Arm’s Length

I’ve been thinking a lot about the therapeutic relationship ever since my last session. Particularly the end of it, where I told the therapist I resent her for holding me at arm’s length and she responded with genuine shock and then shared that she actually feels very close to me. Which caused me to respond with my own genuine shock.

Because what does that mean?

How can she, a therapist, feel close to me, her client? Isn’t that not allowed? Not officially, but in that unspoken way we interpret the strange and nuanced dance between therapist and client? I am supposed to feel close to her, right? There should be loads of transference and attachment and I should be pining after her – longing for connection, pushing every boundary to get it? Right?

Maybe not.

There is certainly transference in our work. Attachment is somewhere in there as well, but it’s very different. I feel safe with her, but not drawn to her. I feel (emotionally) held, but not dependent on her. I feel cared about and seen, but not pathologized. I feel protected, but not infantilized. I look forward to our sessions, and sometimes the time between them is agonizing, but I don’t feel a persistent desire to make contact with her. Even when I do reach out to her, I use that time wisely and I usually end the phone call myself, unprompted. I get what I need and I hang up. I don’t draw out the interaction as long as possible, hoping to get every second of her time I can draw out.

Which is only strange because it is so unlike the way I felt and behaved around my last therapist, who I thought about constantly. I was almost addicted to her. But the more I look back and analyze the situation, the more I can see that perhaps that is exactly what she wanted. Probably not consciously, but considering her fairly obvious lack of awareness, it’s not too bizarre to imagine she let her sub- or unconscious desires get in the way of my therapy.

Which, to be fair, is very much a part of my pattern of relationships. Before I met my wife, every relationship I had was tumultuous. I needed that. I craved it. If a relationship was not filled with intensity and conflict, it just wasn’t a relationship to me. I didn’t understand how people could not be locked in an emotional, destructive exchange. Isn’t that how you expressed love and passion? How else could I know someone cared about me if they weren’t willing to fight with me at three in the morning?!

I’m serious.

In the early days of our relationship, I would pick endless fights with my wife. I would egg her on and push her buttons. But I was always let down because she is literally the least reactive person on Earth. So she never rose up to meet my challenge. She never even rose her voice. It drove me insane because I thought she didn’t care about me or about our relationship.

Turns out she cared very much, but she was also not willing to engage in a screaming match with me to prove it.

It took me a long time to understand this. And so our relationship struggled for those first few years as I adjusted to this new way of life – one that did not involve a continuous stream of fighting and making up. It was a strange way to live and even now, I find myself itching to get a reaction out of her. (I have yet to provoke her enough to yell back).

When I reflect on that time, I realize that I also felt as though Wife kept me at arm’s length. I felt as though I was never quite important enough and that she wasn’t really letting me in. I felt far away from her and that distance frightened me.

But it was not really distance at all. And the problem was not that she didn’t care enough, it was that I had never seen any emotion expressed without it being at the very top of someone’s emotional register.

In my family, anger meant destructive rage – throwing items and throwing punches. Sadness meant unbearable silence, isolation, and inconsolable sobbing. Fear meant adrenaline-through-the-roof, my-life-is-in-actual-danger terror. And love meant an all-consuming, boundary-less, tension-filled display of loyalty and engulfment. There was no middle ground. If you loved someone, that meant you had no idea where they stopped and you started.

So it is rather unsurprising that this is the pattern I repeated in all of my friendships, romantic pursuits, and therapeutic relationships. It was not fun, but it was familiar. And we find extraordinary comfort in the familiar. Beyond that, I didn’t really know there were other ways to interact with people until about three years after I started dating my wife.

Yet, still, I suppose I thought she was a conundrum; thd only one like her. An endangered species of sorts.

I think I was wrong.

What this therapeutic relationship reminds me of the most are those early years of dating my wife. I knew I loved her. In fact, I knew I would marry her. But there was a certain casualty to our love that felt comforting. Despite how nervous I felt to not be engaged in consistent turmoil with her, there was always a reassurance that we didn’t need big displays of emotion or passionate tension to know we were in love. And there has always been a solid understanding that if we could somehow just give ourselves enough time, and somehow just believe in our love, it would all work out.

