and family therapy clinic, and a residential treatment center. She has a passion for teaching family systems theory and professional issues.

9 Comments on The Private Lives of Psychotherapists: What You Don’t Know About Your Counselor

  1. Just discovered this article – well researched, especially the info on the stress therapists can experience from the types of clients they encounter. I’m a therapist from New Zealand and found this very helpful. Thank you so much!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I know I’m not perfect and somtimes I use my parenting mistakes as example in therapy. They are usually funny examples and my clients like them. I also don’t live in the same community I work in. This is good because I reserve the right to visit the local grocery store in my PJ bottoms and I am known as my children’s mother instead of the marriage and family thearpist.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ll bet it feels great to have that kind of boundary in place with your clients. We all need a safe place to fall and be our messy selves. I work mostly from home now, so a big t-shirt and yoga pants are my uniform!

      Like

  3. What a fantastic article! Nice to have you doing the research in these articles so they’re not just pop psych articles. I can definitely relate to “increased introspection” and “professional doubt”–comes with the job. I think my wife would like it if I thought a little more like a therapist at home, though. I’m like “I leave my skills at work–These kids don’t pay me enough!”

    I made a copy of this article and will put it in the waiting room, with a disclaimer: “Your therapist is human, AND you are NOT responsible for the well-being of your therapist.”

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you so much for providing this insight! I enjoyed reading this.

    Like

  5. I think as a therapist, I sometimes hold myself to that higher standard as well. I tend to blame myself if there is a problem in any of my relationships because I “should know better” or know how to resolve it. Truth is, even in our relationships it takes both people working on it.

    Like

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