(This post will make a lot more sense of you’ve read my previous posting, https://thetalkingtherapist.wordpress.com/2013/09/18/the-nightmare-client-who-taught-me-to-be-a-therapist/. It may also help to know that for years I have been working with couples, together with a female colleague.)
What is it that makes a client behave in the no-prisoners-taken way Ellen found herself behaving?
It’s the same driving force that makes couples behave abominably to one another.
But not the lovely, Cinderella-and-the-prince romantic love we like to read about and see in movies.
Freud called it transference love.
What love means to us is inevitably shaped by our earliest experiences of it, both positive and negative. We don’t stop loving our parents if they are cruel, abusive, unsympathetic, or cold. Transference love is Cinderella love lived through the distorting lens of our earliest experiences.
These templates of love are inevitably evoked when we find ourselves in an intimate relationship, one which evokes our deepest vulnerabilities. We repeat (often unwillingly and unconsciously) earlier patterns of relationship, patterns which were set in place in founding relationships.
Often these patterns are destructive, but individuals and couples do not tend to see them as such, at least not initially. They regard them as understandable reactions to extreme situations. And there is a truth to this, though the extreme situation in which this reaction would be understandable is not located in the present, but in the past.
What I’m saying is that insofar as she could make sense of her actions (and there is no doubt she knew they were extreme), Ellen felt they were justified by the pain I caused her, her desperate need, and my felt imperviousness to it.
Even before she started therapy, Ellen knew that if she started to love me, we’d both be in trouble. She knew that “love” would open in a fissure in her, a fissure to the past that would make her — and our relationship — a nightmare. She told me she’d tried to avoid all this. “I chose you on purpose because I thought I’d never be attracted to you. That way, I’d never fall in love with you.”
We all know this situation. You’re attracted to someone, fall in love, and then, as your relationship develops and your mutual dependency deepens, you start to treat your partner differently. Irrationally. Worse.
From my work with couples, I would guess that apart from my general unattractiveness, there was another reason Ellen chose me: she knew I was new to the job and sensed I wasn’t really at home with myself and was too invested in being “good.” In other words, I was like her parents. My way of being gave her a chance to repeat something that she had tried with her parents unsuccessfully, in the hopes of getting a better outcome.
Why do I say I’ve learned this from my couples work? Because what we discover again and again in our couples work is that the reason people stay together in nightmarish marriages is that their partners have been chosen unconsciously to “solve” a problem from an earlier founding relationship. A woman whose father is unforgiving will (unconsciously) choose a judgemental unforgiving partner, in the hope that through the alchemy of their relationship, her partner will be changed and she will get from him what she never got from her father. And he will have chosen a woman who needs forgiveness so that he can confront his own inability to forgive herself for being vulnerable and human.
Of course, this kind of attempt at resolving a problem from a founding relationship in a couple is much more problematic than attempting it in therapy, because in therapy, there is both distance and sign up.
By distance I mean, the therapist (at least in theory) doesn’t need his client in the same way as a husband needs a wife. He isn’t having to deal with his own needs in the same way as when he’s a husband/lover. As the old joke goes, marriage is therapy without the anaesthesia.
By sign up I mean any therapist worth their salt knows that the most they can hope for is to be treated as badly as anyone in a client’s life. By agreeing to take someone on as a client,, they’ve signed up for the journey. This cannot be said in couples. Couples have signed up to be there for one another in sickness and in health, in good times and bad… But not to sorting out the partner’s primary problems with love.
So though I was deeply affected by Ellen, I didn’t need or depend on her in the way I depend on a partner. This, in the fullness of time, gave me ability to reflect, get distance, modify my thinking/feeling/behaviour , and change.
If there wasn’t this lock-and-key, fish-and-hook, relationship in a couple (or in a therapy?), it would be much easier to cut the knot. You’d just be able to say, “This doesn’t work for me. I’m out of here.”
It’s having this choice that makes it possible to make a relationship work. It’s not something that’s always there. It has to be won. In my next post, I’ll talk about how.