Your Counselor Should Not be Your Long-Term Referee

Counselor referree

Many people come to couples counseling saying they are primarily looking for a referee. While this can be appropriate initially, it is not a good long-term solution. Some say they can’t have a conversation without a neutral third party. This is fine as you eventually (sooner is better than later) learn how to communicate on your own, but your counselor cannot always be with you. If you always need them, you will be in counseling forever.

Some seem to want a referee to determine who is “at fault,” “right,” or “to blame.” Unlike a referee who judges appropriate conduct between two opposing teams, your goal should be to be on the same team. No one “wins” when either of you “loses.”

I view the relationship and your goals as the client, not an individual person. This does get tricky when your goals are not the same, but that is the subject of another post. That means I may occasionally appear to “side” with one person or the other, but it’s only to help the relationship. Some couples handle this well. Others love me to be a referee, but only when all the calls go their way. How often have you walked away from a sporting event where fans of both teams said the referees did an outstanding job? My experience with sports and counseling is everyone loves the referees when they feel like they won, or the call went their way, but the refs are terrible if the calls went against them. But you are on the same team, so winning and losing should not be a concern. Any penalties are against both of you and against your relationship.

My approach is to focus on teaching you to resolve conflicts on your own. That may require a degree of intervention at first and to a lesser degree throughout the process. I am not afraid to call people out when appropriate and tell it as I see it, but over the long run, I don’t want you only to have tough conversations in front of me. It’s not healthy for anyone if your marriage counselor wants your success more than you do. Ideally, you get to a point where perhaps you only need your counselor following an emergency or a stressful holiday.

If you come to counseling and say you are primarily looking for a referee, I would challenge you to ask yourself why. If it’s a short-term need to get through problems that have plagued you for years, that is ok. Suppose it’s a short-term need until you have mastered healthy communication patterns; great. However, if you believe you are close to 100% “right” and your partner is 100% “at fault,” and you are looking for someone to validate that in front of your partner, that is not a healthy approach. Some clients admit to showing up to have a professional agree they are right. If your goal for couples counseling is to get a divorce eventually, and you want an expert on your side in case of legal issues, you have come to the wrong place. What we hear is hearsay, we fight to have to testify, and we charge a shit-ton if we have to appear in court or offer an opinion based on limited information that is typically just inadmissible hearsay.

It’s common for clients in couples therapy to want their counselor to be on their side. I would much prefer that you both be open and honest. Couples therapy is much less effective if each member can’t accept something they can do to change and accept at least some responsibility for their predicament. I don’t judge clients for where they are, and I prefer that clients worry about their relationship and ignore any thoughts about what I might think about them. It’s not me that you need to win over if your relationship isn’t what you want it to be. Instead, it would help if you won over your partner. A little humility and willingness to see your imperfections go a long way. Even if your goal is peacefully ending the marriage or relationship, remember that you may have to interact for much of the rest of your lives (e.g. if child custody, shared property, etc.).