Interview with a couple therapist

Ever wondered what it was like to retrain and work as a couple therapist? One mum shares her story with us – and reveals why she finds it such a rewarding job*.

What’s your career background?

After finishing my university degree I worked as a lawyer in London for over 10 years. My practice was mainly in Family Law, which at times was heart-breaking, and I was often asked to provide not only my legal opinion but to act as therapist, marriage counsellor, and friend.

Why did you decide to retrain as a couple therapist?

Law was a fantastic career, but it was not what I wanted to continue to do at this next stage of my life with starting to raise a family, and I felt it was time for a new direction.

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I needed a career that would continue to challenge me intellectually but provide a more flexible approach to work. I liked working with people, I like talking through problems with my friends and family, and I have always found idea of working with relationships fascinating, and so the idea of becoming a therapist really appealed.

When I started to look around at courses, I found The Tavistock Centre for Couple Relationships and was interested in their relationship focus and the challenge of working with couples.

How did the training fit into your daily life?

I started at The Tavistock Centre for Couple Relationships (TCCR) with the Introduction to Couple Counselling & Psychotherapy course in April, as this was held during school hours and it fitted in perfectly with dropping the kids off and picking them up from school.

The course challenged me as there was a lot of reading to do outside of the classroom, but putting the time in at home meant that when we met, I got so much more out of the class as I came in with so many questions… it was fascinating. This fierce interest made me realised that therapy was the right career path for me and I continued with studying a Masters (Clinical Training) at TCCR to become a fully qualified therapist.

How has your training impacted you personally?

Personally I suppose it’s always less obvious but even more life changing in terms of my own capacity for personal development and growth, the sense that this is what I want to be doing.

Throughout the Masters programmes you are required to have weekly personal psychoanalytic psychotherapy, and this is indispensable. It is not only essential good practice, but also really helps us to process the emotional impact of the training and the clinical work and to develop an awareness of our own potential blind spots.

I now understand myself better and in my relationships I’ve learnt to communicate in a more open way – I guess I now have a stronger awareness than I did before the training.

How did you find the training?

In the Introductory course the theory seminars were excellently presented, informative, engaging and utilised modern films and role-play alongside the reading assignments.

Participating in a self-reflective group gave space for thinking and discussing our motivations for being interested in this work, and keeping a personal journal provided a very individual base for discovering if this direction was for me.

The Masters programme was a very rich and rigorous training, which gives you permission to explore and to be curious and to ask questions in a contained environment. There is a real sturdiness to The Tavistock Centre for Couple Relationships and the people, meaning it offers a safe space to explore and help trainees through the difficult moments.

Looking back now I see how the training pushed me, and how it was an absolutely essential experience as it enhanced my learning and made me feel like I can cope with the professional demands of being a therapist. It was a big commitment, but it was so worth it for me.

You now work as a couple therapist. What’s the work like?

The variety of the work is absolutely fantastic – there is a saying: ‘no two days are alike’ – well, for a couple therapist, I can really say that ‘no two therapy hours are ever quite alike’!

Every session brings something new, something different. All couples and all sessions have their very own, particular ‘fingerprint’ – the emotional temperature in the room – that is not only particular to the partners that make up each couple but also to the phase of the therapy.

A session at the beginning of treatment is quite distinct from the middle working phase which is, again, dissimilar to what the work is like near the ending of the therapeutic process. Even when you really get to know a couple, you still never quite know in what state they will be in when they walk through the door to their weekly appointment.

Sometimes people ask me if I ever get bored listening to people’s stories and I can honesty stay that the work is anything but boring. It is emotionally demanding and intellectually fascinating. The quality of attention and listening is very different from that of an everyday social conversation. We listen to the content as well as the tone, the tune, ‘the music’ of the conversation, uncovering meaning and hidden patterns.

But working with clients in therapy is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the totality of the therapist’s work. When sessions end, thinking about clients continues. A lot of my thoughts emerge when I am writing up my notes from each session and, of course, when discussing cases in supervision. This emotional and intellectual rigour is what makes my work so utterly compelling and satisfying.

How flexible is a therapy career for a mum?

Couple therapists certainly don’t keep ‘office hours’, as most of our clients prefer to see someone after work or on a weekend.

In private practice I can create and manage my own timetable and decide when and how much I want to work, but I know that I have to be prepared to offer session times that clients can make outside of their own working hours.

This actually suits me as I can work once the children are in bed in the evenings. Having said that, many clients work part-time or flexible hours and are preferred to be seen during the day, or, if they are parents themselves, during school hours.

Being a mum also prepared me for the serious commitment that is fundament to the work of a therapist. Once I commit myself to offering a particular vacancy to a couple, it is then ’their’ time and is sacrosanct. Regularity, reliability and commitment to the time frame of the therapeutic hour is an integral part of the therapeutic process and is not to be taken lightly.

What’s the most rewarding part of your job?

The moment the couple start to work with the therapy. There is this shift and it’s very rewarding knowing that the couple have accepted you into their very private world to help.

What personal skills or experience do you think help in your job?

I think I’ve always been a good listener and I am the ‘go-to’ person for advice and support in my family. I’ve certainly incorporated these skills into my practice. To be able to actively listen, without interrupting, allowing the person the space to share can be quite challenging.

My experience of working as a lawyer meant that the demands of the job didn’t faze me; I was used to seeing people in distress and knew emotionally I could manage.

Having the personal skills of tenacity, understanding and empathy without becoming emotionally involved in your client’s life (you do hear some extremely sad tales as a family lawyer) have all helped me in my role as therapist. The thing I found most enjoyable about law was that knowing that I had played a really important role at a critical/vulnerable time in a client’s life. And this hasn’t changed with becoming a therapist.

Want to learn more about training as a therapist? You can learn more about the TCCR introductory course here

* The mum in this interview has chosen to remain anonymous.