There is not enough money in the world for me to ever consider doing couples therapy. Honestly, I’ve always felt that way; I know what’s in my comfort zone and what’s not. The reason I bring it up today though, is because I found myself thrust into that role and it. Was. Tough.
I’m not in love with my current job but there are perks. For one, it’s short-term so even if the patient I’m seeing is incredibly difficult, I have a nice out: we only have to see each other a handful of times and then either we’re done or I’m referring out to a community therapist. Another perk is that although the majority of my referrals are people with anxiety and/or depression, I encounter a variety of situations. I’ve seen someone with a bridge phobia; recently met a woman struggling with her fiance’s infidelity; and have provided education about a possible Bipolar II diagnosis (a few times, actually). For all my complaints about this job, it’s been a good opportunity to enhance and vary my skill set. Hospice had its variations, of course, but I was there for five years and I was pretty comfortable with my role. This job has a whole other set of challenges and even a year and a half in, I’m still facing new and tricky situations.
Like yesterday, for instance! A woman called to schedule an appointment for her partner (which always puts me on guard because how motivated are you if you aren’t even making your own appointment?) and then they all showed up together: the patient, the partner, and their small child. Which is fine, in theory; a lot of people prefer their loved ones to be with them at doctor’s appointments. But about fifteen minutes in, it became clear to me that my patient and his partner need some serious marital counseling that I cannot provide. First, because my role doesn’t allow for it. Second, it’s very much out of my scope of practice. And third—probably most importantly—the counter-transference was suffocating.
This is not to say that my marriage is in shambles and I didn’t realize until this session; it wasn’t that Freudian. It was more that in my heart, one person was SO wrong and the other was SO right and it made me feel sort of thought-blocked. Like, I knew I couldn’t say that out loud but I also was really having trouble navigating my own feelings. I spent a lot of time saying, “It sounds like you’re saying X and you’re saying Y, and you’re not really in agreement about the basic facts.” It was not my most insightful work, friends. But afterwards, as I’m processing and debriefing and writing this all out, I’m not sure there was anything more I could or should have done.
This many years into my career, I’m comfortable telling people I don’t know the answer. But every so often, a session gets a little bit away from me and before I know it, I’m trying to navigate a situation I don’t really have a handle on. In those sessions, I have to get back to basics: here’s what I can do, here’s what someone else may be able to do, what do you want to do? I’m left with another good reminder to be mindful of what the goal of the work is: to help, whenever and however we can, and to know when we can’t.