8 Ways To Support A Partner In Therapy

by JR Thorpe
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They've taken a deep breath, picked up the phone, and now your partner is in therapy. This is good! High five to them! But this is also a stressful time for you as their partner. What can you do to help them, your relationship, and yourself in this situation, particularly if you aren't particularly familiar with the therapeutic process and aren't sure about your level of involvement? Do you need to show up with pompoms after every session, or completely stay out of it unless they choose to talk about it?

It's necessary to be aware of one thing: loving your partner, and reassuring them that you will continue to love them no matter what therapy uncovers, is essentially the best help you can give. But that's blanket advice that may not cover specifics. The most important thing you should keep in mind is to talk about it, and try to understand what happens in therapy generally, whether you're allowed to know about your partner's specific sessions or not. Look up the particular type of therapy they're having (cognitive behavioral therapy? Psychiatrist sessions? Grief counseling?) and clarify its methods in your head, so that you're not lost or uncomprehending.

Bustle talked to Dr. Kat van Kirk, a licensed sex and relationship therapist, about how you can help your love in ways that are supportive, helpful, and awesome. (Kissing helps.) And remember: therapy is, very often, a good thing. Your partner is trying to take care of themselves psychologically, and that is an act of love. Here are eight ways to be supportive of a partner in therapy.

1. Be Available To Give Extra Love

Even if you and/or your partner think the therapy sessions will be fine and won't result in any tears, anger, or exhaustion afterwards, be prepared: therapy can go to places you weren't planning, and the fallout can be intense. "Deep work," as it can be called by some therapists, is a part of intense psychotherapy and involves delving into some very primal and sometimes upsetting stuff, and it can sometimes wipe you out for the remainder of the day. Dr. Kirk says it's necessary to "allow for your partner to process post-session, if needed. Give them permission."

Plus, crucially, even if somebody feels fine during or shortly after a session, they may not be OK after time elapses and things sink in more. Basically, it's worthwhile being prepped to help them out: back rubs, cooking dinner, answering the phone when they call. Be present.

2. Let Them Talk It Through With You

Some people will want to discuss what they've discovered or how they're feeling about their progress. The important thing to realize is that you yourself don't have to act like a therapist in this instance; a lot of the work of therapy is actually done outside sessions, where people try to put lessons and thoughts into practice and recognize damaging patterns. If they want to bounce this off you or let you know what's going on in their head, it's not a violation of their privacy or somehow going to "derail" the therapeutic process. Dr. Kirk points out that you should also not be offended if they haven't talked about this stuff before; "know that certain issues may come out in therapy that haven't come out to you," she says, "[and] sometimes people need support outside of the relationship to deal with certain issues. It doesn't mean you are a bad partner."

There's also a chance a therapist may also invite you into sessions if they believe it's necessary to help unpack certain problems, so be prepared for that. Dr. Kirk says you should be willing to do this, and that it may be helpful.

If you become worried, panicked, or weighed down with their therapy postmortems, this is a sign that you need to talk about it. What upsets you about what they're telling you? Do you need more emotional space? Are you just concerned about their wellbeing? Have a conversation, as calmly and supportively as possible, about how to work through your communication about it.

3. ... But Also Respect Their Right Not To Discuss Anything

Communication with a therapist is a unique kind of talking, and sometimes it may not translate very well outside the therapeutic space. Your partner may simply not want to talk about what happened in therapy because it's too exhausting or difficult to detail it again; it's probably a good idea to establish ground rules about what level of involvement they'd like you to have, and keep examining them as the therapy journey continues. That way, you don't get caught in a tantrum because you think they don't trust you with their innermost thoughts any more. Figure out a way to ascertain how they're doing without compromising their limits.

Dr. Kirk's take on this is multi-faceted. Her prime piece of advice? Privacy. "Respect privacy and don't go trolling for information when they come home from a session," she advises. "If your partner does share sensitive information post session, help him/her to maintain confidentiality. Divulging info to friends or family members can feel like a betrayal. If you have questions about is being discussed, do not contact the therapist. Talk to your partner and let them know you care and just want to support them in the issues they are working on."

4. Understand They May Be Distressed

If you yourself haven't experienced therapy, or have only had positive and affirming results with it, having a partner who comes out of every therapy session wrecked and weeping may be an alarming situation. (My husband has to take me for long walks after my weekly sessions, essentially to mop me up.) Do not regard this distress as a sign of any problem with the therapist, unless your partner says otherwise. Bad therapists who make their patients feel awful definitely exist (Psychology Today has an excellent guide to spotting one), but distress is often a natural response to getting therapy for serious underlying issues. (If they aren't upset, don't assume they're not trying hard enough, either. These things are different for everybody.)

5. Continue To Praise Their Decision To Get Help

Therapy can be great, but it can also, frankly, suck. Sitting and confronting the things that have bothered your head and behavior for ages can be a very upsetting experience, and it pays to have somebody who loves and values you as a cheerleader for getting through the experience and choosing to continue. They may need to go through a few therapists and approaches to find the right one, but they're being brave and practical by getting help, so remind them about that.

6. Remember That This Isn't About You

Dr. Kirk points out that a possible source of distress for you as a partner may be the idea that you can't "control" what they're saying about you in-session, but she advises not to "get caught up in worrying about what is said about you. The focus of the session is your partner, not you." You also shouldn't be demanding your partner disclose what they talk about in therapy — even if it is about you. Which it probably isn't.

Dr. Kirk also makes the point that just because your partner is in therapy, that doesn't mean either of you are failures who need to be fixed; "just because your partner is in therapy, it doesn't mean something is wrong with your relationship," she says.

7. Don't Expect Immediate "Results"

If your partner's in therapy for the things that are causing them problems, this is going to take a while. It can be difficult for partners and loved ones to accept that unknotting problems in the mind may be a fraught and drawn-out process, involving the establishment of trust with a therapist, trying a few different approaches, and going through deep examination of the self. They aren't going to shift overnight, and they may be in this for a long time, even if you think they've done enough to alter their mental patterns. Restrain expectations and make sure they believe they're getting what they need.

8. Consider Getting Some Support Too

Having a partner in therapy is a good thing, but it can also create pressure on a spouse to act as part of their support network without receiving professional help of their own. Make sure that you get enough emotional nourishment to support yourself and them; if they're in therapy for a specific issue, like alcoholism or depression, see if there are any resources for partners in that situation (organizations like Mind are a good place to start), and make sure you have friends or family to turn to when you risk feeling isolated with the issue. You can also get a therapist of your own, of course — that's almost never a bad idea.

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