*** Now Available: Attachment to Your Therapist: A Conversation. This series of posts in expanded E-Book form, on Amazon.***
I had an opportunity to consult with a patient who asked if the kind of strong attachment we have been talking about ever resolves. Do you eventually feel differently about your therapist?
How can we understand the intense attachments that happen in therapy?
Her question re-opened the subject of where do such fierce attachments come from? For me, when feelings are out of proportion with adult reality, its time to look at childhood experience. The question I ask is when in a child’s development might he or she feel something just like this. As a new grandfather, I’ve been noticing more vividly what it must be like to be very small. When there is a very powerful attachment, I picture children around three. Younger ones—say, two-year-olds—are more focused on their own needs. A little later, children begin to see the parent or caregiver as a very special individual apart from themselves. In their very small world, parents are huge and very intensely beloved, mind and body.
Why does this intense love get rekindled in therapy? We humans seem to have a wonderful capacity to protect our future. What I mean is that by freezing parts of the present, we insulate ourselves from worse forms of distortion and damage. Instead of growing up stunted by a shortfall of something crucial like love, we we are able to freeze in a stance of waiting, so that we don’t have to accept despair. Peter Levine (See earlier post on PTSD) talks about trauma responses becoming frozen at a moment of bodily experience. We seem to be able to tuck an incomplete wish or need away somewhere for as long as necessary while we wait to find new hope. This is one more instance of our instinctive affect avoidance. It is an avoidance of despair.
Until that moment, our wish or need stays dormant and we seem to get along alright without it. But when hope appears, suddenly the wish awakens. Like a plant spore touched by water, the wish comes to life with the same intensity as when it was frozen long ago. These observations might seem more like poetry than science but I am guessing that they are fairly accurate descriptions of neurobiology that will someday be correlated with the anatomy and physiology of the brain. In the meantime, this is the best I can do to make sense of how therapy, and the person of the therapist, by reawakening hope, can become the focus of intensely powerful, childlike love.
Sometimes the love becomes sexualized. My guess is that this may grow out of a developmental period a little later, closer to five or six. Why this age? Think of the fairytales that enthrall five and six-year-olds, but are not so gripping for three and four-year-olds. These are ages when such things as marriage and the complexities of jealousy and triangular relationships take their place in a child’s consciousness along with early versions of sexuality.
How, then, can these feelings resolve?
My answer was this: “When you were six, maybe you wanted to marry your daddy. When you were twenty, did you still feel the same?” Her eyes opened wide as she took in a new perspective. Feelings that had felt timeless and permanent, could also be seen as a phase of life. Suddenly she could see the attachment as a critical moment frozen in time and, in her case, still unfinished.
The resolution of attachment to a therapist is not something that can be forced. It has to be given due respect and treated as it should have been in childhood, with understanding and real compassion for the yearning and the ache. The feelings need to come out in the open with the clarity that they are real, but not of today. There is no room here for hiding due to shame nor for a therapist to mistake their origin. With that kind of respect, a process of transformation begins to evolve once again.
What happens then is probably more like the end of a love relationship. Losses and attachments don’t heal overnight. In my first post on attachment to your therapist, I think I was too glib about transferring feelings from a therapist to other, more appropriate, people. I wrote as if it were a simple, matter of fact transaction. The truth is that it takes more time and a more gradual letting go. The feelings are not simple or easily managed. If letting go isn’t forced, then there is room for a gradual transformation like the one from six-year-old love to twenty-year-old appreciation.
Please feel free to share your take on this issue. All of us would all like to hear others’ experiences.