One of the many joys of working with patients over the long term is the extraordinary process of discovering the unhealthy, unconscious behaviors that perpetuated destructive relationships throughout their lives.
I have been treating a woman in her early thirties for about three years. She initially sought counseling for the tremendous shame and loss she felt after breaking up with her long-term boyfriend. In our ensuing years together, we spent considerable time discussing how she conceptualizes attachment. Due to her familial and childhood experiences, she habitually dissociates from her personal needs and feelings in hopes of fixing any interpersonal problems that arise. She believes that making her relationships work is her sole responsibility. Confronting feelings of disappointment and anger with an intimate other is an intolerable notion to her.
An interesting side note is that this patient is an identical twin. She grew up within a family system and a twinship that demanded accommodation and caretaking. From an early age, she “slipped into becoming lost” to protect her attachment to her twin sister. Rather than hurt anyone else’s feelings, she relished taking the bullets in life to ensure her sister’s safety and status.
Every time this client entertains the notion of beginning a new relationship, she feels tremendous ambivalence about trusting her intuition. Instead, she defaults to obsessive thought patterns. She denies her partner’s emotional shortcomings, thereby negating and undermining her own needs. Consequently, she assumes blame for ongoing difficulties and pushes herself to extremes to try to ameliorate problems in the relationship.
A recent session with this patient afforded us yet another opportunity to contemplate her past connections. Because she is insightful and self-reflective, she readily acknowledges her past destructive patterns and has no wish to repeat them. She has just met someone whom she truly likes. We are working together to help her navigate this new connection with reciprocity and self-confidence. She recognizes that she cannot keep making excuses for a partner’s behavior or feeling obligated to save a relationship on her own.
Having the patience to invest in long-term treatment can bring about the most exciting transformations in a person’s life. Observing my patient confronting her unhealthy relationship style has been a joyful experience for both of us. I am confident that she will approach her new relationship with unparalleled self-assuredness and strength. Such are the moments that therapists and their patients relish—those significant occasions when their mutual commitment results in healthier choices, happier states of mind, and buoyant self-agency.
Image courtesy of Elias Sch. from Pixabay