So far, so good.

I’d originally wondered if perhaps the feeling of “arm’s length” with this therapist wasn’t coming from her and that maybe I was holding her at arm’s length and then projecting that onto her. But I’ve had two days to think about it and I’m no longer sure that’s true.

I think what is really going on is that, in lieu of a relational crisis, I am not reassured that this relationship is meaningful. Without huge displays of emotion to procure her commitment and turmoil to bring us closer, I am at a loss. I push her, wait for the blowback, and then push some more when it doesn’t come. I am constantly waiting for the big explosion that will either prove to me that this is a true relationship and that she really does care about me. Or, it will show me she’s a useless flake who can’t handle me.

I may be waiting an extraordinarily long time.

What I’ve needed more than anything throughout the relationship with my wife is patience and faith. And I think perhaps that is precisely what I need right now in therapy as well.

Because this may not be the usual relationship of days past, but I think that may also be the best thing about it.


23 thoughts on “Arm’s Length

  1. littlevoicetalks says:

    My therapists in the past have said this and it wasn’t being u boundaries. I guess they can feel close regardless of transference if the relationship is at a point of genuine understanding and trust. That’s what therapy is, learning the skills with the therapist to take outside the room, the therapist of course has input, feelings and emotions; I guess that’s why they have structured and compulsory supervision.

    I’m proud of you Andi. You have so much awareness and so very insightful. I truly take so much from your blog. I ‘get’ you, I guess because I have similar feelings and that makes me feel close to you as a human being being understood as another human being and I guess maybe that’s what your T means too…


    Liked by 1 person

    • Andi says:

      Yes, I suppose you’re right. It’s just hard for me to wrap my brain around sometimes. Thanks for the support! I appreciate your kind words and I really love what you said about my blog. That means a lot xo


  2. Jen says:

    “Because this may not be the usual relationship of days past, but I think that may also be the best thing about it.”

    I think this is really on target. Essential to remember — even though it wasn’t typical of your past relationships, that doesn’t mean your past relationships were ideal. You remarked on that so clearly when talking about the difference between your wife and the relationships that came before her.

    And I know you know this already but – just because something feels good, or absolutely essential or needed – like parts of the relationship with Zoey – doesn’t mean it is.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Andi says:

      Indeed. This may be uncomfortable solely due to its unfamiliarity. But I think if I can just hang on and see this through, it will pay off much better than all of those chaotic relationships. Thank you.


  3. Jen says:

    I have thoughts about the feeling close, too. I’m not really sure how I come to terms with it with my therapist, who I’ve often joked about wondering if she is the same as yours – so many similarities and in the same city! I’m not really able to put it into words well. But I know it’s possible. And I don’t believe it’s just transference – I strongly suspect that it’s genuine. I relate it a little to my relationship with my clients – students with various levels of disabilities. I feel very close to many of them, yet it’s a professional relationship. I feel close even with some of their parents, which is even more of a professional relationship. How can that be? I don’t know. It just is. But if I can do it with them, my therapist can do it with me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Andi says:

      That’s true. I remember feeling close to my own clients when I worked with at-risk youth. Not on a personal level, but on a professional level. I don’t know why I never thought to connect the two. Thank you for this. Really good point.


