Falling in Love
Many years ago, I read that the need to love is as important for human beings as the need to be loved. At the time this explained something important about the way I contribute to the world that was heretofore unexplained. I get a kick out of liking and loving people and I’ve always been good at it. While I’m definitely a caring person, I’m not exactly a caretaker. I don’t have too much difficulty giving folks some straight talk if that’s what I think is required, even if it means they experience discomfort as a result. I don’t shy away from people’s feelings. I like people to feel good, but I’m not invested in that outcome if feeling bad for a while will get them to a more whole place in their lives. I think of myself as somebody who can like and see good in just about anyone.
It’s a lot harder to consistently and freely like and love partners, friends, and family than it is to like and love clients. Why? Because relationships between lovers and family members are complicated. Even people who love you reciprocally will get tired of you complaining about the same old thing and tell you so. They won’t always be sweetness and light first thing in the morning or last thing at night. You have fights and struggles over the cap left off the toothpaste and have to find ways to deal with the complicated minutiae of life, like who walks the dog most, and who forgot to pay the car insurance. We take these fights very personally, and they can get extremely messy.
Therapeutic relationships, like all relationships, have rules attached, and the rules and boundaries around caring and love are pretty clear. In therapy, the relationship exists to promote and benefit the client’s life, not that of the therapist. While the eroticisation of the therapeutic relationship is necessarily prohibited and contraindicated, verbal expressions of caring and liking are not. Just about everybody understands that seeing yourself reflected positively through a therapist’s eyes has a beneficial therapeutic impact. And, while there is a fragility inherent in most relationships, you can return again and again to the relationship you forge with a therapist whose job is to see through your imperfections and personal challenges and reach for the true person inside.
There have been times when clients have made comments about the fact that I have to like them because they pay me, and there are times when the issue of therapy fees can complicate therapeutic relationships between therapist and client unless you are completely willing to talk about the issue of money. However, while it’s true that therapy ceases for the most part when the fee is consistently not paid, it’s also true that the therapist remains willing to resume that relationship if and when the client returns. This is not much different from other caring and caregiving relationships where money changes hands. For example, early childhood caregivers are paid to teach and encourage young children, and they invariably love and care about the children in their care, which is not a condition of their job description; the same goes for nurses and their long-term patients, and school teachers and their students.
Clients are sometimes surprised that their therapist thinks of them outside of their sessions. But as a client in my own therapy history, I found faith in my ability to tackle frightening challenges, buoyed only by my therapist’s caring and faith in me. Sometimes, the therapist’s empathy and nurturing were the only things I was able to rely on to propel me towards bravery, and now I use this personal experience of therapy in my own work as a therapist.
For me, part of my job is showing love towards my clients and encouraging them to use this experience of my caring for them as a tool in other parts of their lives. Some people haven’t had the best experience of being loved in their early lives, and without this experience it becomes difficult to love and treat oneself well. Therapy, with its one-way focus on a client, is an opportunity to feel the acceptance and affection that many of us did not receive as children. Therapists are—or should be—unfailingly polite, respectful, attentive, caring, concerned, and thoughtful about their clients. It’s a gift to have this non-stop outpouring of thoughtful attention lavished on you for one hour a week by someone who remembers the most seemingly inconsequential details about your life and can pull them together and tie up loose ends. While being loved and cared for by your therapist isn’t the WHOLE story in psychotherapy, it sometimes forms the solid ground under the client’s feet that makes change possible.