Can therapy help if the problem is someone else?

By David Joel Miller, MS, Licensed Therapist & Licensed Counselor.


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Sometimes the problem is others.

Lots of times the client sits in front of us and tells the counselor that they are sure that they are not the problem. In their view, the other person, the one not in the room, is the problem. They tell me that and then they ask me to help them.

Actually many times the counselor can help in this situation.

There are two obvious possibilities here. First, it is possible that the person who has come to the office is reacting to the problems of another. If you are married to a drug addict or your child is having problems you may be right in saying that the other person needs therapy.

The other option is that the person who is telling the counselor the other person is the problem is mistaken. They have not recognized their role in creating and maintaining the occurrence they define as the issue.

The problem is you are here and the other person is not. It is hard to work on something or someone who is not there, hard but not impossible.

One way of looking at this is that this is a case of a problem in a relationship. Relationships involve one person doing something and the other person reacting or not reacting to the actions of the first person.

Both people in this relationship can be mentally healthy or they can both be seriously mentally ill. Either way, the issue that needs working on is not the individual but the way these two people are interacting. Add more people and you get a family, and as most of us suspect the majority of families are called dysfunctional by someone in them.

Think of this couple’s or family’s interactions as if it was a square dance. Each couple or family develops its own unique dance. Everyone does one thing first and then something else next. Your child does nothing, you yell, they ignore you and then you get upset and storm out and yell at your spouse, who now comes in and tells the kid to do what you said in the first place Now they kid does it, grumbling all the way and you not them become the bad person. It is you the “yeller” who is defined by the rest of the family as having an “anger management problem.”

Once the family develops a dance it becomes hard to change it. But like that square dance if one person in the square changes direction and does something different the whole square falls apart.

This time instead of yelling at your child, you turn off the electronics and then talk to them calmly. They ignore you, so now you calmly take away their entertainment. Something new has been introduced, you have changed the dance. This could end in all sorts of ways, some good and some not so good but the point is that by changing your dance steps you can force others to change theirs.

Now some of you are asking “What if the person who comes to the counseling room really is the person with the issue?”

The key here is that this person needs to understand two things.

1. What they are doing is not working.

2.  Changing others is hard work and requires them to change some of the things they have been doing.

So regardless of whose “fault”, it is. If someone in this family or couple starts the change process then the relationship will change. If you decide to try to change others by changing the way you relate to them, think this through or better yet talk this through with a professional.

Otherwise, you may change, the family may change and when you are all done you may decide you wished you had never started the change.

For tips on how to change others or more accurately induce them to change, look at the series of post about getting someone else to change listed below.

The changing others series:

One way we get others to do more of what we want them to do and less of what we wish to avoid is a process called Behavioral Modification. Here are six posts on that topic.

Changing Others – Part One  

Changing others part two

Rewards gone wild – Changing Others Part 3

Why ignoring them doesn’t work – Or does it Part 4

Why Your Child Won’t Behave

NO, NO, NO – Learning NO!

For more on the process of change see the blog post series “What are the Stages of Change

Staying connected with David Joel Miller

Two David Joel Miller Books are available now!

Bumps on the Road of Life. Whether you struggle with anxiety, depression, low motivation, or addiction, you can recover. Bumps on the Road of Life is the story of how people get off track and how to get your life out of the ditch.

Casino Robbery is a novel about a man with PTSD who must cope with his symptoms to solve a mystery and create a new life.

For these and my upcoming books; please visit my Amazon Author Page – David Joel Miller

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For more about David Joel Miller and my work in the areas of mental health, substance abuse, and Co-occurring disorders see my Facebook author’s page, davidjoelmillerwriter. A list of books I have read and can recommend is over at Recommended Books. If you are in the Fresno California area, information about my private practice is at

2 thoughts on “Can therapy help if the problem is someone else?

  1. Pingback: Can therapy help if the problem is someone else? | MadeleineMaya

  2. THANK YOU for giving us insight here on your blog. The one thing that struck me was about “Family” and when they get into poor behaviors and habits. My husband & I just came out of a living situation with all his siblings and us, a total of 7 in one house. WE HAD NO IDEA the abusive nature of his 2 brothers, the verbal and almost physical abusive way they communicate. There were 3 times, interactions with me and his younger brother that I had to almost call 911 because of the brothers Abusive behaviors towards me. He had it at the start that he didn’t want us to move into “HIS” house. We are FINALLY out of the house and in our own little townhouse. NEVER AGAIN will I live with family. Lessons Learned! Thanks for a great post.
    Author, Catherine Lyon 🙂


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