Last night the BBC did what it does best, a beautifully filmed costume drama that also made you think. The scandalous Lady W was the true story of a scandal that shook the Georgian world, which was, when it came to sex a rather open-minded place. (So long as you were rich and discreet.) The Worsley’s were rich, attractive, well-connected and apparently had it all. Lord Worsley apparently also had a fetish for watching his wife have sex with other men, and hid behind a door to do exactly this.
The TV show presented Seymour, Lady Worsley, as an initially unwilling participant, only agreeing because it would please her husband. Now of course we cannot know the actual feelings of either of them around what was happening. The court records and scandal sheets come to us framed through the lens of a particular time, place and culture, but for the moment let’s accept the director’s interpretation of events.
So you have a couple who love each other, and the man (it can be the woman, more of that later) has something they want to explore that their partner is unsure about. This happens more than often than you may think. People can realise they are bi, or polyamorous or trans,(1) or queer, or wish to explore BDSM only after marriage. Sometimes, it is the solidity and security of a marriage that causes them to feel safe enough to express something they have always known. What happens if this couple arrive in the therapy room?
Very often the couple will arrive expecting a therapist to be the judge. To tell them X or Y is morally right or wrong, to side with one party and firmly exclude the desires of another. I would have to make very clear to Lord and Lady W that I was not going to do that. He is not wrong for wanting to explore a sexual fantasy, she is not wrong for feeling uncomfortable about it. I must add here that neither is she wrong for agreeing to do it because she loves him.
My place would be to facilitate communication between both of them in which they explored, together, what his desire and her refusal meant. The therapy room could be an ideal space to set hard, or soft limits on what did happen. In real life Seymour contracted an STI, inevitable perhaps at the time. In a modern cuckold scenario it would be important to discuss safe sex, and within counselling such a discussion could take place.
It would be vital that Lord W really hear his wife’s objections, and understand that emotional blackmail is unacceptable. “I want to do this” is a perfectly fine sentiment, “if you really loved me you would do this” is not. In couple counselling it is important to focus on your own thoughts and feelings. Lord W may feel unloved, that is his feeling, and as a counsellor I can help him to explain why, but I can also stop any attempts to say how his wife feels. By the same token Lady W should be allowed to say exactly how the idea makes her feel, without any suggestion from her husband that this makes her “vanilla” or prudish. The simple tool of a talking stick can be incredibly helpful here. Hearing someone talk about how they feel, using only “I” phrases, and having to listen enhances communication hugely.
An aspect of couple counselling that differs from one person counselling is that it is usual to give homework. This is so the therapeutic work can be continued by the couple outside of the therapy room. This might be as simple as a date night, to carry on the communication, or specific to the couple. For example for this couple would there be an electronic way they could explore cuckolding that both were comfortable with?
It may be the case that the gap cannot be bridged, that Lady W feels unable to do the things her husband desires, and Lord W feels unable to accept not exploring them. In this situation as a therapist I can aid with a process of splitting up that hopefully is not based on recrimination and blame, but simple an acceptance of difference. It is not a therapist’s job to “save” a relationship.
One last point, earlier I mentioned that I was accepting the director’s interpretation of events, that Lady W was unwilling and her husband eager. As a therapist it is vital I leave any preconceptions outside the room. It may be the case that my imaginary couple arrive because she wants to explore cuckolding and he is unwilling. Part of being non judgemental is leaving societal preconceptions aside.
Can I answer my own question, would couple counselling have helped? Assuming they were both willing to attend, I think could have. Communication is the key to surviving the ups and downs of married life, if you can honestly say how you are feeling, and listen when your partner says how they are feeling then the chances of making it to the telegram from the queen are hugely enhanced.
(1) Just to clarify I am aware trans is not a sexuality.