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Being Fair in Couples Therapy

The concept of neutrality as proposed by the Milan team in their influential 1980 paper Hypothesising – circularity-neutrality: Three Guidelines for the Conductor of the Session, was problematic from the start. Defined as a strategic interviewing position adopted by the practitioner to validate all family members’ views and a stance to create an openness to all hypotheses and orient towards a systemic epistemology, it did not extend to intrafamilial abuses of power. It was as if one should be ‘neutral’ until you couldn’t be. While this was obvious in cases of overt abuse and violence it soon became clear that the definition of abuses of power, especially in couples work was highly value laden and practitioner dependent.

Feldman (2024) addresses this challenge in her paper ‘The elusive nature of neutrality: The role of values in couple therapy’. Her focus is on how practitioner values shape the therapy process both in terms of issues explored and the conversations generated and, perhaps more importantly, those that are ignored. She notes that couples often seek therapy due to a clash in values, around matters like gender equity and the importance of emotional expression as a conduit to intimacy; values espoused by most practitioners.  This brings a significant risk of supporting one person and their view at the expense of their partner. The author illustrates the power of the practitioner‘s values through case studies where she explores the therapist’s stance and how these limit entertaining alternative solutions. One example is that of a couple who are referred by the woman’s therapist identifying the husband’s lack of connection as evidenced through limited verbal communication and attempts to connect sexually, as the primary problem. The author notes that the individual therapist had reinforced this perspective privileging the value of intimacy based on emotional verbal expression and viewing physical connection as ‘second rate’. This value, shared by many practitioners, locates the responsibility for change in the non-talker and fails to explore the possibility of change in the other. This, she says reflects a gender bias, with men’s forms of intimacy, often non-verbal and physical deprioritised and devalued.

Feldman’s focus is on the provision of a framework to manage the couple conversation in a way that does not limit case conceptualisation and intervention and is fair to both. She recommends practitioners become clear about values they bring to couple therapy and seek peer supervision to explore these. However, if a practitioner finds that the values they hold prevent the authentic proposal of alternative perspectives, she recommends this be shared with the clients for open discussion. The case studies and the paper are challenging, as they should be, as they hold up a mirror to our much-valued positions of neutrality which, on examination, are sometimes neither fair nor unbiased.


Feldman, T. (2024). The elusive nature of neutrality: The role of values in couple therapy. Family Process, 00, 1–12.

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