Last week I wrote about some fundamentals of systems theory in psychotherapy; specifically, we looked at the overarching idea that to work systemically is to “hold space” for all the invisible factors we can identify as operating on the client(s) in front of us. There are a few less formal principles that many therapists will observe in our practice styles, and two of mine are:

  • Never work harder than the client, and
  • Sometimes we can ONLY work with what’s in the room.

As a Marriage & Family Therapist, sometimes the hardest thing we confront is the recognition that a relationship being presented to us isn’t in a place where we can effectively work. Normally we start from an assumption of reparation and reconciliation, working to restore damaged individual or relational aspects as best we can. We work with the native resilience inherent in the clients themselves, even if they’re not feeling it at the outset. But sometimes… sometimes what walks through the door is an intractable INTENT to end things, right then and there. It doesn’t happen so overtly a lot in my experience, but it has happened enough to note some common patterns.

The challenge to the therapist in those situations is recognizing that it’s not actually our job to save the relationship at that point, if one or both members of the relationship has announced that they are no longer going to work on repairing and rebuilding together. It’s heartbreaking to be a present witness to the pain if this comes as a surprise to either partner. We can explore the intractability as best we can and look for options to expand into some emotional damage control; it’s highly unlikely we can move into reconciliation in that immediate pain. Not impossible, but once the bomb has gone off, the receiving party needs time to process shock responses before we can do much of anything.

So the first issue to the therapist lies in understanding that we can’t draw the partner who is determined to leave back into relationship if they don’t want to be there. Sometimes we can’t even keep them in the literal room. It’s not our job to force the issue. We can’t work harder than the clients themselves in that moment; it’s not our work to do. Our role switches to damage control and emotional support, itself a hard thing to juggle with two suddenly-wildly-diverging intentions. But if what’s in the room with us is now a solid resistance to making change or doing the emotional labour of repartnering with the other half of the current relationship, then that, unfortunately, is what we have to work with.

It’s a long-held understanding in discussions about consent and power dynamics that the partner who says “No” is the one with the ultimate power in the relationship, or at least in any specific exchange. This remains true in situations when one partner says No to an entire relationship. The remaining partner can maintain denial, or bargaining, or rage, or hope, or whatever stance comes naturally to them in the moment, and we have to make space to work therapeutically to that as well… but without necessarily joining with either the bargaining partner or the defiant one. If our alliance was initially sought to work with and (theoretically) secure the relationship, then we as therapists are kind of in a stuck place should that alliance implode in our office.

And implosion does happen. The most common scene is a couple coming in with one intent to work on repair, and one intent to use the mediated discussion as a platform for announcing their exit (often as unbeknownst to the therapist as to the receiving partner). Once this kind of truth bomb gets dropped, in the immediate moment I’ve never had much success trying to entice the announcing partner to stay in an emotionally-focused space; by this point they’re just done and shut down and cutting the ties. Sometimes I can pose the question, “What would need to change for you to consider continuing the repair work?” but it’s extremely rare that we get useful answers from this state. If resistance is in the room, we get to work with resistance. Anger, fear, hurt… these are definitely in the room, and we have to work with that too (potentially more explosive on one side than the other by the time we reach implosions like this; one partner has had mental time to prepare for this, but the receiving partner is rarely in anything other than a purely reactive stance in this kind of situation).

It’s not unheard-of for therapists to end such sessions early. Sometimes it becomes apparent that we can’t effectively de-escalate the hostility in the room, especially if there’s too much shock or anger to allow either partner to engage with the available therapeutic alliance. We try to not leave either partner feeling unsupported, but on at least a couple of occasions within my own practice, it became apparent that the conversation most needing to happen was going to be with legal counsel, not therapeutic counsel. Forcing the clients to stay present in the flames of their own shock or grief is something we can do under some circumstances, but personally, I have yet to have that resolve into a useful or meaningful experience for the clients… or for myself as a therapist. And yes, sometimes we end such encounters as much to save ourselves as to release the clients; I’m human, I can admit that this is probably one of my least favourite experiences as a therapist. We often reach out to the clients for followup afterward, and it’s not uncommon to find one or both clients might reject the outreach if they feel we as therapists are also responsible for allowing the destructive breach to occur. We’re implicit in the destruction because we could not prevent it, and could not rescue one or both partners or the relationship as an entity unto itself.

That’s a hard thing as a relationship therapist to hear, but it has a kernel of truth. This is why it becomes important to understand that we should not be the ones working harder than the clients to save something at least one partner has reached a point of refusing to salvage. It’s the emotional labour equivalent of pushing on a brick wall and wondering why the wall is refusing to move for us. As much as our clients might want us to serve as the “big guns” to make movement happen, we’re only as effective as the willing engagement of BOTH parties to engage in a change process that has their own and each other’s best interests (as we understand them) at heart. Marriage therapists aren’t going to be much help if one partner shows up with a wrecking ball and the intent to demolish the relationship completely.

It’s important for clients (and therapists) to be honest about the limitations of our effectiveness. I’m sure there are miracle workers in the world, “relationship whisperers” who can chase and retrieve even the most intractable partners fro the brink of departure and destruction, who can de-escalate DefCon5 crises and bring all parties back into harmony. It’s a remarkable skillset we all work towards, but sometimes clients will still have their own ideas and agendas and escape plans. (As a side note, it’s terribly refreshing as a relational therapist to hear high-profile professional therapists like Terry Real or David Schnarch speak about their own therapeutic failures in the counselling room; there’s hope for the rest of us yet, perhaps.) There is a lot of good work we CAN do with engaged and willing clients, but once one member of a partner hits the hard limit of their engagement, we can only work with what they bring into the room — and if they don’t bring hope and that will to change, we can’t invent and install it for them, more often than not (most of us will try, though… and see previous note, re: cautioning against doing more emotional labour than the clients do).