Truth. The Oxford English Dictionary describes it as: ‘…the true facts about something, rather than the things that have been invented or guessed’.1 Quite simple really. So, when we are sitting with our clients, we can be sure we are hearing the truth. They are telling us about real things, events and facts. And, as therapists, we have to assume that what they are telling us is, indeed, the truth.
But, I’m not sure ‘truth’ is as clear-cut as the lexicographers suggest. Working as therapists, we’re always alive to meaning, to the understanding that truth is subjective. There are facts, sure, but what those facts mean and how they affect us are unique to each person and their relational dynamic. ‘I kissed that other person’ is a true statement of fact. But the context of that kiss and what it represents is going to be different for each person in the relational space.
Relational therapy is largely the skill of sitting with two truths and holding them both as true, even when they appear to be contradictory. The work involves exploring the truths and seeking to understand where there are differences, why these are there, and how the clients can learn to integrate them into a cohesive whole. Working with infidelity, in particular, is a real challenge in this respect, as the hurt partner will be seeking truths about what exactly happened, while the other often seeks to minimise damage by limiting the amount of information provided. Once we get beyond the whats and into the whys, then we start to explore the real subjectivity of truth.
The challenge with this work is allowing the clients to understand that truth is subjective when it comes to meaning. We may never fully understand the other’s truth, but we have to accept that it is true for them. These differences may be irreconcilable, and they never allow for, or excuse, abusive behaviour. If someone believes it is ‘true’ that it is OK to physically harm or control a partner, that ‘truth’ needs to be robustly and comprehensively rebutted.
As therapists, we’re also sitting with our own truths. Reflecting on what we believe and how this chimes with the client’s version of truth is important to help us maintain our position of neutrality, and to model integrating different ideas and truths into a whole that accepts difference, even when it challenges our own version of reality.
The process of exploring these truths can take time. What clients choose to disclose in the early stages of therapy may not be the whole truth. And, in fact, may be outright lies. Sometimes, this is driven by deep shame, for example. Creating a safe-enough therapeutic space is critical to allowing clients to talk about what they want to, when they are ready to do so. Clients have often lived with secrets and shame all their lives, so it’s going to take real work on our part to create that safe space. This is difficult enough when working with individual clients, but when there is more than one client in the room, we also have to navigate what it’s safe or OK for the partner to know.
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Working with LGBTQ+ clients, this is an area of particular concern. We still live in a world where gender and sexual diversity are othered, and this leads to people carrying deep shame, which I have written about in the past. Therefore, they live with secrets and lies. So, when a couple present and one of them has a ‘truth’ about themselves that their partner doesn’t know, there is much to consider from an ethical perspective and in terms of doing the best for both clients. A presentation I am seeing more often now involves couples struggling to work though one of them being transgender. They may have lived for decades as a cishet (cisgender and heterosexual) couple presenting as male and female, but this means for decades there has not been ‘truth’, and this is hard for both parties to carry.
Clients who present for counselling are generally those who want to try and support the trans person as best they can, recognising the intolerable burden that has been placed on them to deny their identity. Working in couples therapy can really help both partners understand what it means to them to be trans, and how their unique experience of gender identity and expression has been lived and may be lived in the future. It can also help the non-trans partner come to terms with the fact that this information has been withheld from them. They didn’t know the truth about the person they know best in the world, and this can be challenging.
Clients often hold lofty ideals about truth: that it is paramount and should be total and complete at all times. But it isn’t. We hold information back all the time and for all kinds of reasons, especially when we fear the truth is destructive and harmful. So, whether it’s an affair or a coming-out story, helping clients see truth as a subjective experience can be a way of helping them integrate new versions of the truth within their relationship, rather than it being a source of conflict and distrust.
1 Oxford English dictionary. [Online.] www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/definition/english/truth (accessed 12 October 2021).