Traci Ruble, LMFT: Most couples therapists will give you their “keeping secrets” policy in the first session so you don’t have to wonder about this. If your couples therapist doesn’t do so, you might consider asking. Gaining a clear understanding of a therapist’s secrecy policy is as important as finding out how much they charge. Give them a hypothetical question like, “If I shared something with you I hadn’t shared yet with my partner, how would you handle this?” I know these secrets can feel really scary, but a good couples therapist will be masterful at helping you share hard things and hard secrets with brand new skills and a lot of support.
Most, if not all, couples therapists will NOT share your confidence with your partner, but WILL insist that you share it. They will help you prepare; you will explore together your fears about what might happen if your partner learns the truth, and the couples therapist will figuratively hold your hand through this process in a nonshaming and caring way. Believe it or not, sharing hard stuff is where a lot of the possibility for righting your relationship lives. When we are keeping secrets from our partners, it is a block to our ability to be open and intimate. The tensions that might arise when you share the secret may be necessary tensions to help you and your partner see each other more clearly.
Long-term relationships need both the excitement of differences and the stability of similarities in just the right balance. Combined, they keep a relationship feeling vital, sexy, and reliable over the long haul. Secrets are the gold in the therapy where a new balance is struck. Good couples therapists are great miners nimbly panning for the gold that lies beneath the secrets you keep.
Darren Haber, MA, MFT: Absolutely not. While confidentiality laws vary from state to state, for the most part your therapist is bound to strict confidentiality under penalty—including losing one’s license—with these exceptions:
- If there is reasonable suspicion you are going to harm someone or yourself (i.e. you have verbalized who specifically you would hurt, how you would harm them, or yourself).
- If it becomes known to the therapist that you are exploiting or abusing (emotionally, physically or sexually) a child, elderly person or a person with special needs.
Other than that, your confidentiality is legally protected and your “secrets” must by law remain protected by your therapist. Confidentiality is closely intertwined with emotional safety, and without this protection the space may well feel “contaminated” or unsafe.
I personally find confidentiality to be sacred, and protect it like my life depended on it. If you find your confidentiality has been broken, or even have a question about it, I suggest you bring it up sooner rather than later with your therapist.
If you are in couples therapy, then the rules of confidentiality are set up front. Couples therapists are encouraged to have a “no secrets” rule, meaning that the therapist cannot “hold” sensitive information from one or the other participants. The same is often true for family therapy, though this may vary depending on circumstances; even here, however, the therapist holding secrets could jeopardize his or her impartiality and trustworthiness.
This recommendation for transparency in couples work is made due to the possible traumatic impact of secret-keeping. The “odd person out” may feel triangled or ganged up on, with loss of trust and emotional harm likely results. The other point about this is, why go to couples therapy if one is going to have an affair in secret? Yes it happens, but it would seem to undermine the ostensible purpose of therapy, which is to cultivate openness, trust, and greater intimacy.
Deborah Klinger, MA, LMFT, CEDS: Many therapists who work with couples have a “no secrets” policy. What this means is that they inform a couple at the first session that they will not keep secrets from either partner. This is important because in couples therapy, the “client” is not either or both partners, but is actually the relationship between the partners.
Most relationship problems that bring people to therapy can be addressed effectively only in an arena of safety and trust. In order for the therapist to build this arena, s/he must be clear that they are not allying themselves with either partner. The therapist is there in service of the good of the relationship. Keeping one partner’s secret makes it impossible for a therapist to hold the trust of either partner.
Unless this “no secrets” policy is made clear at the outset, problems can arise later. For instance, one partner could contact the therapist between sessions and reveal a secret, such as an affair. Or, if the therapist decides to meet with each partner separately for a session, one partner might reveal a secret during their individual session. I tell couples whom I see that my policy on this means that if one partner is to reveal to me something that the other partner doesn’t know, it must be done with the understanding that the next step is a conjoint session in which that partner tell the other.
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