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Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Relationships: Using Money to Get Revenge

In my prior blog post, I talked about money and arguments in relationships (see link below). In this blog post, I will address a particular issue about money and problems in relationships, namely, when money is used to get revenge.

Using Money to Get Revenge


Using Money to Get Revenge:
It's not unusual for someone in a relationship to use money as a form of revenge. When money is used to get revenge, the person who is exacting the revenge will either overspend or use money to manipulate in some way to get back at his or her partner.

Often the person who "acts out" in this way doesn't know how to communicate his or her anger and uses money as a way to get back. Needless to say, when the other person in the relationship finds out about the overspending or financial manipulation, he or she often feels angry, betrayed, and sad. Most of the time, this leads to mistrust and, in some cases it results in the end of the relationship.

Relationships: Using Money to Get Revenge


The following fictionalized scenario is an example of someone using money to get revenge in a relationship. As with other money and trust problems, this problem is found in heterosexual relationships as well as gay and lesbian relationships. And, although I'm presenting the person acting out as the man, it happens just as often with women.

Nick and Susan:
When Nick and Susan came to marriage counseling, Susan was close to ending their marriage. She had just found out, for the second time, that Nick had withdrawn a large sum of money from their joint account and used it to buy studio equipment for his music production business without talking to her first.

She found out about the large withdrawal when she made an ATM deposit into the account and she was shocked when she saw the balance. She almost went in to speak to the bank branch manager. But, having gone through this before with Nick, she called him first before she panicked and he admitted to withdrawing the money.

When this happened several months before, Nick and Susan had a big argument. At that time, Nick admitted that he was angry with Susan because he felt that she was too controling about their money. Susan felt that, since she was the major bread winner in the marriage, she should have more of a say about money decisions. She also felt that Nick tended to be irresponsible with money, and she cited many examples in their argument. Nick felt that Susan was emasculating him and he admitted that he took the money to get back at her.

That was several months ago. At the time, Nick promised that he would never do this again. He replaced the money in their account, and Susan forgave him. But when it happened again, Susan was angry and she felt betrayed. She felt that she could no longer trust Nick, and she wondered what else he was being dishonest about.

Nick asked Susan for another chance and suggested that they attend marriage counseling. Although Susan wanted to end the marriage, she agreed to make one last ditch effort to save their relationship. But she told Nick that if marriage counseling didn't work out, she wanted a divorce.

So this was the state of their relationship when they began marriage counseling. Susan was very angry and hurt, and Nick was contrite, but underneath it all, he was angry too and unaware of it

Part of the initial stage of marriage counseling was to explore if there was a viable marriage to save and how invested each of them was in salvaging the marriage. Initially, Nick seemed more invested in saving the marriage than Susan. But after she was able to express her anger and also look at how she might have contributed to their problems by never allowing Nick to forget about financial mistakes that he made in the past, Susan realized that she didn't want to end the marriage. She wanted to feel that she could trust Nick and that he wouldn't try to get revenge against her, using their money, when he felt angry.

The marriage counselor helped Susan and Nick to improve their communication skills. She also helped Nick to see just how angry he was and how out of touch he was with his anger for Susan, which contributed to his seeking revenge by taking money from the joint account.

There were a lot of issues to work out, including family of origin issues for both Nick and Susan, Nick learning to be more responsible about money, reestablishing trust in the relationship, and both of them learning to communicate better with each other and not to use money to try to gain power and control in the relationship.

It was hard work but, gradually, over time, Susan and Nick worked towards salvaging their marriage.

Money problems are common in relationships. As previously mentioned, money problems are often one of the major reasons that couples seek out marriage counseling. It's not unusual for one or both people to "act out" and try to get revenge by either running up credit cards or manipulating money in some way.

Although it is usually a serious breach of trust when partners use money to get revenge, many relationships can be worked out with professional help from a marriage or couples counselor.

If you or your partner are using money to get revenge, you can work out this issue with an experienced marriage or couples counselor.

I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist.  I work with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist

To set up a consultation, call me at (212) 726-1006 or send me an email:  josephineolivia@aol.com


Relationships: Arguing About Money


photo credit: AMagill via photopin cc

photo credit: the ryan king via photopin cc

Relationships: Arguing About Money

In my prior blog post, I discussed sexual incompatibility as being one of the major reasons why couples come to marriage or couples counseling (see link below). In this blog post, I'll focus on one of the other major reasons why couples seek help--arguments about money.

Money is often symbolic of power. Whoever has or makes more money in a relationship is often seen as the more powerful person in the relationship, and this can lead to arguments.

Relationships: Arguing About Money

Similarly, differing values about money between a couple in a relationship can also lead to arguments and, at times, irreconcilable differences.

What Are the Different Problems that a Couple Can Have About Money?

The Saver vs the Spender:
It's not unusual in a relationship for there to be one person who prefers to save money and another person who would rather save money. When this is the particular dynamic in a relationship, there are bound to be differences of opinion and, often heated arguments, about what to purchase, when to make purchases, when to save, and, in general, how to manage the money.

Combining Each Person's Money vs Having a Separate Pot of Money:
Couples often differ as to whether they should pool the money that they had before they got together or if they should each keep what they had and create a separate pot of money to pay bills, make major purchases, etc.

For the person who prefers to combine their individual financial accounts, he or she might feel that the other person doesn't trust him/her enough to combine assets or lacks faith in the relationship.

The person who wants to keep their individual accounts separate and create a separate pot for expenses might have gotten burnt in prior relationships by pooling all the money together. With combined finances, it's not unusual for there to be problems if the couple separates. Of course, no one wants to enter into a relationship thinking that things might not work out, although this is a reality for many couples.

What to Do About Prior Debt:
Related to the above, if one person in the relationship enters the relationship with excessive debt, the couple needs to make decisions about how to handle that debt. Are they going to work on reducing the debt together or is the person with the debt going to take care of it on his or her own? If the couple can't negotiate their differences around this issue, it can become a major issue between them leading to frequent arguments.

Secrecy About Money:
I've seen many couples where one or both people keep secrets about money. For some people, it's a matter of withholding information about debt or how much money or assets they have or other related issues. Often, when there's secrecy about money, there are often other issues related to secrecy. If one of the people in the relationship finds out that his/her partner has been keeping secrets about money, it often engenders feelings of anger, betrayal and lack of trust.

Money as Power and Control:
As previously mentioned, when there is a difference in assets or earning power within a relationship, this can create arguments around power and control. The person who earns more money might feel that this gives him/her the right to greater control over their money and other major decisions. If the other person in the relationship doesn't agree and they can't negotiate this, this issue can lead to big arguments.

Money as a Cover Up for Other Problems in the Relationship:
Sometmes, it's really not about the money per se. The couple might be arguing about money because it's a concrete and tangible issue, but the real issue might be about other feelings. For instance, if one of the people in the relationship feels that there is a power differential in the relationship (let's say that one person makes most of the decisions that effect the relationship), the person who feels less powerful can use money as a handy issue to argue about when it might not be about the money (although it could be).

Using Money as a Way to Get Revenge:
When there are problems in a relationship, sometimes one of the people "acts out" by running up credit cards or overspending in some way to get back at his or her partner. This is an issue that I'll address in a separate post. However, it's easy to see how this could create arguments and, in some cases, end a relationship.

In most of these cases, there is often poor communication in the relationship and/or fundamental value differences about money and other important issues.

