ACA Blog

Pete Saunders
Sep 15, 2010

Good, Until Proven Otherwise

A couple walks into your office and as soon as they get a chance to share what brought them to see you, the wife starts shouting and complaining about how unreasonable and cruel her husband is. What is your initial thought? Is it, what would make her arrive at such a conclusion? Or is it, she should probably end this obviously unhealthy relationship right now? Or is it, how could this man stay married to this cantankerous woman?

As counselors and counselors-in-training, how do we resist passing judgments and even arriving at our own conclusions about a particular situation or individual? Should we even try to do so? Or, is it allowed as long as we keep our thoughts as just that?

In the national bestseller, The Art of Possibility co-author Rosamund Stone Zander who has a private practice in family therapy proved that such premature and even unproductive judgments take significant effort to avoid. She shared:

…an unusual interaction with a couple in my psychotherapy practice, a couple on the verge of separation. The husband, who had resisted coming to the session in the first place, had retreated to the farthest corner of the office, albeit only a few feet away. His wife was in a rage at him for his habit of withdrawing, just as he was doing then, and for leaving her alone too often. As the tension built, she pleaded with him and accused him and then she literally howled at him: “YOU DON’T LOVE ME!”

I heard my own voice shouting back at her “Who could love you when you act like this?” and realized that I had hurled myself between them. This was pretty terrifying for me – never mind what they must have felt. I was standing a foot from the woman’s face, the face of someone with whom I had worked intimately and whom I knew very well, saying the most untherapeutic thing imaginable.”

While Zander’s negative reaction is towards wife, I specifically used the scenario in the opening paragraph because of my own observation that men are usually blamed for the pitiable state of their relationships. Men tend to get the bitter end of the stick during a relationship crisis. But are they really at fault most of the times or are they just easy targets?

As counselors, we are bombarded with articles, books, movies, and real-life situations that indicate that men are usually the ones to cheat, lie, work late, spend less time with the kids, and have the most problems with in-laws. What about women? Overspending may very well top their list of faults but that is far from the point. The point is that we should be mindful of passing judgments especially before actually hearing the full case. We should be careful not to succumb to the fallacy of generalization or thinking individuals are bad even if their actions suggest that they are.

It was Goethe who said, “If we take Man as he really is (without purpose or meaning), we make him worse. But if we overestimate him, idealize him, overrate him, see him as he should be, we make him capable of what he can become."

As counselors, isn’t that what we do anyway? We accept a client as they come to us (as they are) realizing that they have a tremendous amount of potential for growth. We then invite them to explore the possibilities with us. In many cases, we watch those who embrace the possibilities grow into their full potential over time. My hope is that we always find the strength to consistently apply Goethe’s principle.

In my view, everyone is good until proven otherwise. And even if proven otherwise, good still exists. I doubt any of us believe that anyone is solely evil, or good for that matter. However, when that wife is firing bullets of all the bad things her husband has done, he can begin to sound a lot like ‘Dr. Evil’. These situations present a unique opportunity for us to help our clients with perspective and the idea of working with the end in mind – possibility. I like what Nelson Mandela said about this, “It’s a good thing to assume, to act on the basis that others are men of integrity and honor, because you tend to attract integrity and honor if that is how you regard those with whom you work.” So by perspective I mean, being aware of the bad while celebrating the good.

I believe that most of us are better than how we actually behave. The unfortunate thing is that sometimes we do harm, thinking we are doing good - especially in relationships. So, the next time ‘Mrs. Good’ walks in with ‘Dr. Evil’ and starts the accusations, consider all the possibilities begging to be explored, especially those of accentuating the good that lies in all of us.

Pete Saunders is a graduate student at Capella University. He also writes a weekly blog and conducts a weekly video interview on manhood at

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