Some years ago a client who I’ll call Alice was having troubles with her boyfriend. She was madly in love with him; but he was not treating her particularly nicely. He wasn’t abusive or anything. It’s just that he only called when he wanted something – like a nice hot meal, a good lay, or money. Alice’s friends were all mad at her. “Why don’t you just get rid of him?” they would say. “He’s no good. He’s not worth the dirt on your shoes,” her mother admonished. But their criticism didn’t help – in fact, it only made things worse. Alice stopped telling them about her troubles. In fact, she stopped calling them altogether. So by the time she came to me for help, she was pretty isolated, except for the people she saw at work and this boyfriend who she saw only when he wanted something.
Oh yes, did I mention that he seldom responded to her phone calls? She had his home and cell numbers, which she said showed that he trusted her. She had been to his home, and she knew that he wasn’t married or involved with another woman, despite the fact that some of her former friends were sure that he was. But whatever the reason, Alice had no real way of contacting him and no way of getting him to come to see her when she needed – or wanted – to see him.
When she came to see me, Alice was depressed and miserable. She believed that she could not live without this guy; but she was clearly not living well with him. Although I had to agree with everyone else that this did not sound like a healthy or particularly good relationship, I was smart enough to realize that she would not stay in therapy if I said this to her. What she needed was help either coming to this conclusion on her own or finding a more satisfying way to be in the relationship.
Alice had woven her entire life around this man. Whether he was present or absent, he played a central role in every moment of every day. I was curious about how this had come about. What made her give someone who wasn’t there for her primary real estate in her emotional world?
As a psychotherapist, I find that knowing about a client’s history is useful. It helps me find a context for situations and behaviors in the present that don’t always make total sense. But the connections between past and present aren’t always clear. It’s really not the case that everything that’s a problem today is because our parents were so terrible when we were young. The truth is that even people with great parents can have difficulties. So the job of a psychotherapist is not to say, “Oh, you have this problem now because your parents did (or didn’t) do such and such when you were young.”
Asking about childhood experiences is really just a way of unpacking childhood explanations and looking to see if these explanations are still playing out in current difficulties. Because when we’re children, we explain things from a child’s fairly limited point of view (despite the unrealistic insight some recent fiction writers have attributed to very young heroes and heroines). And we also have a limited ability to process complex emotions. So a lot of the work in therapy is to unpack these experiences, look at them from an adult point of view, and learn to handle feelings that we simply didn’t know how to manage when we were young.
Alice wasn’t interested in talking about her past, though. She told me that she had had other therapists who dug into her childhood, and it had not helped at all with her relationship with her boyfriend. She wanted help with the problem now.
I told her I might be able to do that, but that she wasn’t going to like what I had to say. She nodded. “Do you want me to go ahead?” I asked. She nodded again. So I told her that I thought she was having troubles setting limits with him. And I added that I thought limits, or boundaries, were crucial to any good relationship. (I wrote about this in a recent post on my blog at Psychology Today: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-couch/201112/spaces-in-your-togetherness )
She asked me to explain. I said that I would, but could she tell me one thing first – had she ever owned a dog? She smiled and said that she had had dogs her entire life, and longed to get one now, but her boyfriend did not like animals…and obviously she did not want to upset him.
It was my turn to nod. “Okay,” I said. “So you know that with a dog you have to let them know who’s in charge. You have to make very clear what you expect from them. Do you know why?”
“Because they don’t feel safe if you don’t. They’ll try to take over. They need a pack leader, and it needs to be their owner.”
She was quiet for a few minutes. Then she said, “So are you saying that I’m anxious because my boyfriend isn’t giving me clear limits?”
I told her that was one way to think about it. I added that I thought there was another way as well. “Could it be that you’re making him anxious by not giving him clear limits?”
It took several weeks for her to wrap her mind around that one. But one day she came into her session looking better than I had ever seen her. Usually Alice looked a little grubby and disheveled. This day she had washed and blown out her hair and was wearing nice jeans and a pretty top. She even had on a little makeup.
“I finally got what you meant,” she said with a smile. “I told him he had to take me out to dinner and a movie. I could tell he was surprised, and then he gave me his usual vague answer, said of course, we’d do that, it would be nice. I waited for a week, but of course nothing happened. So next time he called, I told him I wouldn’t see him that night. It was hard. But I kept thinking that it might make him feel less anxious over time. And guess what? Tomorrow we’re supposed to go to a movie!”
It probably won’t surprise you to know that the boyfriend stood Alice up. It was painful and made her want to stop therapy and go back to the way things had been. But then she said, “I wasn’t happy that way either.” We explored what had happened and came to the conclusion that maybe she had taken too big a leap to begin with. She wasn’t willing to let go of this relationship, so we worked on ways she might set smaller limits to see how that felt to both of them. She started asking him to call her at a specific time. He always said yes and always failed to call. So we started talking about how she could reinforce this limit. I suggested she try going to for a walk at the time he usually called, and letting her voice mail pick up. “You mean just don’t be quite so available?” I nodded. She smiled. “People tell me that all the time,” she said. “But I never thought of it as a part of setting limits with him. I can do that.”
At first the boyfriend sulked when Alice wasn’t available; but after awhile he started calling when she said she could talk to him. Eventually they started going to the movies instead of meeting at her house all the time. And although there were still plenty of obstacles to living happily ever after, Alice was amazed at the difference in her own mood. “I’m actually feeling so much better about myself,” she said. “Who would have imagined that just setting a couple of little limits could make such a difference?”