Terminating The Counselling Relationship
Jan Sutton is an independent counsellor, trainer, author and personal development consultant. William Stewart is a freelance counsellor, counsellor supervisor, and author who has worked in nursing, psychiatric social work and as a lecturer and student counsellor.
Counselling is a journey which always has the final destination in view.
The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances; if there is any reaction, both are transformed.
Counselling is a relationship with a purpose. Within it are the seeds of the ending that will come when the purpose is completed. Termination is built into the initial contract, and is kept in view throughout the counselling relationship. A ‘weaning off period is recommended, especially if counselling has taken place over a long time.
Preparing for termination
Termination should be well planned and worked through. Premature endings can be very traumatic to both client and counsellor. Termination should be approached with as much sensitivity and caring as any stage in the counselling. When counselling has taken place over a long period, the original reason(s) may have faded into insignificance.
Counselling is like taking a journey; we know where we have come from, and roughly the route taken, but looking back, the starting point has become obscured, partly through distance, but also through time. Unlike a journey, it is necessary for both counsellor and client to look back in order to firmly establish the final position. Looking back to where and why the journey began may prove difficult; feelings, as well as memories, fade with time. Looking back is not always comfortable. It may reveal obstacles not previously recognised.
The relationship between counsellor and client is not an end in itself. Evaluation helps to establish just how the client has been able to transfer the learning into relationships outside of counselling. Evaluation helps the client to realise and acknowledge personal gains. The counsellor, in return, receives something from every counselling relationship.
A terminal evaluation should identify:
- 1.The different problems and how these were tackled.
- 2.The goals and how they have been achieved.
- 3.Areas of growth and insights.
A terminal evaluation gives both client and counsellor a feeling of completeness. It gives the counsellor an opportunity to look at some of those things that did not go according to plan, as well as those that did. A well carried out evaluation not only looks backward, it also looks forward. A final evaluation provides the client with something positive to carry into the future.
Success? Failure? Shared responsibility?
Success is not always so easily measured. A person who comes for one session and leaves saying, ‘I feel better for having talked it over, even though there is nothing you can actually do,’ may then be more able to cope with life.
For example, Angela, a middle-aged woman, came to see her counsellor, William. She had multiple difficulties arising from a disastrous second marriage. She had left her first husband, ‘a boring and uninteresting man’, for a ‘good looking, jolly, charming man’, who later turned into a criminal and who, at the time she met the counsellor, was in prison. She poured out her story, saying as she finished, ‘I know there’s nothing you can do. But it has helped to talk about it and not hide it.’
Success and progress or failure – whose responsibility is it?
Whose credit or whose responsibility? Unlike the engineer carrying out a bench procedure, the counsellor has no blueprint to follow and ultimately it is the client who must shoulder the responsibility for his own decisions and actions.
It would be all too easy when counselling ends without seeing positive results to pass all the responsibility on to the client. If counsellors feel, ‘If only I had been more open, more communicative, less defensive,’ and so on, this should lead to them fully evaluating their own contribution.
Similarly it may be easy, when counselling ends positively, for counsellors to accept all the credit, forgetting that whatever their contribution has been, it was the clients who were in focus throughout; and whatever was happening within the counsellors, much more was likely to be happening within the clients. If counsellors experience growth from conflict within the counselling relationship, so also will the clients experience conflict and subsequent growth. To the client then must go the credit for whatever success has been achieved. Likewise, lack of success must remain with the client. The counsellor shares in both.
Clients who have succeeded in climbing a few hills are more likely to want to tackle mountains, and, emotionally, are more equipped to do so. Counsellors who have helped create an atmosphere of trust and respect, and have helped a client travel a little way along the road of self-discovery, are entitled to share the success the client feels.
The feeling of failure in counselling is difficult to handle. Blame should not be attributed to either counsellor or client. Both (if possible, if not the counsellor alone) should examine what did happen rather than what did not happen.
The feeling of failure, and consequent blame, is more likely when the client terminates counselling prematurely. When counsellors have created a conducive climate, and clients are unable to travel their own road toward self-discovery, then the responsibility for not travelling that road must rest with them.
Travelling at the client’s pace
We can only take people along the road of self-discovery who are willing to travel with us. We can only travel at their pace. Unless two (or a group) are in agreement, the journey toward self-discovery will be fraught with impossibilities.
This is often coupled with the humbling acceptance that perhaps not all that was hoped for has been achieved. Added to this is the knowledge that in the helping, one has been helped; that in sharing the pain of another’s wounds, one’s own wounds have been touched and transformed. Above all, there is a sense of gratitude that whatever was changed was made possible by both people.
You give but little when you give of your possessions.
It is when you give of yourself that you truly give.