By Australia Counselling member Brad McLean
Google generates over fourteen million responses to this question suggesting it’s a common concern for people seeking therapy.
So what is the answer? It’s the alliance that counts.
Most of the available research strongly suggests that it is the quality of the connection between client and therapist that has the strongest influence on whether a therapy is successful. The level of trust, quality of the rapport and the emotional connection are the critical factors and these appear to transcend gender. What that means is that you have to be comfortable, safe and feel understood and respected by the person you will sit in a room with at least once a week for a considerable time – whether it is a woman or a man.
This ‘felt sense’ of the therapist being right (or not) for you may or may not be linked to his or her gender – it’s likely to be a factor but not the determining one on whether the therapy works.
Where gender matters
Where gender can play a role is in how it impacts the level of comfort you feel about being in the intensity of therapy or counselling. This can be affected by how male or female roles intersect with our individual narrative, memories, fantasies, family role models and our unique experiences with our own and other genders.
How we feel about genders is based on many formative experiences both past and present. The issue has to be viewed through a number of lenses including cultural, political and other factors. When it comes to therapy, the question is who do you most feel comfortable with working with vulnerabilities, personal stories, memories and emotions embedded in your inner world?
Family gender roles
Some families prepare children to feel comfortable with these processes and that might be a father who is particularly emotional about his children and willingly shares those emotions thereby modeling an ‘OKness’ around emotional expression. Male caregiver role models can also have the opposite effect, shutting down displays of emotion because they struggle with their own emotional regulation.
For other families it might be a mum who struggles to self-regulate as she faces painful inner experiences and with the best intentions she tries to shield her children from seeing how fragile she feels. For some children, this might be interpreted as a non-verbal message that it isn’t OK to be up front about your feelings. As adults we live with the models of expressing emotions from our parents and other significant people from our early life and they impact how we feel about expressing our feelings, in the presence of different genders and, of course, others in general.
In the context of abuse
There are far too many victims of sexual, physical and emotional abuse in our society, perpetrated by adults and affecting both children and adults. When a person brings these complex, deeply painful and distressing experiences into the therapy room, trust is so paramount that the choice of a therapist’s gender can take on a new significance, prompting client’s to need the safest possible environment to work through such profound trauma.
Both male and female therapists should support, respect and assist a client who needs to change therapists to work through these extremely distressing experiences in a way that makes the client feel as safe and supported as possible.
Bridging the divide
In other contexts, I believe a therapist of a different gender can offer something important for a client facing issues around intimacy, relationships, self-awareness and attachment. I have been referred female client by my colleagues because the client has expressed a desire to work with a male therapist and it is interesting to ask these clients why.
Often clients explain that the decision is about wanting to understand their own process in relation to men or the absence of a male figure as the person grew up. Others raise a strong drive to safely enter a therapeutic relationship as a model for how they might like to be related to by males; reliably, empathically, responsively, with clarity, safe boundaries and trust.
The male therapist can also offer insights into how males can be reflective, open and connected to their feelings thereby modeling what male behavior can be like. For some female clients (but not all) this can offer insights into different aspects of the male psyche, adding new dimensions to relationships outside the therapy room.
Female and male clients can work safely through a lot of anger, frustration and fear of the other gender through a therapeutic relationship with someone of another gender. The potential to experience the gamut of positive and negative emotional responses, and work through these, can lead to a new way of connecting across the genders. This always requires clearly defined purpose or contract for the work, strict and clear ethical boundaries and a consistent frame within which the work is carried out.
An individual choice
Selecting a counselor, therapist or coach is a highly individual and personal process that comes down to a ‘felt’ sense of compatibility and choices based on unique factors. As mentioned earlier, it is the alliance formed between client and therapist that holds the key to a successful therapy so go with your gut, see where it takes you and know you can always change if you choose to.
Brad McLean is a relational psychotherapist and coach practicing in East Redfern, Sydney. He sees individuals and couples for short-term and long-term therapy and managers for professional coaching. Contact Brad via email.