As I mentioned in a prior blog post, it's always better to talk about money before getting married or entering into a committed relationship. It often saves a lot of heartache if a couple can either negotiate these issues beforehand or, prior to making a major commitment, find out that they're just not compatible with regard to money and they're unable to negotiate these issues. But many people neglect talking about money until they're already in a relationship and it becomes a major problem.

If you and your partner or spouse are arguing about money, before this problem sabotages your relationship, get help. This is a common problem that can often be worked out with professional help.

Aside from the possibility of consulting with a financial planner who can help you with the "technical" nuts and bolts regarding money issues, consulting with a marriage or couples counselor can help you to navigate the emotional rough waters related to money problems.

I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist.  I work with individual adults and couples.

I have helped many couples to work out the emotional issues around money so that they can stop arguing about money and enjoy their relationship.

To find out more about me, visit my website:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist

To set up a consultation, call me at (212) 726-1006 or send me an email: josephineolivia@aol.com


Also see:
Overcoming Sexual Incompatibility








Relationships: Overcoming Sexual Incompatibility

As a marriage counselor in NYC, I see many couples who are struggling with sexual incompatibility. This is one of the main reasons why couples come to marriage or couples counseling. Aside from the many factors that we already know about that affect sex in a relationship, like work and personal stressors, busy schedules, health issues, and so on, there are many couples who are unhappy in their sexual relationships because they're just not sexually compatible with each other and, in many cases, they never were. 


Relationships: Overcoming Sexual Incompatibility
Their problems are not about occasional periods when they're not having sex, as is often the case with many long-term relationships. Rather, the problem is about a fundamental sexual incompatibility between them.

Sexual incompatibility can take many forms.  It can be as basic as one person really doesn't like sex and the other person does.  Or, one person wants to have sex more often than the other person.  Or,  a couple might not be compatible with regard to what they like sexually.  Or, on person might be comfortable being on the "giving" end of sex, but not comfortable "receiving" or vice versa.  All of these problems can occur with both heterosexual couples as well as gay and lesbian couples.

Why Do Couples Often Struggle with Sexual Incompatibility?
Underestimating the Importance of Sexual Compatibility:
Very often, in cases where there is sexual incompatibility, one or both people in the relationship will underestimate the importance of being sexually compatible. During the early stages of a relationship, one or both people might be more focused on compatibility of values and minimize the importance of good sex. This is not to say that compatible values are not important because they are. But in placing all of the emphasis on values, this couple might short change themselves with regard having a satisfying sex life.

Relationships: Overcoming Sexual Incompatibility

After a while, when a couple has downplayed importance of sex in their relationship, one or both people might might begin to feel that they are more like roommates or like siblings. At that point, dissatisfaction with the relationship can set in, and if the couple is not comfortable talking about sex, one of the partners might begin casting around to find someone else who is more sexually exciting to him or her, often leading to infidelity.

Feeling Too Ashamed to Talk About Sex:
Often, couples who are dealing with issues of sexual incompatibility have a great deal of difficulty talking about their sexual relationship and what's working and what's not (assuming that they're still having sex). They might feel too ashamed to talk about sex or they worry that talking about it will only make it worse. Often, this shame might be related to childhood experiences where children are taught that sex is shameful, or there were sexual boundary violations (sexual abuse or incest), or other related childhood issues.

A Lack of Emotional Attunement in the Relationship:
This often goes hand-in-hand with poor communication. When you're not emotionally attuned to what your partner needs, it's hard to be sexually attuned to him or her. When there's emotional resonance between two people in a relationship, they are more likely to sense what they each need.

A Lack of Sexual Experience:
If one or both people enter into the relationship with little or no sexual experience, they just might not know what to do to please each other sexually or what might please themselves. Of course, this doesn't have to be a long-term problem if both people are open and willing to explore. But the sexual incompatibility comes about when one or both people are not just inexperienced but also closed off to the possibility of sexual exploration within the couple and they don't want to seek help or educate themselves.

A Rush to Get Married or Enter into a Long-term Relationship:
I've seen many couples where one or both people were anxious to get married or enter into a long-term relationship and this strong desire to be with someone often blinds them to certain basic incompatibilities, including sexual incompatibility. Some people end up "settling" for someone who is not suitable for them because they fear that they'll never find anyone and they'll be alone. Often, it's only after they're in a committed relationship that they realize that they're not compatible.

Fear of Intimacy:
There are couples where one or both people are only able to have "good sex" when there is no emotional intimacy. They might only find sex as exciting when they're with other people that they don't feel close to, but as soon there is emotional intimacy, they're unable to get excited, which is obviously a problem in a committed relationship.

Hoping that the Sexual Incompatibility will Resolve Itself Without Effort:
The hope is that, somehow, the problem will fix itself without any effort. Then, when it doesn't, usually, both people feel dissatisfied and this dissatisfaction effects the emotional intimacy in the relationship. After that, it's not unusual for the relationship to feel "flat" and boring. And, once again, if the couple is unable to communicate with each other about this, it can lead to infidelity.

Rationalizing Away the Problem of Sexual Incompatibility:
I've heard many rationalizations in couples counseling as to why there is sexual incompatibility in a relationship. For instance, some people assume that when people get to a "certain age," they no longer desire sex. However, often, when I get the sexual history of the couple in a long-term relationship, I discover that they were never sexually compatible, even when they were young and they first got together.

If you and your partner are sexually incompatible and it's causing problems in your relationship, get help from a marriage or couples counselor who has expertise in this area, especially if you're not making any progress in resolving this problem on your own. Don't wait until anger and resentment have built up to such a point that the relationship cannot be salvaged. While there's never a guarantee that a relationship can be saved in marriage or couples counseling, doing nothing is not the answer.

Many couples have overcome sexual incompatibility with help in couples counseling.





Couples Can Overcome Their Sexual Incompatibility
I am a licensed NYC licensed psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist.

I have helped many couples overcome problems with sexual incompatibility.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (212) 726-1006.


You can also check out my article entitled 
Relationships: Have You and Your Spouse Stopped Having Sex?


Also, visit my Psychotherapy Daily News for updates on mental health issues, health education, and science news.








Thursday, November 11, 2010

Psychotherapy: Ruptures and Repairs in Therapy

In the last two blog articles, I discussed transference in psychotherapy in the context of the erotic and the idealized transference( Psychotherapy and the Erotic Transference and Psychotherapy and the Positive Transference). I also mentioned "ruptures" in treatment and discussed this briefly. In this post, I would like to focus on the effect of ruptures in treatment and how they can be repaired so that the therapeutic relationship between therapist and client can be preserved and, in many cases, even thrive after a rupture.

Psychotherapy: Ruptures and Repairs in Therapy

What are Ruptures in Psychotherapy?
In any long-term psychotherapy, there are bound to be treatment ruptures. Usually, these ruptures occur when the therapist unwittingly commits an empathic failure with the client. Even the most empathic psychotherapist will, a times, either misunderstand what a client is saying or give a response that is less than empathic. This is usually not intentional. It's a mistake.

When a client, especially a client who might be emotionally fragile, feels that his or her therapist has been either insensitive or doesn't hear or understand what the client is saying, the client often experiences this as a rupture in treatment. Sometimes these ruptures are small, as when a therapist forgets a particular small detail of a client's history and this becomes obvious to the client. And sometimes, these ruptures can be big, and I'll give an example of this later on.

