*** Now Available: Attachment to Your Therapist: A Conversation. This series of posts in expanded E-Book form, on Amazon.***
I just received this comment about my earlier post on “Attachment to Your Therapist.” The reader is really asking about therapist attachment to patients. It deserves an answer.
As someone who fits within the looked after her parents category, I have a fear about what you say at the end of this incredible article. My therapist gives everything she can to make this grieving process easier (and I do my best to talk about it, despite the humiliation). I can’t help but wonder, after she has given so much how will it be for her if I suddenly reach such a cold conclusion to therapy – with others being more interesting and me just being happy to say goodbye. It seems so cold. Yes, I may pay for her time – but she gives the rest generously. Would such a conclusion not hurt her?
First, a little more about the therapeutic relationship. Marlin Potash, who blogs in “Feeling Up in Down Times” describes the excellent concept of “Therapy Love.” What is so special about the therapy hour, which Dr. Potash describes as a “bubble” is that it exists outside the mainstream of life. All you see is the best of another human. You see someone who is wholly focused on you and has no visible needs or concerns of her (or his) own. If you are being demanding or difficult, your therapist may not do what you ask, but will not get angry or retaliate. If you criticize, she will take your concerns seriously without getting defensive and will try to help you sort out what part might be yours and what part is hers. Wow! How many relationships are like that?On the other hand, this ideal person is someone you don’t really know. You know him in the office, and maybe a few things about him, but really very little. Except for an occasional glimpse, you don’t see him when he is sick or whiny, you don’t see his worries, fears, weaknesses and shortcomings. You see him doing what he has chosen to do, presumably one of the things he does best. When you don’t really know the other person, the love you may feel is real, but not the kind that makes for a long term relationship or even a friendship outside the bubble of therapy.
The other side is not that different. Therapists come to know a great deal about you, but that, too is in the “bubble.” They know about your difficult characteristics and negative patterns, but they don’t have to live with them. They know about the things you have trouble with, but understand why and how hard you try to change. But, most importantly, they don’t have to deal with the real world consequences. This naturally breeds good feelings. Understanding makes empathy happen and empathy brings out affection. I, and most therapists, genuinely like our patients and, when their hour comes, I am glad to see each one of them.
Is the feeling as intense as yours may be towards your therapist? Probably not. A therapist who has only one patient may be too strongly affected by the ups and downs of that therapy to handle your strong feelings. It is better for you to be one of several. Nonetheless, within your hour you are special and important to your therapist and that specialness probably extends beyond your time as well.
So what about the end of therapy? First, there are different styles, when it comes to ending. In my earlier post, I pointed out that the needs that come from unfinished business in early life are often bigger than adult needs. Therapy is a special place for working out wishes and needs that will never be fulfilled. It is a place for understanding and grieving the things you can’t fix or undo. The therapy love that exists in the sessions is a real help in this work. On the other hand, the consultation room is not the place for the many needs that can be fulfilled in adult life. This is why there comes a point when the therapeutic work is done and a parting may be in order.
There are differing opinions about whether it is good for the end of therapy to be final, or for the door to be left open. I am more likely to leave the door open, and am glad to hear from my old patients. Forcing the termination to be final may have the benefit of making sure that any remaining feelings are dealt with, but in my own experience, the harshness is just as likely to leave a residue. I haven’t found that leaving the door open has prevented important issues from being addressed.
So finally, to get to your question, will your termination hurt your therapist? It is similar for both of you. Saying “Good bye” to the “therapy love” that has been positive for both of you is sad, as well as joyous. Real termination is anything but cold. It will be painful for both of you, but by taking the time to share your feelings about it, the pain will heal and leave you both intact and uninjured. Soon enough, you will both remember the good things more than the sadness. Will your therapist think about you? Probably, just as you will think about your therapist. The attachment is entirely real but it is a “Therapy Attachment.”
Be sure to check the other posts in this category. The next one is here.