Maybe you are sitting in the therapy office week after week and yet you know very little about the personal world of your therapist. Maybe you have wanted to know more but the therapist has shut it down. Is it acceptable for the therapist to share personal information with you and if so, what information can they share?
Early on in therapy, couples tend to want information about the therapist related to their professional credentials and their professional experience. They want to understand the therapist theory and their use of techniques and how their techniques will be applied to the problem the couple is bringing to session. Personal information about the therapist is less important in the first few sessions. This is because the couple tends to be fairly stressed or in crisis when they enter therapy. They also are focused more on giving the therapist information about the problem. The therapist is also motivated to get background information from the couple and has less focus on how they are experiencing the couple.
As therapy evolves over time, the couple is more interested in knowing the therapist. Sometimes it is just curiosity, such as if they are married, what part of town do they live in or where the therapist grew up. Sometimes they want more personal information about what the therapist is experiencing in session, what they value, or how the therapist perceives them as a couple.
Given the intimate nature of therapy, you would suspect that therapy will evolve to offer more disclosure of the clinician's internal world and personal experiences. In therapeutic terms, when the therapist shares what they are experiencing in session or how they are experiencing the couple, it is considered "use of self" (of the therapist) or self-disclosure in therapy and is an important therapeutic component of good therapy.
Unfortunately, self disclosure of the therapist and use of self are not given much support in most graduate training programs and self-disclosure is even discouraged, so this crucial piece of therapy can be minimized in most therapeutic settings. In couples therapy, use of self and self disclosure of the therapist can have significant impact on positive outcomes of therapy. Some benefits include building trust and rapport, modeling appropriate sharing of intimate information, and creating more equality between the counselor and the couple. Therapists go cautiously with self-disclosure though, because they are aware that it can also be a dangerous prospect if the disclosure is inappropriate. Poorly timed disclosures or disclosure used incorrectly, can lead the couple to believe that the counselor is over-sharing.
There are two primary types of disclosures that therapists can use in session. One is called "here and now" disclosures and the other is "there and then" disclosures. For the "here and now" disclosures in the therapy session, the therapist can talk about how they are experiencing the couple and how they are experiencing themself. These disclosures include how the therapist feels, how they perceive the client, how they perceive themselves in the context of the couple, their expectations of the couple or the expectations the have for themselves. These are the most common disclosures. The "there and then" disclosures could include the clinicians past experiences with other couples or experiences from their past, which directly relate to the couple's experience. The "there and then" disclosures are considered more risky for the therapist because they can easily create too much disclosure or reveal accidental disclosures of personal information that have no direct relationship to the couple's experience.
The primary reason that therapist self-disclosure is so important, particularly for couples therapy is that the disclosures of the therapist are intended to increase the disclosure of the couple, specifically around the content of the disclosure. Disclosure of the therapist is most commonly used when the therapist is helping the couple disclose information either to each other or to the therapist. Usually the therapist will disclose information so that the couple will in turn disclose the same content material. Mutual disclosure between the therapist and the couple creates more trust, leading to more intimate engagement between the therapist and the couple, and between the partners. This intimate experiencing can lead to greater opportunities for change for the couple.
The next time you visit your couples therapist, recognize the importance of revealing yourself to your partner and to the therapist. Intimate understanding that is essential to therapy requires one partner to revel themselves to the other and the other partner to have strong curiosity in what is being revealed. Equally important, when appropriately timed, is the revelation of the therapist.