Whether the rupture is perceived by the client as big or small is determined by many factors, including the strength of the therapeutic relationship at the time of the rupture, how fragile the client is feeling what the therapist actually did or said and so on

If the therapeutic alliance is strong and there haven't been very many ruptures in the past, many clients can overlook a therapist's mistake, especially if the client knows that this was a mistake. However, if the client and therapist have just begun to work together or if there have been frequent ruptures or if the client has a personal family history where he or she was neglected or abused, any kind of empathic failure can lead to a big rupture between client and therapist.

If there are egregious offenses by the therapist, like sexual boundary crossings or other serious offenses, this not just a rupture. This is a serious ethical and legal breach, and that's not what I'm referring to in this article.

How Can Treatment Ruptures Be Repaired?
If we consider that in most long-term psychotherapy treatments there will be inevitable and unintentional empathic failures or mistakes on the part of the therapist, how can these empathic failures be addressed and repaired so that the rupture doesn't lead to the failure of the treatment?

The most important part of repairing a rupture in treatment is for the therapist to be able to acknowledge that he or she made a mistake. Except for the most narcissistic psychotherapists, most therapists can and will do this. Even if it wasn't originally perceived as a "mistake" by the therapist, once the client feels misunderstood or not heard, the therapist needs to acknowledge and take responsibility for it.

Almost any rupture, if it's not egregious, can be repaired in treatment if the therapist acknowledges that he or she either made a mistake or failed the client in some way. For most clients, the acknowledgement on the part of the therapist that there was a mistake or the client was hurt in some way is often enough to repair the treatment.

Ruptures in Therapy Can Often Be Repaired

Many clients have grown up in homes where their parents never owned up to mistakes that they made, so the experience of having the therapist take responsibility for an empathic failure can be reparative in itself, especially if the client feels that the therapist's acknowledgement is heartfelt.

Even Experienced and Talented Psychotherapists Can Commit Unintentional Empathic Failures:
I remember when I was training to be a psychotherapist at a psychoanalytic institute, my peers and I were very concerned about making mistakes in treatment. As therapists in training, most of us feared that our inexperience could lead to irreparable damage to clients.

In the context of a discussion about empathic failures, one of our instructors, who was much admired, told us a story about a rupture in treatment due to an empathic failure that he had committed with a client. Before I discuss what the empathic failure was, I should mention that not only was this instructor much-admired by the psychoanalytic trainees and faculty, but most of the trainees had a strong idealizing transference for him, which relates to my prior blog post.

Most of us, at the time, were very surprised that someone of his talent and skill could make such a mistake. This is another example of the effects of the idealizing transference between students and instructors.

Our instructor was well aware of this and he used the story that he told us not only to show that ruptures can be repaired in treatment but in his humility, to show that even seasoned and skilled therapists can make mistakes in treatment. He didn't want us, as therapists in training, to be so afraid of making a mistake that we'd be too self conscious with clients, which would have, in and of itself, interfered with treatment.

His main point in telling us about a mistake that he made was: While it's not great to make mistakes with clients, in most cases, it's not so much about the mistake that leads to the rupture-- it's more about how the therapist handles the mistake and repairs the rupture.

To that end, he told us about a time when he forgot about a client's appointment and he left the office. The client had been coming to treatment for a few years, and he had a great deal of difficulty trusting people, including his therapist.

During these sessions, the client often talked about wanting more from the therapist in terms of being more like friends rather than client and therapist. Since this would be an ethical breach of the treatment frame, the therapist explained, as gently and tactfully as possible, that this wasn't possible and explained the reasons why.

Most clients would understand that the client-therapist relationship, albeit caring and, at times, intense, is still a professional relationship. However, some clients, for a variety of reasons (sometimes, due to a history of neglect or abuse), want more from the therapist and it's up to the therapist to preserve the safety of the therapeutic relationship and the treatment to maintain the treatment frame.

All of this is to say that, even after a few years of treatment where the client came multiple times per week and kept his appointments, the therapy sessions were often rocky because the client wanted a more personal relationship with the therapist and, in some ways, he felt deprived that the therapist would not give in to his wishes.

So, in a nutshell, that's the background of the case, and you can picture many sessions where the client attempted to get the therapist to break the treatment frame and the therapist was holding the line for the sake of the client's emotional safety, although the client didn't realize it at the time.

One day, the therapist received a call from his young daughter's school that his daughter was sick and he needed to pick her up from school. At the time, the therapist had a very busy schedule that included a full-time private practice; being an instructor and supervisor at the psychoanalytic institute; involvement in various professional committees, and so on.

Tired, distracted and focused on his concerns about his daughter, he left the office completely forgetting about the client's appointment. He picked up his daughter, brought her home, and called the pediatrician. Fortunately, it turned out to be only a cold, and his daughter went right to sleep.

Relieved that his daughter didn't have a major illness, the therapist began to relax after a busy, stressful day. It was only then that he realized that he had forgotten about his client, something that had never happened to him before in his many years of practice.

Being very concerned, he called the client to apologize, but the client was too upset to accept the apology. He didn't tell the client that he had to pick up his daughter. It would have been too hurt for a client, who wanted more of a personal relationship from his therapist, to feel that the therapist's daughter took precedence over him. He simply apologized and told the client that he was called away from the office, he forgot about his appointment, and he was deeply sorry.

As an aside, one could speculate as to whether there was an unconscious wish on the part of the therapist to avoid dealing with this client on this particular day. While this might have been a factor, if and when that occurs, it's up to the therapist in this situation to do some self-analysis to explore this question.

In any case, the client was unable to accept the therapist's apology immediately. In fact, he focused on this empathic failure and the rupture in the treatment for about two months in every session. They were unable to move beyond this problem and it consumed the client's thoughts. Not only was the client very angry, but he was very deeply hurt that the therapist forgot about him.

This empathic failure fed right into his worst fear that the therapist really didn't care about him and he wasn't important to the therapist which, of course, was not the case at all. However, for a client who grew up with emotional neglect, he was very sensitive to any kind of empathic breach. In many ways, he was always vigilant and suspecting that this would happen because he found it difficult to trust people. So, in terms of empathic failures, this couldn't have happened to a more emotionally fragile client.

The therapist knew that, in many ways, the client was "testing" him on an unconscious level. The therapist needed to withstand the client's anger and hurt to show the client that he cared about him. After a few months of the client venting his anger and hurt and, together with the therapist, making connections to how this empathic failure triggered his history of emotional neglect, over time, the client and therapist were able to repair their relationship.

What's more, the relationship was more than just repaired to its former state, it was actually enhanced. Over time, the client was able to see that his therapist actually did care about him a great deal and that the empathic failure was an unintentional mistake. He realized that his therapist was human and let go of some of his idealization (much as I and the other psychoanalytic trainees did on the day when our instructor told us this story).

Feeling cared about, over time, the client stopped demanding that the therapist be his friend. He realized that it was enough that the therapist was compassionate and cared about him.

As psychotherapists in training back then, we were much relieved to hear that, even a therapist who was known to be highly skilled, could make such a mistake. It served to take a lot of pressure off of us, and I've always remembered this story.

For most clients, a sincere and caring apology can go a long way to repairing a rupture in treatment. And, in many cases, the reparative experience is more important than the rupture.

I'm a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist

To set up a consultation, call me at (212) 726-1006 or email me: josephineolivia@aol.com.












Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Psychotherapy and the Positive Transference

In my last blog article, I discussed the erotic transference in psychotherapy. I also discussed the the overall meaning of transference in psychotherapy as well as transference in our daily lives outside of therapy sessions. In this blog post I will focus on the idealized transference in psychotherapy and how it can enhance treatment in many cases.

What is the Idealized Transference in Everyday Life?
As with the erotic transference, most of us have experienced the idealized transference at some point in our lives. Examples of the idealized transference would include the idealization that a student might feel for a favorite teacher, a church member's idealization of a minister, or a young person's idealization of a political candidate (e.g., John F. Kennedy in the 1960s or Barack Obama in the last presidential election).

As with any idealization, there is usually some distortion with the idealized transference because no one can be perfect, ideal or even very good 100% of the time. There are bound to be times when the person who is being idealized will be off the mark. Depending upon the strength of the idealization and how much the person feels the need to put the idealized person on a pedestal, he or she will often rationalize the idealized person's mistakes in order to maintain this person on the pedestal.

Psychotherapy and the Positive Transference

What is the Idealized Transference in Psychotherapy?
Similar to any idealization, the idealized transference is usually more about the client's need to see the therapist as being all good or all powerful or always right, especially if the client is coming to treatment with a history of abuse or neglect or feelings of low self worth about him or herself.

How Does the Idealized Transference Form in Psychotherapy?
Every experience of the idealized transference will be different. Very often, if the psychotherapist maintains good boundaries, the client often doesn't know very much about the therapist, especially at the beginning of treatment. If the therapist is empathic and caring, he or she will provide a safe emotional "holding environment" for the client. All of this increases the likelihood that the client will develop a positive transference (he or she has good feelings about the therapist and the work they are doing together) and, in many cases, will idealize the therapist.

No matter how non-hierarchical or egalitarian the therapist is in treatment, there is still a power differential between therapist and client with the therapist being in the more powerful position. This occurs, in part, because the therapist sets and maintains the treatment frame with regard to time and fees. It also occurs because the therapist is considered "the expert" that the client comes to see. All of this feeds into the transference, whether the transference is positive, negative, eroticized or idealized.

This is not a matter of therapists creating the idealized transference and pretending that they're something that they're not. In fact, if therapists did this, in most cases, it would be counterproductive because most clients would see through any deliberate efforts to create an idealized transference. And in the particular case of a narcissistic therapist, who might actually believe in his or her perfection or an idealized self, most clients would sense the inauthenticity of this as well.

Rather, when the idealized transference occurs, it's usually a naturally-occurring phenomenon that stems from the client's need to idealize the therapist, often without even realizing it.

As discussed in my previous blog article, transference can form quickly, especially if a client is coming for multiple sessions per week, and the client is emotionally vulnerable and has the need to be with a therapist who is "perfect." For many clients, having someone that listens intently to them and is empathic might be a new and much-needed experience.

There are many issues that can affect transference, including treatment ruptures, where the therapist unintentionally makes a mistake that might be hurtful. These ruptures can usually be repaired if the therapist is willing to admit that he or she made a mistake. Often, it the rupture is handled well by the therapist, this can strengthen the therapeutic alliance between client and therapist, especially if the client grew up in an environment where the parents were unable to acknowledge mistakes. However, treatment ruptures is a topic for a future blog post.

What Are the Advantages of the Idealized Transference in Psychotherapy?If we think of psychotherapy as being a treatment with a beginning, middle and end phases, the idealized transference usually forms at the beginning and/or middle stages of treatment.

This is a period of time, if treatment is going well, when clients often internalize their therapists to the point where, even outside treatment sessions, when faced with problems or decisions, clients can ask themselves, "What would my therapist say about this?" At that point, the therapist becomes a sort of auxiliary mind that the client can call upon internally for support and wisdom. This is a normal, natural part of treatment when it's going well.

Being able to internalize the idealized therapist usually allows clients to make positive changes in their lives.

The following fictionalized scenario, which is a composite and not about any one client, will illustrate these points:

Ted:
Ted was in his early 30s when he began attending psychotherapy for longstanding depression. His feelings of low self worth kept Ted from excelling in a career, and he was unable to form intimate, romantic relationships with women.

For years, Ted tried reading self-help books and going to workshops to overcome his depression, but nothing helped, and he knew now that he couldn't change his depression on his own.

Ted had never attended psychotherapy before, so he didn't know what to expect, and he felt anxious and ambivalent on the day of his first appointment. He almost cancelled the appointment, but he knew that he couldn't manage his feelings of low self worth on his own any more. In the past, he rationalized to himself that he didn't need therapy because he never felt suicidal so, in his mind, his depression wasn't so bad. But as time passed and he continued to feel stuck in his life, he knew he needed professional help.

During his first session, he was surprised that he actually felt comfortable and he was able to talk relatively easily to the therapist. He liked the therapist and also felt very comfortable in the office. He discussed his family history, including how depressed and anxious his parents were when he was growing up. He also talked about how critical his father was and how his father made him feel that he couldn't do anything right. He knew that his parents did the best that they could but, as an only child, he felt alone and lonely. He excelled at school, hoping to get his parents' love and approval, but they were too preoccupied with their own lives to pay attention to Ted.

By the time Ted went away to college, he went from being a "straight A" student in high school to being an average student in college. He had given up trying to please his parents, and he had such a poor sense of self that he didn't care about how he performed in college. He also felt socially inept, so he hardly attended any social activities. And when he did, he felt awkward and shy. He dated a few women, who took the initiative of asking him out, but nothing ever came of these dating relationships.

After Ted graduated college with a major in psychology, he took the first job that he could find as a sales clerk in a clothing store. He was bored and, on some level, he knew that he was underemployed, but he lacked the self confidence to get a job that was commensurate with his education.

Ted had a few close friends, but he had not dated anyone in over a year, and he felt lonely.

After he was in therapy for a couple of months, Ted began to admire his therapist. He really liked that his therapist listened to him attentively and that he was also so empathic with Ted and seemed to understand him. Ted had never experienced this before. He felt that his therapist cared about him, and he looked forward to his sessions.

Ted imagined that his therapist was everything that Ted was not. He didn't know anything about his therapist's personal life because they focused on Ted in their sessions, but he imagined that his therapist was happy in a relationship and successful in his private practice. He imagined that his therapist was everything that Ted wanted to be in his own life.

Without realizing it, Ted began to change the way that he dressed so that it was similar to his therapist's appearance.

He also liked looking at his therapist's book shelves, and he was fascinated by all the psychology books. Ted used to enjoy reading psychology but, other than self-help books, he stopped reading scholarly psychology books. But when he noticed his therapist's books, he felt more curious and open again, and he started taking out these same books from the library, and this re-ignited his interest in psychology.

Whenever he encountered problems outside of treatment, Ted asked himself what his therapist might say. And, when he spoke to friends, he often spoke highly of his therapist to them.

Step by step, Ted began making changes in his life. After about six months, Ted began to feel a sense of optimism again. He was beginning to see a glimmer of a possible future for himself. He began having thoughts about going to graduate school for psychology or clinical social work. Just having these thoughts was surprising to him. This was the beginning of an upward spiral for Ted.

As he talked to his therapist about his thoughts about going to graduate school, his therapist encouraged him to explore various possibilities. Ted began to fantasize that he might have his own psychotherapy private practice one day.

About a year later, Ted began attending social work graduate school. He continued in therapy and he often spoke to his therapist about his internship. It was during this internship that Ted realized that he didn't like seeing clients one-on-one as much as he had anticipated.

