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Dependency, attachment, and relationships

(Advice: “Just Ask Me”…Originally published on The Daily Muse)

Hi Fran,

I have been in individual therapy for a few years. I have been dealing with depression for four years, with a few seasons of “remission.”

I also have issues with loss and abandonment. I have also gone to group therapy and learned some tools for relating to others in a healthier way. Yet, it seems that depression sneaks up and overtakes me at times.

I pay cash for therapy, and I have had times when finances have caused me to go every two weeks, or sometimes three weeks or more between sessions. I have considered canceling therapy altogether a few times. Mostly due to finances, but also because I get so upset at the idea of not meeting for therapy that I think I am too dependent on my therapist. I have read a few articles that talk about the therapeutic relationship and unconditional positive regard, blah, blah, blah. My therapist reassures me that it is OK and that having someone hear me—someone to bear witness—is healing. I just wonder if I will ever not get teary at the idea of terminating therapy.

How long does dependency, neediness, attachment, whatever it is, last?

Truly,

Dependent

Dear Dependent,

How wonderful that you’ve allowed yourself to become attached to your therapist. Attachment (i.e., “loving”) is always a risk after loss, partly because when you love someone, you risk another loss. But aren’t our relationships and attachments what make us human, what sustain and drive us, what nurture us? In that sense, shouldn’t our relationships be long-lasting?

Your letter brings up many questions. First, you say you have “loss and abandonment issues.” You don’t say what these are, but certainly loss experienced in early childhood can be quite traumatic and can have lifetime consequences. These types of losses can interfere with the basic security needed to have confidence that others are there for us and we are there for them; that we “belong” in this world, that we are loved and can love.

A second question has to do not with your relationship with your therapist, but rather with your relationships with others in your life. You say you have been in group therapy and learned “tools to relate to others in a healthier way.” That is terrific, and I would encourage you to keep using them. In therapy, we also learn to observe our own behavior and reactions in the presence of someone who offers “unconditional positive regard,” as you say. I am amused by the “blah, blah, blah” that follows the phrase in your letter. It strikes me as a certain cynicism on your part about this very important aspect of therapy.

In real life, unconditional positive regard is very hard to come by, except perhaps with a parent. In therapy, we work out these issues in a place where the neediness and dependency created by our earlier life experiences don’t interfere with the relationship. In other words, a therapist will offer you unconditional positive regard no matter how dependent on her you are, whereas if you approach your other relationships with excessive neediness and dependency, it will interfere with the relationships. Think about that.

The hard part is moving beyond neediness and dependency on another person into relationships in which both people are mutually dependent on each other, while each knows how to cope with the reality that nothing really does last forever. As we mature, we aim to make friends, love and hold people close, enjoy what we have, and know that when and if there comes a time, we are whole enough to go on without them, too.

I would also like to comment on your therapist’s statement that it is healing just to have someone hear us and bear witness. I agree with that 150%. The Buddhists say: Compassion is willingness to be close to suffering. To simply listen to someone, to “be with” suffering, or to bear witness to it, is honestly the greatest gift we can give someone. A great deal of research has shown, and I have seen in my work with therapeutic writing, that just writing about trauma is healing, but more healing comes with having another person hear—bear witness to—what we have written.

I feel I would be remiss if I didn’t mention your depression. You don’t really say much about this, what you think its source is, or even what issues in your life it centers around, but I would encourage you to keep talking about your dependency and neediness with your therapist, as well as any other issues you have that seem related to your depression. At the same time, you might think about whether medication might help. You can discuss it with your therapist or and possibly consult a psychiatrist.

I think you’re doing fine, and quite honestly, given your loss and abandonment issues, I would be more concerned if you didn’t feel somewhat dependent on your therapist.

I wish you peace and happiness, along with many mutual, long-lasting relationships, and thanks for asking.

Fran

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Advice: Am I in an Abusive Relationship?

 Just Ask Me, by Fran Dorf (Originally published on The Daily Muse.)

Dear Fran,

I’ve been dating a guy for almost two years, and lately we’ve been talking about living together, leading to marriage. We both have great jobs, love outdoor sports, and dogs (we each have one). He’s in finance, and I’m an account executive at an advertising agency. We seem perfectly matched, and I’m thrilled that we’re going to make a life together.

