As a therapist, you are uniquely skilled to help clients with a number problems, including their relationships. But, does having a day job that involves offering advice about someone else’s relationship troubles make you the authority in your own relationships? Not exactly.
Many Marriage and Family Therapists (MFTs) encounter common hurdles in their own relationships that come as hazards of the trade. Some therapeutic skills can be helpful in your personal life while others simply alienate your partner.
Follow these five tips to learn how to more effectively separate work from your personal life, and be a better partner in the process.
1. Leave work at work.
One study in Psychotherapy Research looked at the impact of being a therapist on individuals’ personal relationships and found that many reported feeling emotionally drained by the day's end. These therapists felt they had little left to give in their own relationships. With that being said, it's important for therapists to at least try to separate work from home in order to enjoy healthier personal relationships and avoid burnout.
To accomplish that, try performing a restorative ritual that symbolizes the end of the workday and the start of your personal time. Attend a class at the gym after work, listen to upbeat music on our commute home, or meditate in the car for 10 minutes before entering your home environment. Set firm boundaries with work so that clients don't encroach on your leisure time. Avoid bringing case files home and have a special number for after-hours emergencies.
2. Communicate your needs
Unlike most professions, therapists aren’t allowed to talk about the details of their work day, as it would break confidentiality agreements. Thus, a rough, emotional day can’t necessarily be discussed in detail with his or her significant other.
If you've had a particularly rough day, be straightforward about it. You might say, “Today was a rollercoaster…” Then switch to a light-hearted conversation topic if you'd rather not go into detail. If you'd like a moment alone, don’t hesitate to ask your partner for some private time, rather than withdrawing from your him or her without an explanation.
Proactivity is key. Prepare your partner in advance, and help him or her understand the emotional toll your profession requires– as well as the fact that you often won’t be able to discuss the details. Help your partner understand that some days, you may be a bit testy, may need some alone time, or may just need a shoulder to cry on. Your significant other will understand the challenges of your job and the effect it may have on you.
3. Skip the psycho-babble and therapizing.
If you're dating a non-therapist, save the psycho-babble for your day job. Few things feel worse, from your partner's perspective, than feeling like you are analyzing them or formulating a diagnosis in your head.
Firstly, doing so alienates them and makes them feel like a client as opposed to a loved one with equal footing.
Secondly, therapizing your partner can be considered inappropriate. Your close relationship with this person makes it impossible for you to maintain a professional and objective opinion--one of the many reasons why therapists shouldn’t ever have family and friends as clients.
Kristen Martinez M.Ed., Ed.S., LMHCA, NCC, a counselor at Pacific Northwell, suggests making a “conscious effort” to “curb this habit” in order to maintain healthy boundaries in your personal relationships.
4. Don't rush to fix
You dedicate all of your professional time to carefully guiding and patiently listening to your clients toward new insights. Exercising extreme patience at work may translate to impatience in your personal life. Your significant other complains about a problem and you abruptly cut them off to recommend a solution. Although your intentions to “fix” may actually be harmless, it can make your partner feel misunderstood or like they are a burden to you.
Instead, make use of the active listening skills you employ every day in therapy. Before responding, paraphrase what your loved one said to see if you heard right (“It sounds like you're saying…Did I hear you correctly?”). Then, ask clarifying questions to gain a better understanding of their needs. For instance, you might say, “I want to know how I can be here for you... Do you want to just vent, or would you like my help in coming up with a solution?”
5. Be human
Most therapists are willing to accept that there are no perfect relationships, just as there are no perfect humans. You're flawed. You will make mistakes in your relationship: you will make hurtful comments, you will fail to listen appropriately, and you will slip into the therapist role with your partner.
Being a therapist is who you are and it's impossible to completely separate that aspect of yourself from your personal life. “You’ll naturally slip back into your therapist role from time to time. Just be aware when you’ve done that, and gently remind yourself to get back on equal footing with your partner” says Sean Davis, PhD, Professor of Marriage and Family Therapy, CSPP.
If you’re currently or interested in training in marriage and family therapy, and if you have any questions about this topic, please contact an Alliant admissions counselor today!