Today's New York Times has an article about couple's therapy and how difficult this is to do. The piece is by Elizabeth Weil and is titled, "Does Couples Therapy Work?"
I don't do couples work. I didn't plan it that way, but very early in my career, I realized I'd had minimal training in couples therapy and people with marital problems deserved to be treated by someone who had experience in this area.
I do sometimes see my patients with their spouses, or even significant others, and it's always an interesting experience. I also hear from my patients that they will see their partner's therapist for couples therapy, and I'm never sure how that really works--- to me it seems that the allegiance, or agency, of the therapist needs to be clear. You're either working for the couple, or you're working for an individual. I don't know how you do both.
Since I only do individual work, it's very clear to me: I'm aiming for what's in the best interest of my patient. While I may like or respect or wish the best for their parent/child/spouse/or roommate, my goal is to help my patient. Sometimes it's a single goal: It's never in the best interest of my patient to do something that will cause physical harm to anyone-- if for no other reason than I think my patients are happier when they live in a setting where they get treated by me, and not by ClinkShrink (--meaning, not in jail or prison).
Sometimes I ask people to bring in a family member. Usually this is because either I need more information about the history, the current situation, or about what symptoms the patient may be exhibiting in their natural environment. More often, I ask people to bring in a family member because I need to enlist their help in either caring for a patient or monitoring them. Perhaps someone wants to go off a medication and past attempts have been unsuccessful-- it may be helpful to educate a family member as to what the symptoms of a recurrence are and an extra set of eyes may help catch problems earlier than I would be able to alone. Perhaps a patient needs more help in negotiating the day-to-day issues in life, like getting to a doctor to evaluate that mass, or to evaluate a memory problem.
More often, people ask me if they can bring their spouse, and it's not my idea. I often ask what the agenda is to be, why they want their person to come. Here are some reasons why people bring others to therapy sessions:
--They want me to fix the other person. (I can't do this).
--They want to confront the other person about a problem in a place where they feel safe (Can I go home now?...This is never fun).
--They just want me to meet the person they talk about a lot. (I often like meeting them and having a face and live person to put to the stories).
--They want me to explain what's wrong with them to someone who cares but doesn't seem to understand (I'm happy to try).
In a clinic setting where I see people for medication management, it's not unusual for people to bring family members into every session. The patient may not be someone who talks about their emotions or feelings, or even has any interest or ability to relay to me stories from their lives. Perhaps they have a brain disorder (like mental retardation or a history of a disabling stroke) and the medications are targeting disruptive behaviors or psychosis, and the person who comes is often the one to identify whether things are going well or not, in conjunction with the patient.
What are your thoughts on bringing significant others to sessions with a psychiatrist?