Learning to dance in relationshipsPsychotherapy June 20, 2011 - 8:18 am
I often imagine the ‘Self’ to be akin to an amoebic organism that is in a constant state of flux, it is continually influenced by the environment it finds itself in and by the processes that occur within its own membranes. As this self matures it is forced to change in order to adapt, improvise and in many cases overcome the difficulties it often encounters within its environment. If it does not adapt it is prone to atrophy and decay. Relational contexts are a good example of two or more selves coming into contact with each other thereby influencing what happens within each person. If someone’s relational self is prone to the repetition of destructive patterns in intimate relationship, without awareness, these patterns will continue to haunt an individual’s capacity to form intimate nourishing relationships with others.
Clients enter into therapy for a variety of different reasons, but in many cases the underlying cause of distress is a difficulty in relating to others. Whether the relationship in question is work, family (usually mother related for women and father related for men), social or intimate, how we relate and are related to, continues to be grist for the therapeutic mill.
I’ve often wondered how many people do an effective relational postmortem at the end of a meaningful intimate relationship? What percentage of those who have, are able to separate out the facts from the often overwhelming emotions that present themselves when we separate from an other to which we have been emotionally linked? Are you able to own the possibly destructive projections that you have contributed into the relational matrix? Or are you prone to blaming the other for all the ills that you feel you suffered at the hands of this benighted, beloved other? How we make sense of past relationships dictates, to a large degree, the pattern of our capacity for future intimacy.
I have found the following ‘lens’ useful in finding clients (and my own) habitual positions within different relationships.
Claire* is a 36 year old attorney who during our initial session cited long standing relational difficulties with her mother as being the primary presenting problem. Her mother and her had been ‘at each others throats’ for “as long as I can remember”. I would need an entire book to outline the particular dynamics that often occur between mother and daughter but the aim of this post is to highlight a very specific set of roles that many of us fall into, often unconsciously. In the relationship with her mother, Claire often adopted the rescuer position, she always fielded her mother’s anguished phone calls, listening to her mother’s endless series of struggles with the world. Although Claire felt that it was a daughter’s duty to be there for her mother, it often left her feeling depleted and resentful of her mother’s intrusion into her life. What became evident through our work in therapy, was that Claire vacillated between being the rescuer or feeling like a victim in many of her relationships. Claire claimed that she often felt like a “bad person” if she attempted to put down boundaries with other people in her life i.e. she had such anxiety about being perceived as a perpetrator (her father was an abusive alcoholic), that she could not distinguish between being seen as a perpetrator and appropriate boundary setting in order to protect her self. This struggle had led her to self soothe through various inappropriate mechanisms such as binge drinking on the weekends and casual sexual encounters in a search for brief ‘hits’ of intimacy. So, the way out of the dance? Claire had to learn to build a capacity for being an ‘adult’, i.e. not a rescuer, victim or perpetrator, but someone who would not be coerced into positions that her inner truth balked at. With time she learnt to ‘stand in her truth’, ultimately this means learning to take responsibility for one’s actions and staying in alignment with your internal integrity. Using truth, integrity and accountability as navigational tools enabled Claire to draw clear, concise boundaries, not only with her mother and co-workers, but with her Self.
Claire* is not the client’s real name and various stories have been combined so as to disguise the identities of various narratives.