This was a surprising disappointment to him. He discovered that he really liked his community organizing classes. There seemed to be two primary groups at his university, those who wanted to go into psychotherapy private practice and those who were passionate about community organizing.

Ted began forming friendships with the students who wanted to be community organizers. He liked their ideas and their passion. He also felt that he could help many more people if he became a community organizer than if he became a psychotherapist and worked with people one-on-one.

This made him wonder why his therapist became a psychotherapist and not a community organizer. It was the first time that Ted began to have some doubts as to whether he wanted to be just like his therapist (or as he imagined his therapist to be). This made him feel a little sad because, until then, he thought of his therapist as being "perfect."

Ted was able to discuss this with his therapist, including the sadness that he felt about it. At first, he was hesitant to tell his therapist that he had some doubts about him for his career choice. But what came out of these discussions was very important: Ted was beginning to see his therapist as a person and not as an idealized figure. He was also beginning to see himself as a separate person from his therapist who could have his own feelings and ideas.

Over time, Ted was able to achieve some balance in his feelings and perceptions about his therapist. He still liked his therapist and found their sessions to be very valuable to him, but he no longer idealized his therapist and he felt comfortable with that. Along the way, he also developed more confidence in himself, and he began a relationship with a woman that he met in his social work program.

A year after Ted became a community organizer and he and his girlfriend moved in together, he successfully completed treatment. During the final stage of treatment, Ted and his therapist reviewed their work together and Ted had a sense of how far he had progressed. He also knew that he could return to see his therapist in the future.

As demonstrated above, the idealized transference is often useful in helping clients to make positive changes in their lives during the initial and middle stages of treatment. The client uses his or her own idealized fantasies and projections about the therapist to make personal changes.

There are times when the idealized transference is not resolved because the client has a need to maintain that view of the therapist. Not only is this true about clients coming into therapy, but it is often true of psychoanalytic students at institutes, some of whom never lose their idealized view of their psychoanalysts. But, once again, this is another topic.

I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist

To set up a consultation, call me at (212) 726-1006 or email me: josephineolivia@aol.com



photo credit: FlickrJunkie via photopin cc










Sunday, November 7, 2010

Psychotherapy and the Erotic Transference: Falling "In Love" With Your Psychotherapist

When Freud first encountered the erotic transference among his patients, he was very concerned and he didn't think it was a useful part of treatment. But, as he continued to work with these patients and to explore the transference, he discovered that it was, in fact, a very useful part of psychoanalysis, and the transference could be worked through so that the patient could gain insight and grow in treatment.

Psychotherapy and the Erotic Transference:  Falling "In Love With Your Therapist

Psychotherapists who are psychoanalysts have rigorous psychoanalytic training as well as years of their own psychoanalysis so that they are trained to work with the transferential aspects of therapy, including the erotic transference.

But, first let's understand what we mean by the word "transference" in the context of psychoanalysis or psychodynamic psychotherapy.

What is Transference?
There are many explanations for transference but, basically, transference entails, primarily, unconscious feelings that clients develop for their psychotherapists where they usually "transfer" feelings related to their childhood. Transference can be positive, negative, idealized, erotic and so on.

Usually, the clients develop these transferential feelings based on unmet needs from their childhood, so that if their parents were cold and neglectful, they have a strong desire for the psychotherapist to fulfill these needs that weren't met by their parents.

When you consider that psychoanalytic clients meet with their psychoanalysts any where from 2-5 times per week, you can see how transference, in whatever form, would build up quickly. Psychoanalysts also usually delve into the most intimate aspects of a client's interior world, including dreams, which can also fuel transferential feelings.

Psychotherapy and the Erotic Transference:  Falling "In Love" With Your  Therapist

Also, most psychoanalysts, especially at the beginning of treatment, don't reveal that much about themselves because transference is an important part of treatment. Since they want to work with the transference, they are unlikely to reveal a lot of personal information because the more a client knows about his or her therapist, the less room there is for transference to develop. So, the combination of the frequency of sessions, the intimate nature of what the client is sharing in the treatment, and the lack of information about the analyst (where there's lots of room for clients to project their fantasies) can create powerful transferential feelings.

Sometimes, clients' transferential feelings are not totally unconscious. They might be very aware of feelings that they're developing for the therapist, although they might not realize that the basis of these feelings is based on childhood experiences. This is all very common and part of what would be discussed in treatment.

Transference is not a phenomenon that is only found in treatment. In fact, it is a normal part of every day life in many areas of our lives. I'm sure that many of us can think of teachers that we had crushes on in school. This is also usually transference because it's a projection of the student's feelings for the teacher. Usually, students outgrow these crushes and, eventually, develop healthy relationships with their own peers.

What is Countertransference
I've chosen to focus on a particular type of transference in this blog article, namely, erotic transference, but I wanted to add a few words about countertransference. Countertransference is also a form of transference but, in the context of treatment, it's the transferential feelings that the therapist has for the client. Therapists who are psychoanalytically trained know that they will feel countertransference for some clients, and they often experience the same type of transferential feelings as clients do.

The big difference is that therapists who are psychoanalytically trained have the therapeutic skills to deal with these countertransferential feelings, and will usually recognize that it's not really about the client.

Rather, it can point to something that is lacking in their own lives, something from the past, or some unconscious feelings regarding their own unmet needs. Early on, in psychoanalytic training, psychoanalytic candidates in training use their own personal psychoanalysis and supervision to deal with these feelings and learn how to handle them without compromising the treatment. If countertransference becomes an issue for a therapist after his or her training, usually, he or she will seek professional guidance either in his or her personal therapy, in supervision, or among peers.

Psychotherapy and the Erotic Transference:  Falling "In Love" With Your Therapist

When psychoanalysts act on transferential and/or countertransferential feelings, rather than seeing them as a signal for work to be done with the client and/or with themselves, there can be boundary violations, especially sexual boundary violations, which I discussed in an earlier blog post. This type of boundary violation, whether it occurs during the treatment or after the treatment, is usually most harmful to the client. It can leave a client feeling devastated since these types of "relationships," which continue to be unequal even if the treatment is over, almost never work out.

There are some psychotherapists, who are not psychoanalytically trained, who are uncomfortable with clients' transference or their own countertransference, and they avoid dealing with it and don't know how to deal with it. This is usually detrimental to the treatment and has been the cause of many treatment failures.

What is the Erotic Transference?
The erotic transference is a particular form of transference that occurs when the client thinks that he or she has fallen in love with the therapist. Once again, as mentioned previously, feelings can develop quickly in psychoanalysis or psychodynamic psychotherapy due to the intensity of the treatment.

Initially, this can be emotionally painful for clients because, an ethical psychotherapist who maintains the treatment frame, won't gratify these erotic transferential feelings and fantasies, so that clients feel a yearning for their therapists that cannot be satisfied. These feelings are explored in treatment and, usually, as previously mentioned, they have their origins in unmet childhood needs.

The Erotic Transference in Therapy Often Involves the Client's Fantasies About the Therapist

It's easy to see how someone who grew up in a home where their emotional needs were not met or not sufficiently met, for whatever reason, would feel like he or she is falling in love with the therapist who is spending so much time listening to his or her most innermost feelings. The early yearning to have these needs met can come roaring to the surface very quickly. Many times, clients have repressed (pushed down) these needs for so long that. before starting treatment, they might not even be aware that they still have these needs. Then, lo and behold, these needs are tapped into and they often erupt with full force.

