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Jools, P. (2015). “Ethics and the practice of couple and family therapy” by Elisabeth Shaw, InPsych, February, 2011 Available at: Cpl. Fam. Psychoanal., 5(2):214-216.

(2015). Couple and Family Psychoanalysis, 5(2):214-216

Occasional Review

“Ethics and the practice of couple and family therapy” by Elisabeth Shaw, InPsych, February, 2011 Available at:

Review by:
Penelope Jools

Writing from her perspective as a member of the Australian Psychological Society, the premise of Elisabeth Shaw's article is that the practice of couple and family psychotherapy invokes particular ethical challenges. She argues that, unlike other forms of counselling and psychotherapy, its focus is on the relationship. This differentiates it from work with individuals, so raising a number of particular and complex issues. One such is the importance of understanding the social and historical contexts for the couple or family, and how rapidly these contexts are changing. As evidence she cites the emergence of internet pornography, surrogacy, same-sex parenting, and working with perpetrators of abuse.

Shaw's first concern is about “competency to practice”. Stressing that “without core training, duty of care is potentially breached”, she notes that individual therapists untrained in couple and family work seem quite happy to undertake it, as if it were an extension of their work with an individual, rather than possessing unique and intrinsic qualities.

Shaw next discusses the issue of “informed consent”, making the point that in a couple or family the person making contact is not necessarily expressing consent for the others in the family.

She observes that confidentiality is strikingly complex with couples and families, especially when moving between individual and family sessions and that dilemmas arising are not well-addressed in ethical codes. It seems to me too that when this work is done within the larger framework of a family court or child protection, issues of confidentiality may not fit well with statutory requirements for mental health practitioners.

Considering “neutrality and dual relationships”, the author also raises the potentially compromising, everyday issue for couple therapists of the alliances that are, covertly or overtly, sought by one partner against the other, recruiting the therapist to take sides. She also lists a number of considerations arising from the tension between the individual and the collective. There is a final pithy “Ethics checklist”, and an interesting list of references.

The questions raised in this article are both legitimate and timely.

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