Questionable Therapist Behavior

My boyfriend sees a therapist and has seen her for a really long time. I am understanding, as it benefits him and his son. What I am uncomfortable about is that there are texts at all hours of the day and into the night that he gets from her, and sometimes I think they are a little inappropriate. The texts look like a girlfriend should have texted, not his therapist. They both argue with me and tell me that this is appropriate. I don't think—okay, I pray—nothing is going on. She is married and I believe he is committed to me...but I think that some patient/doctor boundaries are being violated a tad. What do you think? - Concerned Girlfriend
Dear Concerned Girlfriend,

Thanks for writing in. I can understand your apprehension. Unless there’s some kind of (temporary) crisis going on with your boyfriend and his son, this kind of constant texting—especially at “all hours”—does seem inappropriate to me. (As a side note, I personally dislike texting with clients—except for the most cursory things, like running late or confirming an appointment time, etc.).

Having said that, I would hesitate before printing out this post and waving it in your boyfriend’s face and saying “see??!”. I think you’re on safer ground sharing your feelings on the matter rather than the facts, since facts are always debatable—i.e., “you two are texting each other at all hours,” “no it’s not ‘all hours’, just occasionally,” “well what about last night?” “that wasn’t last night, it was two nights ago, and it was one text not ‘several’,” and so on, ad infinitum.

Instead, you might want to tell him what it’s like to be in your shoes. Perhaps you could both agree to step inside a “judgment-free zone” and try to listen to the other’s emotions and reach some sort of mutual understanding before deciding on the next step.

For instance, you could ask him to put aside any defensiveness and describe for him what it’s like to be you, observing all this texting at what seems to be odd and random hours, also the “girlfriend-like” messages you’ve seen—and, most importantly, how all this makes you feel. Any partner worth his or her salt will want to know how the other feels; if not, there’s a real empathic “breach” or impasse in the relationship in ways that go beyond the circumstance in question.

I’m thinking you might want to tell him that you’re feeling excluded, perhaps, shut out, maybe even a little paranoid since there seems to be a really intense energy around the texting and that sometimes it feels to you almost as if he has someone on the side, which leaves you feeling (I’m guessing) overlooked, ignored, even abandoned—all hurtful feelings, naturally. The goal of relationships is increased intimacy, not painful distance.

Then, if you really want to be brave, ask him to do the same; let him explain what is so meaningful to him about all this fervent communication. Is he or his son undergoing some kind of crisis that requires such frequent contact from the therapist? How is it helping? You can acknowledge the help he feels he’s getting, then wonder if there’s a way he could limit the communication to office visits, as it feels stressful and distracting (or whatever your feelings are). Maybe there’s more you can do to help him: listen, offer support, etc. Bottom line is, I think you’re saying it’s painful to be kept at such arm’s length.

It helps if each person verbally reflects what the other seems to be feeling, so that both feel heard and the other “gets it.” The goal initially is to truly understand the other person’s feelings and perspective before responding. Like everything, it gets easier with practice.

If there is not a crisis at hand, then I’m afraid the therapist’s behavior sounds like a case of poor boundaries. It’s not at all clear to me why, for instance, she is even talking to you (as you allude in your message), unless she’s doing couples work with you both. But if that’s the case, you and he should have your own couples counselor and not be seeing the therapist who is so closely aligned with your boyfriend.

In fact, if your attempts at communication fall flat, it may be worth trying couples counseling—if only to have another therapist validate your sense that something weird is going on. Whatever you do, do not see your boyfriend’s therapist for couples counseling! (Repeat three times.) You need someone to align with both of you rather than walk into a pre-existing relationship that makes you odd person out.

I’m sorry this is happening, as it sounds quite stressful. I’m hoping, though, that mutual understanding and empathic communication (which includes nondefensive listening) will lead to a solution and increased intimacy between you.

Kind regards,

Darren Haber, PsyD, MFT is a psychotherapist specializing in treating alcoholism and drug addiction as well as co-occurring issues such as anxiety, depression, relationship concerns, secondary addictions (especially sex addiction), and trauma (both single-incident and repetitive). He works in a variety of modalities, primarily cognitive behavioral, spiritual/recovery-based, and psychodynamic. He is certified in eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, and continues to receive psychodynamic training in treating relational trauma, including emotional abuse/neglect and physical and sexual abuse.

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