Note that I emphasized that this can be part of the initial part of treatment. The reason for this is that a skilled psychoanalytically trained therapist will use these transferential feelings not only to explore those unmet needs but also to help the client to develop healthy relationships outside of treatment where those needs can be met. So, although it can be initially painful to feel unrequited love as part of the erotic transference, the client is helped to develop into an adult who can have his or her needs met.

The erotic transference can occur regardless of the client's and therapist's gender or sexual orientation. That means that a heterosexual woman can develop an erotic transference for a heterosexual female therapist, even if this client never had erotic or romantic feelings for women in the past.

It can also occur with a heterosexual man and a gay therapist, even if the client never had sexual or romantic feelings for gay men before. A gay male client can develop an erotic transference for a heterosexual female therapist. And so on. This can be very confusing for clients and, at times, causes them to question their sexual orientation. But, most often, especially if they're not having these romantic and sexual feelings outside of treatment, it's not about a change in their sexual orientation. It's usually about unmet childhood needs and, as an adult, these needs can be transformed into romantic and/or sexual feelings for the therapist.

In a successful psychoanalytic or psychodynamic treatment, the client matures into a person who can work through these early unmet needs and find mature love among his or her own peers rather than continuing to fantasize about the therapist.

But it would be misleading to say that this happens quickly in every psychoanalytic of psychodynamic treatment or that, for some people, it happens at all. Some clients can spend years feeling that they're in love with their therapists and not understanding why the therapist is not willing to satisfy their needs by seeing them outside of the therapy sessions or going out with them or telling them about personal aspects of the therapist's life.

If a therapist is not able to help a client work through the transference so that the client can transfer his or her feelings from the therapist to a healthy, mature relationship with a peer, the therapist might have to refer the client to a different therapist to work out these issues. This can feel very rejecting to the client, who might not understand why this is necessary, but it is sometimes necessary and preferable to allowing a client to spend year after year feeling deprived because his or her therapist won't gratify his erotic or romantic needs.

The fictionalized vignette below demonstrates how the erotic transference can develop in a psychoanalytic treatment. As an aside, I also want to reiterate that, although I'm focusing on psychoanalytic and psychodynamic treatment, transference can develop in any type of therapy and, overall, transference out in the world (outside of the treatment setting) is ubiquitous.

Terry:
When Terry began treatment, she had just ended her third long-term relationship with a man who turned out to be cold and distant. She felt depressed and "a failure" because she continued to choose men who didn't meet her emotional needs.

Terry chose a woman psychotherapist who was recommended to her by her doctor. During the initial few visits, the therapist asked Terry about her childhood history, and Terry recounted a childhood where her parents provided her with everything that she needed and wanted materially, but they were emotionally distant. Whenever she wanted to talk to her parents, they were too preoccupied with other things to listen to her. As an only child, Terry grew up feeling lonely. She loved to go visit her best friend's home because her friend's mother was very warm and affectionate. Terry used to secretly wish that her friend's mother would become her mother.

Since Terry was significantly depressed (although not suicidal), Terry and her therapist agreed to meet three times a week. As the treatment went on, Terry described how she had never felt that anyone close to her ever really listened to her. She was tired of going out with men who turned out to be so much like her parents, and she couldn't understand the unconscious process that compelled her to continue to choose the same type of man over and over again.

After a few weeks, Terry really began to look forward to her therapy sessions. Her therapist provided a safe and nonjudgmental environment for Terry to express her innermost feelings. Terry told her therapist about thoughts and feelings that she had never revealed to anyone else in her life, and she was amazed at how easily she was able to do this with her therapist. Most of all, she felt that her therapist was caring, attentive and really listened to her in a way that she had never been listened to before.

Psychotherapy and the Erotic Transference:  Falling "In Love" With Your Therapist

Soon after that, Terry began having erotic dreams about her therapist. These dreams made her feel very frightened, confused, and embarrassed because she considered herself to be heterosexual, and she had never had romantic or erotic feelings for a woman before. She had gay and lesbian friends, and she didn't think she was prejudice against gays. She was just bewildered by these dreams and wished that she would stop having them.

Terry also began to notice that she was ruminating about her therapist between sessions, wondering what she was doing and with whom. She fantasized about meeting her therapist outside of their sessions for dinner and getting to know her therapist personally. When her fantasies turned erotic, she began to worry because now she was having erotic feelings for her therapist in her dreams as well as her waking hours. In fact, she worried because she was feeling obsessed.

Psychotherapy and the Erotic Transference:  Falling "In Love" With Your Therapist

At that point, whenever she went to therapy, she wished that the session wouldn't end. She looked at her therapist's ring finger to see if she was wearing a wedding ring, but she saw no signs of whether her therapist was married or had a significant other. She felt that, at least, if she knew that her therapist was married, maybe she could stop ruminating about her day and night.

When her therapy session ended and Terry walked out into the waiting room and saw the next client about to go in to see the therapist, she felt jealous. On an emotional level, she wanted the therapist to only spend time with her and it was painful to think that she had to share her with other clients. On a rational level, Terry could step back and look at her feelings and know that they were irrational, but she couldn't stop them.

She had fantasies about standing across the street from her therapist's office, somewhere where the therapist couldn't see her, and waiting to see where she went or if she met up with a husband or lover. She felt that her curiosity and yearning to know more about her therapist's life was overwhelming. And, although she often had this fantasy, she never gave into it because she didn't want to feel like a stalker.

Finally, one day when Terry couldn't tolerate having these erotic feelings for her therapist any more, with much hesitation and embarrassment, she told her therapist about her erotic feelings. Part of her hoped that her therapist would tell her that she felt the same way about her, which she also knew would be terrifying for her. Another part of her was afraid that her therapist would think this was highly inappropriate and she would need treatment with Terry.

Terry's therapist listened intently to what Terry had to say. Terry became tearful because she was confused about what this meant about their therapeutic relationship and also what it meant in terms of Terry's sexual orientation. Terry poured out all the feelings that she had been holding back and allowed her tears to flow.

After she finished, Terry raised her eyes for the first time during that session to meet her therapist's eyes. What she saw was the same empathetic and compassionate look that her therapist usually had. She breathed a sigh of relief that, at least, her therapist wasn't throwing her out of the office. Then, her therapist talked to Terry about transference and, in particular, the erotic transference. Terry was surprised to hear that this is a very common experience in psychoanalytic and psychodynamic psychotherapy. At least, she knew that she was not some odd ball and that many other clients in therapy experienced the same feelings. Most importantly. she learned that most clients work through these feelings as they learn to develop healthy, romantic relationships outside of treatment.

Terry and her therapist continued to explore these feelings as they related to her unmet childhood needs. Terry did a lot of grieving for what she didn't get when she was growing up. Over time, she also learned to accept that her parents, who would never even think of getting into their own therapy, probably would not change. This is often a very hard part of treatment for many clients who still hold onto the wish, no matter how impossible it might seem, that one day their parents would change.

In the meantime, Terry began to date again. Whenever she started to see a man who turned out to be cold and distant as all the other men she dated, she wished that she could be in a romantic relationship with her therapist. Sometimes, these feelings were so strong that she felt they were unbearable. Although she still really didn't know if her therapist was heterosexual or a lesbian and she didn't know if her therapist was in a relationship, she fantasized about her therapist being a single lesbian.