  4. Tina says:

    I can relate to questionable if you love me when there are no strong emotional reactions … give me a reaction & I know you care (even if it’s dysfunctional). My therapist lack of emotional displays has me convinced he doesn’t care. ugh I still have a limited understanding of transference but perhaps your current t reminds you of someone other than your previous t did, so your reaction isn’t “pining, trying to bend boundaries, “. Perhaps your transference reaction is affected by what you experienced with your last t … either “that was painful & I refuse to let that happen again so I’ll hold back or I learned enough about transference to see my t more for who she is & not who she reminds me of.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Andi says:

      Yeah, it can be tricky to know whether or not someone is invested if there’s so little emotion being displayed. I also convince myself it means people don’t care. I think the transference is always very important, and this therapist encourages me to bring that in and explore it. Other than the parallels between this relationship and the one I have with my wife, she doesn’t really remind me of anyway. Little things she does trigger me, but overall she is a novel personality in my life. I think that’s probably why I struggle so much to understand and connect with her.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Cat says:

    Very insightful, Andi. Your relationship with zo was so intense and needy because that is how she created it with someone in a vulnerable position
    she wasn’t aware, but her own complicated needs got in the way and you came off the worst . This current T encourages your own empowerment.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Zoe says:

    This post actually reaaaaaally resonates with me. I think this is why I’m having some issues now — passive people make me feel like I don’t matter enough. I weigh the measure of my love or passion by the severity of what it makes me feel and couldn’t accept that others show fondness less heatedly. So I have a lot to reflect on, thanks to you. I could have written this very post.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Rachel says:

    I really relate! I don’t have the same addictive-feeling pining and longing for my current therapist as I did with the two prior. It feels so different, and I wonder how she can care and be invested if she isn’t chasing after me to ensure I am okay, if she isn’t crossing my boundaries or professional ethical standards. Surely she must not care or there must not be a connection.
    I do have to say, I 100% believe that it is within the scope and even aim of the psychotherapy discipline for therapists to bond to their clients and feel an attachment. Particularly when working with trauma and people with attachment issues. Schema Therapy says that the genuine bond and care for the client is an absolute requisite for effective therapy, because clients will be able to tell if that bond isn’t there. The client does need to feel that connection, which your therapist so beautifully displayed for you at your last session. I think the problem isn’t so much therapist getting attached, but most therapists being afraid or unable to care for their clients in a boundaried way.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Andi says:

      I thought you might relate to this. I think because my initiation into mental health was so severe (i.e. psychiatric hospitals, where there is almost NO closeness or connection at all and a constant reinforcement of seemingly arbitrary and confusing boundaries), I tend to equate “getting help” with that environment. The other extreme is someone like Zooey (or my therapist before her), where the counter-transference was NOT managed well and the boundaries were unclear and always changing. I think this therapist falls somewhere in the middle, but because that is so mild and unfamiliar, my brain automatically translates it into “she doesn’t care about you”.
      Interesting information about schema therapy. I suppose I never imagined a therapist feeling a genuine bond with me, but maybe that is what’s happening. I won’t lie, I kinda like the idea of that.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Rachel says:

        I hear you, on so many levels. Here is the reference to the Schema Therapy practitioner’s guide, from the chapter on “Schema Therapy for BPD” – “to be effective, the relationship between the therapist and the patient must be characterized by mutual respect and genuineness. The therapist must truly care about the patient for the therapy to work. If the therapist does not truly care about the patient, the patient will realize it and act out or leave. The therapist must be real, not an actor playing the role of a therapist. Patients with BPD are frequently very intuitive and immeidately detect any falseness on the part of the therapist.”

        Liked by 1 person

      • Andi says:

        Huh. That is spot on. I’ve often been called “difficult” or “picky” or “angsty” in my interactions with practitioners, but it’s because I can tell within 5 seconds if they’re bullshitting me and I cannot tolerate the “pretend to care” nonsense. It’s excruciating. Just be honest. I don’t want your fake caring. None is better, thanks.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Rachel says:

        No kidding. I find that sometimes they pretend to like me, or sometimes like me, until I say something too smart or something they don’t like or want to look at it. Ticks me off. (not to sound arrogant, but I think you know what I mean). I think “sorry, I am not going to pretend to be a dumbass just to make you feel secure in your role.” That whole bit about having to be a certain kind of client to get support, b.s.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Amb says:

    I absolutely think that could be the best part about your relationship with your T. It’s crazy how foreign a healthy relationship can actually feel when you haven’t had a whole lot of them in your life…

    Liked by 1 person

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