Yehuda Lieberman, LCSW
I am dating a girl who disclosed to me that she has been seeing a therapist for the last year. She seems like a good girl and she said the things she went to therapy for are not significant. She gave me permission to speak directly with her therapist and signed a form allowing me to do so. My question/concern is how reliable will the information I get from the therapist be? Can you give me some advice on what type of questions to ask and how to go about the conversation so that things work out for the best.
It sounds as if you like this girl and would like to continue your relationship. There are many things that could raise a red flag in a relationship. These can relate to personality, rigidity, emotionality, and socialization, among others.
Having seen a therapist, in and of itself, doesn’t need to be a red flag. We all have issues. Some of us work these through on our own; others obtain assistance from a professional; yet others refuse to acknowledge—or deal with—their issues. I could make the argument that someone who is introspective and openminded enough to acknowledge their issues and recognize that they could use some help working them through is better off than those who are not.
Of course this depends on the types of issues and the degree to which they have been resolved. Mental health problems can be specific to a particular situation, or they can be pervasive. They can be largely surface issues that can often be quickly addressed, or they can be related to underlying emotional issues that can manifest in various ways. They can affect the person on an individual level (for the most part), or they can have a significant impact on others on their lives.
In the mental health profession, we often speak in terms of diagnosis. Certainly diagnoses can be useful in order to identify types of symptoms. However, diagnoses can be tantamount to a scarlet letter, negatively branding the individual. In reality, most people could be diagnosed with something. For the layperson (and indeed for many professionals), a diagnosis often creates for an unfair assumption about the person.
Although it may be somewhat helpful for you to obtain a diagnosis from this girl’s therapist, I would focus much more on the actual problems that were being addressed. Although diagnoses simply describe specific symptoms, it can be easy to get hung up on the label rather than the actual issues. For instance, hearing that someone has an “adjustment disorder” may sound rather serious. Hearing, however, that they had trouble dealing with a critical supervisor and a conniving co-worker can seem normal. The types of issues are what you are looking to understand.
Another consideration is the degree to which any issues have been resolved. When talking about deep-seated emotional problems, this can be difficult to discern due to the many ways in which these can manifest. Nonetheless, progress in therapy can be a much more significant factor than the problem itself. When discussing issues that are much more surface- and situation-based, identifying the level of progress is typically simpler.
In fact, level and degree of progress can be a positive sign, pointing to the person’s flexibility and their ability and willingness to change. One of the greatest predictors of success in a relationship is each person’s inclination and capacity for change and compromise. If both of you demonstrate this quality, your ability to forge a positive relationship is greatly increased.
Without more particulars, I cannot tell you what specifically to ask the therapist. If your questions are too general, you may come away from the conversation feeling that you’ve received mostly platitudes, without the sense that you have attained any sense as to what was actually being worked on. If you ask specific questions, however, you can generally assume that the therapist will be honest. I would focus on the particular issues that were addressed, and the degree to which they were resolved. Good luck!
-Yehuda Lieberman, LCSW
psychotherapist in private practice
adjunct professor at Touro College
Graduate School of Social Work
author of Self-Esteem: A Primer
www.ylcsw.com / 516-218-4200
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