Many years ago, back when I still lived in Los Angeles, I worked for a brief time with a client who was secretly draining his wife’s inheritance to support their family. He didn’t make personal use of the money or spend it on a mistress; instead, he took his family on lavish vacations, pretending to have earned the money himself, and used it to fund a lifestyle they couldn’t afford. This man worked in a field with the potential to earn large sums of money if he invested properly (and got lucky); he continually hoped to hit “the big one” and replenish the investment account where his wife had placed her inheritance. He hoped she would never learn what he had done. He eventually ran through the inheritance, however, and when his wife discovered the truth, she divorced him. Not long after, he discontinued treatment for financial reasons and, I believe, left the country.
Shortly after the truth came out, the wife called me. She had looked into the legal and ethical guidelines and acknowledged that I was “probably covered,” as she put it, but she nonetheless felt my behavior was morally wrong — that I had a moral obligation to tell her about what her husband was doing. It didn’t help to explain that what she expected me to do would’ve violated my client’s right to privacy and my legal obligation to preserve confidentiality. She regarded it as a moral issue. I didn’t then and I don’t now agree with her. And because I wasn’t her therapist, I couldn’t help her examine her own collusion in those unhappy events. My client had a history of lying and concealing the truth about money which she knew about, so it was surprising that she had made him a co-signator on the investment account and hadn’t looked at a bank statement or checked the balance in years.
I agree that my client’s behavior was wrong, but it wouldn’t have helped our work together if I simply passed judgment on him and told his wife. Clients who feel judged will most likely leave treatment, and for good reason. Instead, I tried to help my client deal with the sense of shame and inadequacy he felt for not being able to provide for his family, but also encouraged him to examine the somewhat grandiose image of himself as provider that both he and his wife shared. I explained the importance of honesty in a marriage, which he readily acknowledged, though he couldn’t quite bring himself to tell her the truth. He kept hoping to find “a way out” and not have to face the music. We ran out of time when he ran out of money.
Had I heard this story in my “outside” life, I probably would have felt quite judgmental about this man’s behavior. Without knowing his internal dynamics, and the collusion between husband and wife, I probably would have called him an “asshole” or some other such insightful and compassionate name. But with their clients, therapists are supposed to understand instead of pass judgment, aren’t they?
All this came back to me in recent days due to another marital crisis in the life of one of my clients. He had been having an affair for many years and his wife found out. He isn’t the first of my clients to have a secret affair, and I always find myself in a similarly ambiguous position. I certainly do not approve of extra-marital affairs, and often pass harsh judgment upon acquaintances who engage in them, but I never pass judgment upon my clients, nor do I feel at all judgmental. I try to help them understand the emotional reasons for the affair — there are always reasons — and it usually points to some breakdown in communication for which both parties are responsible. I try to help them see how an affair doesn’t actually address the real problem and isn’t a viable solution.
In any event, it got me to thinking about the way psychotherapy is a “judgment-free” zone, and how curious it is that we set aside our usual moral judgments in the service of deeper insight … but only as a part of our job. As much as I try to be a compassionate, understanding person in my “outside” life, I often feel judgmental and pass judgment upon others. I’m not a moral relativist. I suppose the lesson here is that the more you know about people and the more deeply you enter into their emotional experience, the less likely you are to judge them. As a society, we can’t do without morality; the force of moral judgment helps to prevent people from behaving in ways that damage the social fabric as well as their intimate relationships. Passing judgment has its place in society but doesn’t help in our more personal or psychotherapeutic relationships, where empathy and understanding do much more to help people develop into better “citizens.”