Addressing Secrets in Couples Counseling

This article presents an alternative approach to informed consent that addresses unique concerns regarding confidentiality in marital and relationship counseling. Professional ethics codes rarely pro- vide therapists with specific guidance on how to respond to clients who wish to keep secrets from their spouse or partner.Addressing Secrets in Couples Counseling Moreover, scholars writing about confidentiality frequently offer contradictory advice on how to ethically treat those couples presenting with se- crets. This article suggests that regardless of one’s viewpoint on the issue of secret keeping in counseling, therapists best serve couples by advising them at the onset of treatment of the counselor’s policies regarding confidential communication. In addition to discussing is- sues regarding privacy and confidentiality in couples counseling, this article presents one example of an informed consent document designed to address this important concern.

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Keywords: confidentiality; privacy; ethics; family secrets; cou- ples counseling

Mental health professionals working with couples andfamilies frequently are confronted with moral and eth- ical issues not faced by therapists or counselors treating indi- viduals. Writers addressing the complicated issues surround- ing privacy and confidentiality when treating married and unmarried couples have described the minefields conscien- tious therapists must navigate (Gottlieb & Cooper, 1993; Hare-Mustin, 1980). Others have mapped out some of the pathways around these obstacles (Karpel, 1980; Patten, Barnett, & Houlihan, 1991). One particularly thorny issue

likely to present itself to counselors working with couples concerns the topic of secrets shared with the therapist by one client but withheld from the client’s spouse or partner (Brendel & Nelson, 1999; Glass, 2002).Addressing Secrets in Couples Counseling Indeed, there has been considerable debate on whether counselors should reveal client secrets (Margolin, 1982). Professional ethics scholars emphasize the importance of establishing clear poli- cies regarding confidential communication when working with couples (Margolin, 1998; Vangelisti, Caughlin, & Timmerman, 2001). However, a search of the literature found no explicit written examples of such policies to guide thera- pists when working with couples. Thus, the purpose of this article is to present one approach to informed consent that addresses unique concerns regarding confidentiality in marital and relationship counseling.

A carefully constructed confidentiality agreement becomes essential when therapists agree to treat clients indi- vidually as well as conjointly with their spouse or significant other. Although none of the ethical codes indicate that con- ducting concurrent individual and conjoint counseling is unethical, many organizations caution their members about the ethical pitfalls inherent in doing so. Thus, counselors working with couples will likely, perhaps inevitably, find themselves grappling with the issue of one person’s right to privacy versus a partner or spouse’s right to obtain access to information relevant to their personal well-being.Addressing Secrets in Couples Counseling Although marital and relationship counselors encourage open and hon- est communication, they occasionally compromise and con- cede to requests from their clients to keep certain information secret. Often, this means withholding important, sometimes critical data involving highly charged topics such as infidelity from the innocent or naïve partner or spouse (Weeks, Gambescia, & Jenkins, 2003).

There are additional concerns when the disclosures relate to illegal activities. For example, adultery is considered a crime in some states. As a result, it is possible that keeping a77Addressing Secrets in Couples Counseling

THE FAMILY JOURNAL: COUNSELING AND THERAPY FOR COUPLES AND FAMILIES, Vol. 14 No. 1, January 2006 77-80 DOI: 10.1177/1066480705282060 © 2006 Sage Publications

Authors’ Note: Please address correspondence concerning this manuscript to Julie L. Quimby, Ph.D., Department of Psychology, Towson University, Towson, MD 21252-0001. Dr. Quimby may be reached by e-mail at jquimby@towson.edu. The editor of this sec- tion welcomes future discussion on the alternate approaches that professionals take in addressing secrets and confidential informa- tion in couple counseling. Please submit discussion to Fran Steigerwald at fjsteiger@radford.edu.Addressing Secrets in Couples Counseling

 

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