Tuesday, September 9, 2014

In Search of Contentious Relationships

“Big surprise,” Tricia says, sighing, “Billy broke up with me. I told you he would. I told you he was nothing but a big baby who needed more and more reassuring and couldn’t tolerate arguing or sticking up for himself. Same old story again and again. I don’t know, don’t they make any 35 to 45 year old men who are men anymore?”

I’ve been thinking about Tricia and my relationship. I’ve been thinking about how quickly I find myself sucked into what is indeed her argumentative style. I’ve been thinking about why she needs to make all her relationships so contentious. And I’ve been thinking about why I’m so easily engaged in her argumentative style, as opposed to staying in my role as the therapist who seeks to analyze and understand.

My mind runs quickly through the responses that first come to me: Say nothing, which she’d experience as withholding and therefore maddening; Say, “Why do you think you keep finding men who are so wishy-washy?” which she’d hear as attacking; Say, “Why do you think you need to make your relationships so contentious?” probably the most important question which she would immediately dispute. For the moment, I settle for the most innocuous response possible, a typical therapist question.

“How do you feel about his breaking up with you?”

“Boy, there’s a typical therapist question if I ever heard one!”

I should have known she’d get me on that one, I think to myself.

“I felt like, well, I knew it.”

“But what did you feel?” I persist.

She shrugs. “Not much.”

“Tricia, can I ask you what you feel about our relationship?”

“Wow! That’s a change of topic. Where did that come from?”

“Well, we’re talking about relationships and you and I certainly have a relationship. We’ve been seeing each other for almost a year now.”

“Yeah, and I’m no further along than I was to begin with”

I’m beginning to feel dismissed and demeaned. Although I certainly take responsibility for the lack of progress in any treatment, Tricia’s inability to look at herself and her role in thwarting her own growth is more than annoying. Are my feelings similar to the ones I had with my father who knew everything, argued about everything and called me stupid if I ever dared to disagree with him?     

I persevere. “Tricia, have you ever felt close to anyone, ever?”

“You’re all over the map today,” she snaps back.

“Can you tell that you’re trying to bait me into an argument? It’s like you’re sparring with me as opposed to experiencing us on the same side, as trying to help you to better understand yourself and get to the place where you say you want to be, in a relationship with a man.”

“Where I say I want to be? What do you mean by that? Don’t you believe me? How can we be on the same side if you don’t even believe me?”

“Tricia, this is impossible,” I say clearly angry. “It’s as though you listen to everything I say looking to pick out the one thing that you can argue with me about and zoom right in on it.”

“Ah ha,” she replies, with a slight smile and a sparkle in her eyes, “I got you pissed off.”

“And why does that feel good to you?” I ask. “Does it give you a feeling of control over me? Does it keep a distance between us that’s more comfortable?”

“It shows you’re strong enough for me. That you can fight with me. That you can take what I have to dish out.”

“Who did that to you, Tricia? Who wanted to make you tough enough to fight back?”

In an instant, Tricia’s face becomes expressionless, frozen, her eyes staring blankly ahead. I’ve seen that look many times before, the look of an abused child.

“Who did that to you, Tricia?” I ask again, much more gently.

Tricia blinks and focuses back in on me. “My mother. I’ve never told anyone. I hate being a victim. She used to beat the shit out of me. She’d beat me and beat me until I stopped crying, until I was no longer a baby, until I could take it. She thought she was helping me. I thought she hated me. Except I think I have love and hate all mixed up.”

“I’m so sorry that happened to you, Tricia. You were a helpless child. A helpless child can’t be anything but a victim. There’s no shame in that, although I’m sure you do feel a lot of shame. And I’m sure you’re right, love and hate is all mixed up for you. We have lots to work on. But I’m really glad you told me Tricia. I know it wasn’t easy.”   


RGL01 said...

Very good piece. The power of the transference.
Dr. Sherby, is there any way that you could arrange to have an RSS feed for your blog posts? Thanks.
Ron Liebman, DO

jane/grandma said...

I appreciate the therapist's honesty about her own feelings. I hope Tricia
didn't drop out of therapy. Sometimes revealing one's own secrets can be
so frightening they will run and other times they feel "heard." Good work.

Linda Sherby PH.D., ABPP said...

Thanks for your comment, jane/grandma. I didn't reveal any secret in this session. How I feel about a patient is not a secret, especially when it is blatantly apparent.

In all my many years of doing treatment, I know of no patient who has stopped seeing me because of what I revealed to them, although of course one can never know for sure.

I did, however, write a book about working with patients during the illness and death of my husband, a time I revealed quite a bit about myself to many patients and my experience was that it was very beneficial to the therapeutic process..

Anonymous said...

I think when jane/grandma said "Sometimes revealing one's own secrets can be so frightening they will run" she was referring to the patient's secrets, not the therapist's.

Linda Sherby PH.D., ABPP said...

Hi, Anonymous. Yes, someone on LinkedIn already pointed out to me that I had misunderstood jane/grandma's meaning, assuming that she meant I was the one who had revealed a secret, not the patient. As I told him, I thought my mistake was telling, in that self-disclosure is an extremely important - and perhaps sensitive - topic for me, so I immediately took the comment as directed towards my self-revelation, not the patient's. Isn't it wonderful that we never cease to be surprised by ourselves?!