The problem? Last week we got into a fight about his older brother, who I can’t stand. My boyfriend wants him to be his best man and I can barely stand to be in the same room with the guy. He’s loud, uncouth, and I hate the way he talks to his wife. Anyway, I said some things I shouldn’t have said, and everything got heated and my boyfriend ended up pushing me against the wall. I hit my head, but I’m fine.

My best girlfriend says she thinks my boyfriend is “abusive,” even though he’s never touched me before. I do love him, but sometimes he can be stubborn, which drives me crazy, and I say things I know I shouldn’t say, which gets him upset, and that’s why he gets out of control. He apologized profusely, and the next day sent me beautiful long stemmed yellow roses.   

What should I do? I love him, but I really think I’m right—don’t I get to have a say in who will be the best man at my own wedding?

Upset

Dear Upset,

I’m sorry to have to rain on your parade, but I think you may be asking the wrong question. I understand that you love your boyfriend, but before you marry him or even consent to live with him, I suggest you get some serious couples counseling. In a way, I’m glad this pushing incident happened before you got married rather than after, because it gives you a chance to see if he’s so stubborn that he’s unwilling to address this very serious matter.

I have several reasons for saying this.

First, I agree with your girlfriend: Pushing someone—even one time—is abusive. What’s more, past behavior is a good indicator of future behavior, and unless he gets some help learning to deal more appropriately with his emotions, it’s likely that this abusive behavior will continue, and possibly even worsen.

Next, you say he “gets out of control,” as if it happens often. I suspect you mean that he becomes verbally abusive when he is frustrated or angry. It also sounds as if you do, too, since you admit you “say things you know you shouldn’t.”

One of the things you will learn (or should learn) through counseling is that “anger” is an internal state that everyone experiences. This is a different issue from aggressive behavior, which is a result of anger. Aggression is saying or doing things that hurt another person to try to control, humiliate, or get what you want. Frequent or intense bouts of anger, along with verbal, emotional, or physical abuse or aggression, need to be addressed in therapy, where you will not only discuss the root causes of this anger, you’ll learn some alternative behaviors to cope with it.

(As a side note: The fact that his brother is abusive to his own wife may mean that anger and frustration was handled this way in the household where they both grew up, and this is what was modeled for them. All the more reason that you should be addressing this in therapy.)

Now, it may make you feel better temporarily that he apologized. But unfortunately, that behavior is part of the cyclical four-stage process of domestic violence.

In Stage I, tension builds as the abuser becomes edgy and reacts in a more hostile or psychologically abusive way. Stage II is the explosion, represented in this case by pushing. And Stage III is the reconciliation, often called the “Honeymoon Stage,” in which the abuser becomes remorseful, sometimes overly so, apologizes for harming the victim, and assures her that it will never happen again. After the violence, it is very common for abusers to shower their victims with love and affection, buy expensive gifts, send flowers, and so on.

And finally, there could be the calm stage, in which the abuser really tries to control him or herself. But if he (or she) hasn’t learned coping skills and alternative methods to deal with anger and frustration, or faced the reasons and antecedents for the anger, conflicts will inevitably arise and the cycle will start all over again.

Look, it’s possible an incident like this will never happen again, and your boyfriend will be a model husband who never pushes or hurts you or gets out of control again. It’s possible, too, that you’ll be a model wife who never again says things she doesn’t mean. But my question is: Do you really want to take that chance? I am not saying you need to break up this man, but I am saying, again, that you need to deal with these very serious issues, and sooner rather than later.

As for your question about whether you have a right to a say in who the best man is at your wedding, I think it’s not a matter of whether something is universally right or wrong. In a healthy marriage, decisions are made based on mutual respect, compromise, and communication. You must be able to calmly discuss the conflicts that inevitably arise, and come to an agreement that works for both of you.

In this case, your boyfriend may learn in counseling that his brother’s behavior toward his wife is inappropriate. You may in fact actually need to say that to him, not because he can change his brother, but because you need him to know that you won’t put up with such behavior from him. Similarly, he needs to know that you’re going to make an effort to curtail your own inappropriate behavior. Maybe, once your husband sees how inappropriate some of his own behavior is, he may begin to agree with you about his brother.

On the other hand, it is his brother, and it may cause a lifelong rift in all of your relationships to take a stand on whether he should be your husband’s best man.

I wish you the best, and thanks for asking,

Fran

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