New York, February 14, 2019
Merry Valentine! The subject of love has been on my mind lately. I am thinking about love as a force. I am thinking about love and power dynamics. Love has the power to hurt, heal and expand our universe. Culturally, especially on a day like today, most of us associate love with romance and sexuality. Although there is much to be said about the difficulty, importance and rewarding experience of having strong, healthy romantic relationships, I am also thinking about love as it manifests in therapy, in life, with our friends and family.
As I am preparing my presentation in two weeks at the 50th Anniversary Conference for Association for Women in Psychology, the question of love is much present, since it is the topic of my discussion. Specifically, how does patient and therapist address the love between them? Is it spoken, acknowledged? Or is it implicitly understood?
Having trained psychoanalytically I wouldn’t have imagined ever talking with any of my patients explicitly about the love we share, or more precisely about my feelings for them. I also wouldn’t have imagined that I would practice therapy, the way I do today. It was through the countless hours of therapy with patients, day in and day out, that they have taught me differently.
In critical therapy love is central to the process, and it develops over time, through different stages. Love for the patient and with the patient is the ultimate gift of therapy. Yet, it wasn’t until four years ago, that one of my patients, whom I will call Dora, challenged my understanding of love. One day, five years into our therapy together, after explicit statements of love (“I love you,” she would say) for me, she confronted me. “Why don’t you say those three words?” she asked. “I know you care about me, I know you love me. I just need to hear it. I didn’t grow up hearing the words I love you, so I am not sure why, but I have the desperate need to hear them now.” And with this simple yet vast encompassing question and proceeding statement from her, she forced me to reflect, think critically, and to explore analytically and theoretically the subject of love in the clinical hour.
Object relations therapists maintain that the therapeutic relationship can be a holding environment for the patient, while attachment theorists see it as a corrective experience. So, then, I had to ask myself: how do we expect our patients to be comfortable with love, to be vulnerable, to express their emotions, if we don’t practice it with them? If we hide behind analytic neutrality, are we doing them a favor? Or, are we playing into the dominant capitalist ideology, where relationships, including the therapeutic relationship, is just another transaction?
As Dora’s therapy with me was coming to an end, and as we dialogued about our experience together, especially on the topic of love, she agreed to work on a case presentation with me. Together we embarked on long conversations, interviews, about her experience of therapy, particularly about critical therapy with a focus on love. In one of our interviews, as she reflected on our work, she stated: “When you said I love you to me… it was extremely important to me to hear you say it. I remember feeling complete in a way, like we came full circle.” My upcoming work in the next couple of months will be on the subject of love in psychotherapy (some will take the form of theory, and some will be comments on my my newly launched Instagram page). The topic is long overdue.
Dora died two years ago. Her death, although expected, as she was suffering from an incurable disease, put this work on hold. I couldn’t bear to listen to her voice, I wanted to mourn her death. This Valentine’s Day, as I am grateful for all the people in my life (friends, family, patients, co-workers), I am also deeply thankful for Dora, for she has given me the courage to question my theoretical beginnings. With her in mind, I decided to finish our work together.
Dora has expanded my understanding of therapy, my relationship to love, and ultimately has made me a better therapist. In a way, all my patients do this work with me, challenge and inspire me, every day. Today, I am grateful for her and for all the wonderful people who are a part of Critical Therapy, who challenge me, and encourage me to critically think about this work. To my friends and family, thanks for your ongoing support, I wouldn’t be doing this work without you. I am deeply humbled by all the love in my life. Thank you!