Psychotherapists sometimes have fantasies of finding just the right match for clients — particularly clients they like, I suspect. An article in the New York Times does a pretty good job of sharing one therapist’s thoughts on the subject.
Dating is challenging, and there’s the temptation to find a short-cut that would lead to a successful relationship for the two people involved. The issue also highlights one of the subtler aspects of psychotherapy: therapists develop feelings for their clients, just as clients often do for therapists. This is normal and healthy, but it is the responsibility of the therapist to make sure it serves the process and doesn’t get in the way. That’s one reason psychotherapy is different from friendship.
The therapist who wrote the article put it this way:
I shouldn’t find partners for my patient any more than I should cook her dinner: both are skills she has to develop for herself….Additionally (and why was I thinking this through so fully?) she might feel coerced into something she really didn’t want to do. A therapeutic relationship is by definition unequal; therapists have considerable power, and patients want to please their therapists. My patient might be reluctant to decline.
Therapists are human. I’ve sometimes had fantasies that two clients I thought would be perfect for one another might somehow bump into one another on the sidewalk outside my office! But I understand it isn’t my place to manipulate people into making that happen.
Sometimes help isn’t helpful.Read More
A reader recently emailed me:
I’ve been reading about emotional incest and emotional unavailability. It seems psychotherapists often remind us that we are not responsible for “other people’s feelings.”
I am confused. If this is the case then how is it that we can hurt someone’s feelings by an action or a comment? If I have the ability to choose how I want to feel about something, it seems that I would be ignoring or suppressing real feelings of hurt if I don’t react to someone saying something like, “You’re a very ugly person…”
It seems to me that saying “I won’t allow that to hurt me” is not being honest with one’s self. And on the flip side, if someone says “You’re such a wonderful kind person,” I want to feel warm inside. Have I really just allowed myself to feel good or feel bad…? Is it wrong to say then that “their comment made me feel so good…”?
It is possible, of course, to hurt someone’s feelings by actions or by making an unkind comment like “you’re ugly.” We’ve all had the experience of being on the receiving end of someone’s bullying or thoughtless words, and feeling injured. It would be antisocial or narcissistic for someone to believe they have no responsibility whatsoever for how their words or actions affect other people.
At the same time, everyone won’t have the same response to a comment or action. If Joe tells Mary “You are ugly,” Mary may feel deeply wounded by Joe’s words. If he says the same thing to Susan – or to Mary on a different day – she may shrug it off and think he’s just being an asshole and not give his words a second thought. How we respond is going to be influenced by what we believe about ourselves, others and how the world works.
In the same way, Ralph might be anxious about his partner Mike’s health and say something like “I wish you would stop smoking.” Mike might respond by thinking “Ralph’s right. I ought to stop smoking. I feel good he’s concerned about me.” Or he might take offense, thinking to himself, “Who is Ralph to tell me what to do? I wish he’d get off my back!” Is Ralph responsible for Mike’s emotional reaction? If he’s been nagging his partner for months without effect, he could certainly anticipate a different reaction than if they are having a heart-to-heart talk about life together when the subject is brought up.
How does all of this fit with the idea of “not being responsible for other people’s feelings?”
- We aren’t in charge of what goes on inside someone else; they have that responsibility. However, we have considerable responsibility for how we manage our relationship with that person. If we make thoughtless, hostile, false or negative remarks, we are going to damage the relationship.
- The advice to not take responsibility for the emotions of others is typically offered in the context of codependency – situations where one person takes on excessive responsibility for the other person and his or her experiences. The issue is really one of sorting through boundaries and gaining clarity about how we interact with the other. When boundaries are clear it is easier to understand where responsibility lays.
- We all go through life with a certain amount of guardedness around others in order to function in a world of different people. The level of self-protection we bring to an encounter varies with life experience, personality, mood, etc. Intimate relationships require us to let our guard down and let the other person in. When we do that, we’re more vulnerable. There is no intimacy without vulnerability. But healthy intimacy also requires safety, and that involves paying attention to what we communicate.
