The Roles of the Couples Therapist

The roles that couples therapists perform with their clients depend on the approach to therapy that they prefer.  They can be advisors, experts, coaches, educators, facilitators, provokers, observers, diagnosers and many other roles throughout the course of the treatment.  Here I want to clarify which roles the neurodynamic couples therapist does and does not perform.

The only way in which neurodynamic couples therapists can be considered experts is that they have specialized knowledge about human relationships in general.  However, they should never be considered experts in the particular relationship they are treating.  Only their clients are the experts in their own relationship.  In other words, prescriptive or problem-based characterizations of their clients’ relationship are to be avoided.  It can sometimes be helpful to reassure clients that we do know what we’re talking about in terms of common human relationship expectations, but the stance of the therapist toward the one couple sitting in front of them should be continual curiosity and wonder.

It is popular in many forms of couples treatment for the therapist to take on the role of coach, educator, or advisor.  These roles involve telling clients how to change their behavior, and they are not part of the job of the neurodynamic couples therapist.  Couples will often present desperately wanting advice about how to negotiate their differences, how to parent, or any number of current relationship issues.  Neurodynamic couples therapists are not there to coach or give advice.  They are there as facilitators of the metabolizing process–fellow explorers with their clients to fully know and understand the feelings that are driving the behaviors the couple is wanting to change.  Coaching or educating about behavior can stifle important feelings.

Neurodynamic couples therapists are not referees.  It is not their job to make a couple stop fighting or to determine which behavior needs to change.  Understanding the right-brain generator of the fight is central to this type of therapy; prematurely shutting it down is countertherapeutic.  Therapists do need to be strong advocates for creating a safe enough environment for metabolizing to proceed, and in this part of their role they might be seen as partially educating or advising.  But only in the narrowest sense of this role as advocate for treatment safety.

If one or both partners seem to be continually struggling to safely participate in the treatment, the neurodynamic couples therapist must resist the temptation to become a diagnoser.  A therapist who succumbs to this role has become unsafe to the treatment themselves.  If there is genuine concern about a possible physiological mental health issue, the therapist should have a robust referral network on hand to help the couple in that area.  The neurodynamic couples therapist works to foster understanding of the struggle to behave safely, leaving diagnostic issues out of the treatment.

The many challenges inherent in these roles will be further addressed in the next post.

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