Although she understood that she and her therapist couldn't be romantically or sexually involved while she was still in treatment, she now had fantasies that they could be together after the treatment ended. She even had thoughts about terminating the treatment with her therapist and seeing a different therapist so that she and her current therapist could be together.

This thought made her feel happy and excited her sexually as well. She no longer cared if she considered herself to be heterosexual or a lesbian. It didn't matter. All she could think about at that point was that she and her therapist could be so happy together if she was no longer in treatment with her. She thought to herself, "Why didn't I think about this before? Surely, my therapist must recognize that there's a special feeling between us. She's too ethical to pursue this feeling while I'm in treatment with her, but she'd have no reason not to be with me if I was in treatment with someone else."

Terry was very excited on the day when she decided to bring this up in her psychotherapy session. She had fantasies about having romantic candlelight dinners with her therapist, being sexually intimate, and, in time, even living together. So, when she brought up her feelings about this in therapy, as always, her therapist listened to her intently. Terry was so happy to have someone finally listen to her as if she was the only person in the world, and she imagined how wonderful this would be to experience all the time, and not for 45 minutes several times a week.

Once again, Terry's therapist acknowledged that it is not at all unusual for a client to have these feelings and, in fact, many clients had these feelings. Then, she proceeded to explain to Terry how, even after their treatment ended, whenever it ended, they could never be together or have anything but a therapeutic relationship because it would ruin the treatment that they had together. Also, she explained that these romantic and sexual feelings that Terry had, while very strong, were still based on her unmet childhood needs. And a relationship between a former therapist and a former client would be disastrous for the client.

Even though her therapist normalized her feelings, Terry was extremely disappointed. She thought she had found a way to be with her therapist, only to be rejected. This was the subject of many sessions after that session. Terry's therapist was also able to help her connect her current feelings to her earlier feelings connected to the childhood emotional neglect.

As treatment continued, Terry began to feel deep down that she deserved to be with someone who was emotionally available to her. Since she didn't have attractions for women outside of her therapy sessions, she continued to date men and talk about these experiences in her therapy. She still held onto a wish that her therapist would eventually change her mind and get romantically involved with Terry after the treatment was over. But she also began to choose men who were more emotionally attuned to her.

Several months later, Terry met a man that she really liked and who was very kind and generous with her. Unlike her other relationships, he was attentive and also reciprocated her feelings. Initially, she was almost too afraid to get excited about this man because she feared that she would get disappointed and hurt like she had in the past. But, as she continued to see him, their relationship developed and became more intimate.

At first, Terry felt like she was "cheating" on her therapist, although, rationally, she knew this wasn't true. But, until then, most of her erotic dreams and fantasies had been about her therapist, and it had been the most intense relationship (albeit it a therapeutic relationship) that she had ever had.

Unlike her mother, who had almost never shown much concern for Terry's emotional well being, Terry sensed that her therapist was happy for her that she had met someone that she really cared about and who really cared about her.

As Terry continued to see this man and continued to talk about it in her therapy, gradually, over time, she realized that her feelings for her therapist were changing. Although she felt a deep caring for her therapist, she no longer had romantic or sexual feelings for her therapist.

This surprised Terry greatly because, when she was obsessing about her therapist, she thought these feelings would never change and she worried about what it might be like to terminate treatment and never see her therapist again. Whenever she had those feelings, she worried that she had become "too dependent" on her therapist. But much to her surprise, over time, she was beginning to feel that she could foresee a time when she could end treatment and be all right about it.

Psychotherapy and the Erotic Transference:  Falling "In Love" With Your Therapist

When she discussed this with her therapist, her therapist assured her that, even after she ended this treatment, if she felt that she wanted to work out other issues that had come up after this treatment was over, she could return to see her. She also told Terry that it wasn't unusual for people to return to their therapists after years of being away from treatment. She also told her that Terry had the option in the future of seeing a different therapist, possible someone who worked differently, to get a different perspective.

Soon after that, Terry and her therapist went through the termination process, which lasted a few months. During that time, they saw each other less frequently. They processed the therapy in a way that gave closure to their therapeutic relationship. During that time, Terry realized that her feelings for her therapist had changed to no longer feeling at all erotic, romantic or idealized in any way. Rather, she saw her therapist as being an ordinary person who happened to be very skilled at her work. And, when she looked back at her erotic transferential feelings, she was glad that her therapist was ethical, and maintained the therapeutic frame in a safe and empathic environment.

Terry and her boyfriend eventually got married and, overall, she was happy. After a few years, she returned to see her former therapist for brief treatment to work through particular issues. She was grateful to be able to return for treatment whenever she needed it. And rather than feeling caught up in transferential feelings that were based on unmet childhood needs, she felt that she was with a capable mental health professional who could help her to overcome these problems.

About the Fictionalized Scenario 
The fictionalized scenario that I presented above is one example, among many different types of situations, of the erotic transference and how it might appear in treatment and get worked through. There are times when clients, who feel too uncomfortable with their erotic and romantic feelings for their therapist, leave treatment and never work through these issues or the unmet childhood needs that tend to fuel these feelings.

While there are certainly times, especially if a psychotherapist is crossing professional boundaries, where clients should leave treatment before transferential feelings are worked through (and work them through with another more professional and ethical therapist), most of the time, it is beneficial to stay in treatment and get to the early core issues that are at the heart of the matter.

Getting Help in Therapy
If you're overwhelmed with problems that you've been unable to resolve on your own, you could benefit from seeing a licensed mental health professional who can help you to work through these issues so you can lead a more fulfilling life.

About Me
I am a licensed psychotherapist in NYC, who is psychoanalytically trained. Since my psychoanalytic training, I have also developed expertise in other treatment modalities, including EMDR, clinical hypnosis, and Somatic Experiencing.  I work with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist

To set up a consultation, call me at (212) 726-1006 or email me josephineolivia@aol.com


Saturday, November 6, 2010

How Triangulation in Family Relationships Can Lead to "Love Triangles"

When we think of "triangles" in relationships, we often associate them with "love triangles" where a person is romantically involved with two people at the same time. Typically, we think of the man or woman who is married or in a primary relationship who is having an affair with someone else. These relationships are often complex and usually don't end well for the people involved. But less talked about are triangles in family relationships and how this can lead to "love triangles" when children from these families become adults.

What is Triangulation in Family Relationships?


Triangulation in Family Relationships
In certain families, family members form unhealthy alliances against others in the family. This could be a mother and daughter against the father or a father and son against the mother or mother and son against the father or father and daughter against the mother, as well as other permutations of these triangular relationships.

Basically, in triangular relationships, there are usually two people against at least one other person. The two people who have aligned with each other usually have an unhealthy, enmeshed relationship with each other and the other person that they are aligned against is the odd one out.

Needless to say, these triangular relationships are emotionally unhealthy and detrimental to all members of the family, regardless of whether they are part of the enmeshed alliance or the odd one out. These triangular relationships form for a variety of reasons. Generally, there is a power struggle going on in the family and the two that are aligned are trying to have power over the other family member.

Often, when children, who are in families with triangular relationships, grow up, they tend to triangulate in their adult relationships, often leading to illicit affairs or to triangles in their own families with their spouses and children.

A fictionalized account will serve to illustrate these points:

Tom:
Tom grew up as an only child. As far back as he could remember, his parents were always arguing.

