It really takes a lot to get on my nerves as a therapist. In fact, there are very few things that would actually annoy me when working with someone. But there is one thing I find myself frustrated by whenever the issue shows up:
The controlling partner therapy veteran.
What, or who, is this?
I come across the controlling partner therapy veteran (I’ll just use CPTV from here) on a semi-regular basis. Some of you reading this may either have a CPTV in your life, or actually be one. To be clear, the person I become annoyed with isn’t the person I’m working with. I become annoyed with the CPTV when they start trying to insert themselves between the partner (the person I’m working with) and their therapy.
The CPTV is a veteran of therapy — they have been in their own therapy for many years — and believes that because of this they know what everyone else’s (or, their partner’s) therapy should look like. They are the partner that says, “you should be talking about this in your therapy”, or “you should be talking about issues in this way”, or “your therapist should be saying this and asking that”, and so on. They know their own therapy very well and, because they’ve been doing it for a long time, believe that they know the way therapy is done across the board.
But, in reality, everyone’s therapy is a very individual and personal process. Your therapy process will likely look very different than your partner’s therapy or anyone else you know. Everyone has their own personality, their own sets of relational patterns and history, and their own emotional and psychological processes. The topics, questions, responses, amount of talking the therapist does (or doesn’t do), the trajectory of the treatment, time, benefit, etc., all can be very different from one person to the next. And this is a good and necessary thing.
Interestingly enough, I have noticed that the CPTV is often the person who initially nudges their partner into starting therapy (this alone isn’t enough to be the CPTV). Generally because there is something the CPTV wants them to work on (usually for the CPTV’s sake). In these instances, the CPTV often projects certain issues in the relationship onto the partner while the CPTV claims to be clear of accountability because of their years in therapy, and therefore insists that the partner needs to catch up in therapy experience for the benefit of the relationship.
However, what ends up usually happening is what “should” happen — the partner enters therapy and starts to have their own therapy process (not the one that the CPTV had in mind, where the partner goes in and solves all of the “problems” that the CPTV wanted them to fix). As this therapy process happens, the partner (person I’m working with) starts to become more autonomous in their life — comfortable in their own skin, asserting their needs, connecting with their voice, and gaining confidence within themselves in the world and as an equal in the relationship.
This is generally when the CPTV starts trying to insert themselves between the partner and their therapy, as they (likely, mostly unconsciously) sense the partner is becoming more autonomous and self-actualized. As the healthy process of self-actualization continues forward for the partner, the CPTV starts to feel threatened because they realize on a subconscious level that they cannot have any control over what takes place in their partner’s therapy. They cannot access you there, and it drives them up the wall that you’re going through changes that they can’t control. If you are becoming autonomous, they feel they’re losing their grip on you, and to a controlling partner this is torture.
They may start to act out for control by first wanting to know what you’re talking about in sessions — as if all things therapy need to go through them since they nudged you there in the first place. Or, by criticizing your therapy as not being good enough or being done incorrectly if it doesn’t fully resemble their own therapy; or if you’re not fully focusing your energy on certain topics or issues that the CPTV had in mind when they nudged you into therapy. And so on.
Why is this a big deal?
There are many reasons the CPTV’s disapproving insertion is problematic. But the most primary concerns are that the partner can start to question their hard-earned progress if the CPTV makes them believe that they are doing therapy “wrong”, or that they’re not making the progress they’re “supposed to” be making. The partner is inclined to believe the CPTV because they assume with all the CPTV’s years in therapy that they must know what they are talking about. However, this acting out by the CPTV not only threatens to undo the partner’s treatment and progress, it actually threatens to undo their autonomy and make them emotionally dependent on the CPTV (it actually sets up or reinforces unhealthy emotional codependency).
The CPTV’s insertion also becomes disruptive to the partner’s therapy process, as the focus has to temporarily shift away from the partner’s current treatment thread to instead managing the impact of the CPTV’s acting out. It is actually good and necessary to address creating boundaries from the CPTV’s attempts at control, which serves to help the partner build more autonomy. However, if the CPTV’s attempt at controlling the partner’s therapy is not caught or addressed, then it can become detrimental to a beneficial therapy process, as it can make the partner distrust the therapist and therefore the worth of their progress.
If you are concerned that your therapy isn’t looking the way you were hoping it would, or if it isn’t addressing the areas you want, then it is always good to bring this up with your therapist. However, if your partner is telling you in various ways that your therapy isn’t happening the way it’s supposed to, and that they aren’t happy with how your therapy is going (even if you are happy with your therapy), bring this up with your therapist so you can keep your grip on your autonomy.