- Just because someone says something about you doesn’t mean that what they say is true! It is irrational to uncritically believe things we hear – but we can forget that when we are upset. We need to test what is said against our own lived experience to assess whether it is valid. This is not always easy, particularly for people who have been emotionally wounded.
- Some of us are highly sensitive and prone to over-reaction – as if our internal thermostat was permanently set to a high temperature. If that’s the case, we’re smart to look for strategies to manage our sensitivity: to remind ourselves that words are just words and thoughts are just thoughts. We should be careful not to confuse them with objective reality. We may need to take up meditation or do some serious personal growth work to reset our equilibrium. Therapy can help.
Want a resolution suggestion? Make this the year you rout relationship neglect. It is surprisingly easy to forget that a successful love life requires paying attention. The very routine-ness of them can cause us to stop paying attention. A functional relationship can operate that way for quite a while before the level of stress demands attention. When I sit with a new couple in therapy and ask how long their problems have been going on, they are often more surprised than I am to hear that the first signs of trouble started 5 or 10 years before things got so tough they ended up in my office.
Make the relationship your priority. So many things compete for our attention these days – especially work. But what is more important than the person you love? Remember when you were first dating, and you were all about this new person in your life? See if you can get back to this sense of “beginner’s mind,” seeing your partner with fresh eyes and realizing that your attention is more important to your partner than anything else.
Appreciate each other. Think of all the things your lover does for you during the course of the week – everything from cooking a wonderful dinner to listening patiently as you talk for the umpteenth time about your annoying boss. When was the last time you said “I’m so grateful for the way you hold me at night. Life wouldn’t be the same without that.” Someone said each criticism requires half a dozen compliments just to get us back to feeling neutral about one another. When you are kind and appreciative to your partner, you refill the tanks of goodwill in your relationship. When those tanks get low, you’re in trouble. Don’t let that happen.
Date night! This is something I recommend to almost all couples with whom I work. Take a night during the week and make it special. That could mean cooking at home and sharing a bottle of wine or going out to a favorite restaurant or something that the two of you create that is unique to the two of you. Making a night each week special helps to make the relationship feel special, and reminds you how lucky you are to have love in your life.
Talk to one another. Share what’s going on in your life, and not just the complaints. What are you feeling? Is there anything in particular you’re aware of needing these days? And listening is just as important as speaking. What is your partner saying about what he or she needs?
Cyber-free Tuesdays. Or Wednesdays or Thursdays or… I’m grateful to a couple I’m working with for making this suggestion. Electronic communication is more intrusive than ever; many employers even send emails well into the evening hours that used to be thought of as family time. Put away the phone, the tablet, the laptop and just be with your partner, uninterrupted.
Don’t let sex die. Sex in the 15th year of your relationship may not look like sex in the first year. That’s neither unusual nor problematic. But if too much time elapses between lovemaking sessions, those feelings of juiciness can be hard to recapture. Couples who remain sexual with one another find that the reassuring closeness of being together physically helps with emotional self-regulation as well. Don’t get lazy!
Have fun. Fun is the fuel that relationships run on; without enough of it we become bored and feel like we’re in a rut. You and your partner get to decide what is fun for you: maybe a concert, maybe travel, maybe finding a new place to eat, maybe something completely unexpected. Relationships without enough fun tend to develop problems.
A study of more than 260,000 people over age 50 found that people who drink lots of soft drinks on a daily basis significantly increase their risk of developing depression. The study is to be presented at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Neurology in March and was reported January 8 on Web MD.
The study said that sweet-drink-consumers who drank 4 cups or 4 cans of soft drinks had an increased risk of depression — 22% if they consumed regular, sugary drinks and a whopping 30% if they consumed diet drinks.
It is important to note that the study can’t identify soft drinks as the cause of depression. It could be the reverse — perhaps depressed people are more likely to self-comfort with consuming more soft drinks. Still, the report is interesting and people who are concerned about healthy living should take note. Of course, people who are really concerned about health probably don’t generally consume that much of the fizzy stuff in the first place.
The report contained what looks to be good news for coffee drinkers – they were 10% less likely to report depression during the period the study was conducted.Read More