When he was about seven years old, Tom's father, Scott, started confiding in Tom about how unhappy he was being married to Tom's mother, Nancy. Tom would listen to his father, just feeling happy that his father was spending time with him. Sometimes, he worried that his father would leave the household so, at those times, he made sure to pay extra special attention to his father's complaints, even though he didn't understand them.

Even though he didn't understand, Tom still felt it was important to be on his father's side. When he saw how unhappy his father was and he feared that his father would leave the household and abandon him, he felt very angry with his mother. Often when he was alone his mother, he would tell her, "Stop fighting with dad." Usually, his mother would respond by saying, "Your father is an idiot," which made Tom feel even more angry.

Tom's parents sometimes argued at night and this kept Tom up most of the night. When it was time to go to school, Tom was too groggy to get up. Often, this caused arguments between Nancy and Scott, with Nancy telling Tom that he needed to go to school, and Scott telling Nancy to leave Tom alone. Nancy usually left for work before Scott, and she would tell Tom to get up, get dressed, eat his breakfast and go to school. But after Nancy left, Scott would tell Tom that he didn't have to go to school and he could stay home with his paternal grandmother who lived downstairs.

Tom felt that his father was on his side since Scott allowed Tom to stay home. He especially felt this way when his mother got home and scolded him for not going to school and his father defended him.

Even after his grades began to slip, Scott allowed Tom to stay home from school when he didn't want to go. During that time, Tom's school engaged in "social promotion" so that even though he was not doing well, they kept allowing him to go to the next grade.

This pattern continued into Tom's adolescence. It seemed that Nancy and Scott had completely different ideas about child rearing. When Tom was 14 and Nancy found out that Tom was smoking, she hit the roof and forbade Tom to smoke. But when Nancy wasn't around, Scott would provide Tom with cigarettes, and Tom thought this was "cool" of his father. When Nancy got home, she detected the cigarette smell on Tom and she and Scott would get into a screaming match.

By this time, Tom saw his father as "the cool one" and his mother as "the witch." Around that time, one day when Nancy and Scott were fighting about Tom failing his classes in junior high school, Tom lost his temper with his mother and told her to "shut up." He was filled with such rage against her that he felt like hitting her, but he punched the wall instead and broke his knuckles.

Nancy and Scott argued all the way to the ER. Seeing the dysfunctional dynamic, after attending to Tom, the ER doctor recommended that the three of them attend family counseling. Nancy agreed, but Scott and Tom refused to go.

By the time Scott was 16, he was smoking marijuana with his friends. One of those friends' mother called Nancy and told her that her son was smoking marijuana with her son and she wanted to put a stop to it. When Nancy told Scott about it, he brushed it off and told her that she was making too big a deal about it. When Tom got home, he found his parents arguing about it and he aligned with his father against his mother.

After Tom moved out on his own, his parents decided to get a divorce. Tom still had a lot of anger towards his mother. He felt that she was always trying to stop him from doing things that he wanted to do, but he thought that his dad understood him. He also thought his father was better off without her.

When Tom was in his mid-20s, he entered into a relationship with Ann. At first, he enjoyed being with her and he had fun. But as the relationship got more serious, Tom became fearful of the intimacy. He knew that he loved Ann, but he often found the relationship to be "too intense."

One day, he met Susan at a local bookstore, and he started dating her without telling Ann and without telling Susan that he was supposed to be in a monogamous relationship. Once he began the affair with Susan, even though she was unaware of it, Tom entered into a classic "love triangle".

After he began dating Susan, he felt more comfortable in his relationship with Ann. Whenever he felt that things were getting "too intense" with Ann, he would go out with Susan. After a while, he got good at juggling these two relationships. But one day, Susan confronted him by telling him that her friend saw him with Ann and that it was obvious that he was in a relationship with her.

Tom tried to lie, but he knew that Susan knew the truth, so he admitted that he was in a primary relationship with Ann. He expected that Susan would leave him, but she told him that she didn't want to end their relationship and she begged Tom to leave Ann for her.

Tom wasn't sure what to do. He liked seeing both women and he wasn't sure if he would be happy with just one of them. He considered Ann to be his primary relationship and, after he thought about it for a while, he told Susan that he wasn't leaving Ann. To his amazement, Susan continued to see him, knowing that she was "the other woman."

Then, one day, Susan found Ann's telephone number on Tom's cell phone and called her. She told Ann all about her affair with Tom and that she would wait for Tom to leave Ann. When Ann angrily confronted Tom about this, he felt that Ann was overreacting. He left Ann to go be with Susan that night, and the two of them aligned with each other and agreed that Ann was blowing things out of proportion.

Susan told Tom that she would never leave him and she would wait for him as long as it took. Tom was very flattered by this. In the meantime, Ann threatened to leave Tom if he didn't end things with Susan. When Tom told Susan this, she told Tom that Ann couldn't really love him that much if she was threatening to leave and she was the one who really loved Tom, not Ann.

Two weeks later, Ann ended the relationship with Tom. He was surprised that he missed her as much as he did, even when he was with Susan. He tried to get Ann back, but she refused to see him or take his calls.

Susan was thrilled that Ann was out of the picture because she thought that now she would have Tom all to herself. But once Tom was no longer in a "love triangle" with Ann and Susan, he began to feel very uneasy. He didn't want to spend all of his time with Susan. It frightened him and he felt it was "too intense." So, when he met Linda, he began dating her without telling Susan--until Susan found out and she left him.

Tom's relationships continued in this way until he was in his 30s and he began to feel that his life was empty. He continued to create "love triangles" without fully understanding why. By the time his next relationship with a woman named Amy ended, he felt despondent and exhausted. He loved Amy more than any other woman that he had ever loved and his feelings frightened him more than ever, which lead him to engage in his usual pattern--to cheat on her as a way to distract himself from his scary feelings.

After Amy left him, Tom realized that he couldn't continue to live his life this way, and he began psychotherapy. His psychotherapist helped Tom to understand the connection between the triangular relationship he had with his father and mother and the "love triangles" that he formed in his romantic relationships. He realized that he had a lot of hard work to do in therapy to overcome his fear of intimacy so he could have a healthy relationship.

Over time, Tom was able to confront his fear of intimacy. He entered into a relationship with Betty and, whenever he felt tempted to act out by going outside their relationship, rather than act out impulsively, he talked about it with his therapist and avoided the impulse to act out. He also worked through the effects of his dysfunctional relationship with his parents.

As the above fictionalized account illustrates, people who create "love triangles" in their relationships often (although not always) grew up in families were there was triangulation. When they become adults, triangulating seems normal and natural to them and, not only will they do this in their romantic relationships, but they often create these triangles in their friendships, pitting one friend against another.

Triangles in families and in romantic relationships usually give the person at the head of the triangle (like Tom) the sense of power. Triangulation also serves as a defense against feeling alone and vulnerable. It usually creates havoc in families and romantic relationships and is detrimental to all involved.

Getting Help
If you are aware that you tend to create triangles in your family or your romantic relationships, you owe it to yourself and your loved ones to get help. Rather than continuing in destructive patterns that are damaging to yourself and to those you care about, with professional help from a licensed psychotherapist who has expertise in this area, you can learn how to function in healthy and loving ways in your relationships.

I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist.

I work with individual adults and couples.

I have helped many individuals and couples overcome the detrimental effects of triangulation so that they can have more satisfying relationships.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist

To set up a consultation, call me at (212) 726-1006 or email me: josephineolivia@aol.com.



photo credit: FatherDalton via photopin cc