Boyfriend is using counselor as a friend


Boyfriend is using counselor as a friend


your avatar   Sarah (26 year-old woman)

I've been with my fiance for a long time now and when we first met and started dating, he had a lot of trouble with the relationship because he suffers from dysthymia and has had problems with depression and anxiety in his family as well. He has been in counseling for a while and for the past couple years, has been doing really well with his counselor - he's gotten over many of his fears, has a more positive outlook and is very confident in our relationship (as am I - we're getting married very soon). The problem, however, lies in friendships. We live in a commuter-town where it's hard to meet people so we don't have many friends in our area. I have many friends that are a commute-away and he relies on them and my family for companionship, as do I. I am concerned, though, that he is not interested in meeting people in our area and doesn't seem to have any friends of "his own". He says he uses his time in counseling to talk about the stock market, sports, etc. and less time talking about personal issues. I am grateful that he doesn't seem to have as many "issues" but it sounds like he sees his counselor as a surrogate friend... someone to shoot the breeze with - and what a great friendship, to have someone who is going to be there every week, who is going to listen and who will not judge!

I want to know if this counseling is just taking the place of my fiance's need to make friends... if he's becoming dependent on his counseling for companionship and needs to "cut the cord" and move on. It seems like he doesn't need to make friends to bounce ideas off of or "hang out" with because he says his counselor gives him these things. Is there something about his counseling I don't know, or is it time to make some friends he doesn't have to pay to see every week?


    Pat Ryan,

Dear Sarah,

I would say you have the problem in a nutshell. You just needed someone to say it to. You sound like a highly intelligent person who knows exactly what is going on, but who is also compassionate. You see the progress your boyfriend has made over the years (at least two years) but you don't see the end and perhaps you are not sure whether there is supposed to be an end.

I can assure you that there is. In fact the modern thinking is that counseling should be 'in and out quickly'. Deal with the problem and then allow the person to find autonomy so that they may become independent of the therapist. Autonomy and independence is what we all should aim for even though we have friends, family, and lovers.

Your boyfriend seems to have become reliant on the counselor. Unless the counselor has become a 'Life Coach', which does seem to go on forever, he ought to be helping your fiance to become independent. And certainly discussing shares does not seem to be in the province of the psychologist, though it may be in the area of coaching.

I am glad your friend is dealing with dysthymia well. Still, it should not take forever. Is the counselor skilled in cognitive behavioral therapy? This is the therapeutic approach used in depression, as also in anxiety disorders. It should take approximately 3 or 4 months, sometimes more. Dysthymia is low level depression so not as severe as say clinical depression but on a continuing basis so that the client is helped to 'manage' it rather than cure it. Even so, some may find they can recover from dysthymia as with the anxiety disorders. If it is secondary to anxiety, then dealing with both should not take too long. However, you say he is dealing well with those problems now. So the therapy has been largely successful, it would seem.

I wonder if he is just a little afraid of losing his "surrogate friend" as you call his therapist. Perhaps it is an issue that you both need to talk over. Do you think that in your relationship there is a good basis for trust, where you both feel you can say what you feel when you feel it, but with respect? That is assertive behavior that you should both be aiming for if it is lacking in your relationship. At any rate, if talking things over does not play a part in your lives, it should and you need to work on that, perhaps seeking a few sessions of couple counseling. There you could bring up such issues as why your partner still feels he needs a counselor, and the matter of new "friends".

As for the issue of friends, ask your boyfriend why he feels he cannot make friends in the new area. It may be shyness, fear of rejection (you do mention family health issues that may relate to some rejection in his life) or some other reason that makes friendships difficult for him. This is something else you need to be talking over. Is he dependent upon you, do you think? When there is a problem in your life, is he there for you?

What does occur to me however, since you mention past fears, and unwillingness to make his "own" friends in his home town and in the new area too, is that part of his anxiety problem may be social phobia which is fear of negative appraisal by others. This is an extremely distressing anxiety disorder, and can lead to avoiding places and people for fear that people may view one negatively. In therapy one learns to 'mange' this problems and some people even overcome it completely. Again, in most cases it should not take longer than 3 to 4 months using cognitive behavioral therapy. Moreover, now that he feels your family and friends accept him, he may feel there is no need to confront the potential fear that arises from making new friends. Of course, this is just conjecture. You must talk to him about these issues.

In any case, offer him encouragement if he tries to manage life without his counselor and make new friends. Suggest to him that you understand how hard it will be for him but that you think it would be worthwhile for him to try, and that you will be supportive of this.

Then you are both moving on and growing. There are a couple of things you could suggest apart from sports activities to help him make friends and gain confidence in himself. (An anxious person can easily become self-absorbed and fearful of others, especially if he suffers social phobia). Suggest the Toastmasters club in your area. These are organizations where each prepares a speech for the rest of the members just to become more proficient at speech making, and in the process can overcome lots of barriers in life in terms of anxiety, shyness, social phobia etc.

I wish you both well in your marriage and your future life. I do believe that there are not too many problems that cannot be resolved with love, support, friendship, openness, honesty----and talking about issues freely with no DEFENSIVENESS and no COUNTER ATTACKING. That is if you can talk like the friends which is a good and necessary basis for marriage, then problems can be resolved in an environment of caring.

Best Wishes

Pat (Treicha) Ryan Ms, B.Sc (Hons) Psych, Psychologist

This question was answered by Pat Ryan. Pat is a registered psychologist and has a private practice in Wollongong, Australia, having worked in several esteemed drug & alcohol therapeutic communities. Her aim is to empower: to safely explore relationships, emotions, unresolved conflicts, patterns of behavior and symptoms of disease--a structured cognitive behavioral approach as the predominant theoretical context with psychodynamic contribution.


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