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?
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?!
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.