But This Isn’t a “Real” Relationship…

By Jeff Levy
Relationship Defined:  “an emotional or other connection between people”

When I begin meeting with someone, I try to make a point of discussing how therapy works.  I talk about the importance of the content of our sessions, and I talk about the importance of exploring the relationship that evolves between us.  I share that what we talk about is important and equally important is how we are talking about it; how our relationship develops.

After some time together, usually there is an opportunity to look at a present moment interaction or pattern that seems to be arising.  Perhaps someone is perpetually late to sessions.  Perhaps someone talks throughout most of the sessions leaving little time for me to respond.  Or, maybe someone sees each comment I make as an attack and responds with some kind of defense.

Mirror, Mirror

If the time feels right, I might stop our conversation for a moment and ask if we can look at what is happening at that moment, or if we can look at a pattern that has been arising in our relationship; how it might mirror patterns in relationships outside of therapy. My heart beats a little faster in these moments.  I take a deep breath.  I plant my feet on the floor.  I know that I am moving into territory that may be unchartered, unclear, not conscious and, perhaps at least initially, unwelcome.

Sometimes when I invite us to look at our therapy relationship or patterns in our relationship, I am met with a variation of the following:  “Well, I see what you’re saying, but this isn’t a realrelationship.”  Sometimes this is followed by:  “And I pay you to listen to me.’   I will usually invite more discussion about our relationship and what makes it different than other relationships, but I will also invite more exploration about how, just maybe, what is happening with us is happening with others; how our relationship is “real”.

Real Isn’t Easy

I remember one of my very first clients many years ago.  He believed he was always the one reaching out to his friends; that if he didn’t call them, he would never engage in social activities.  He also believed he was consistently the person who “gave” in relationships.  He wanted others to give to him.  As our work progressed, a consistent pattern developed.  He brought me a bagel and gave it to me at the beginning of each session.  Since our meeting was at 8:00 am on Saturday mornings and he bought one for himself, he explained, he brought one for me as well.

Upon first glance, it may be hard to see any connection between this ritual of giving me a bagel and his presenting concerns.  I thought, however, it might merit some exploration.  The next time I met with him, I asked him more about bringing me bagels.  I invited him to consider how this concrete act of giving might somehow parallel his experience in his life outside of therapy.  His initial reaction was to look at me quizzically.  He wondered why I was making any kind of an issue of him bringing me a bagel.

After some thought and gentle probing, he began to question whether this giving to me (and to others) somehow made him feel less vulnerable.  He wondered if maybe he had more control when he gave than he did when he received.  And as we talked more about his relationships outside of therapy, he realized that his pattern of giving was a way of precluding others from giving to him in a way that felt authentic—not simply a perfunctory response to his giving.  If he continued to give and give, maybe there was no space for others to give to him.  Or when others give to him, are they only giving because they feel like they “have to” because he gave first? This was an important realization for him. The most palpable consequence of our conversation was the absence of bagels in subsequent sessions.

In another instance, a woman who had been seeing me for almost a year, had a pattern of canceling appointments, coming late, and sitting on the edge of my couch throughout each session.  I noticed my anxiety rise over time.  I experienced our relationship as tenuous.  If I said the “wrong thing”, I had a sense she would stop seeing me.  When I shared this with her explicitly, she did exactly as I feared.  She gathered her belongings and quickly left the room. I reached out to her by phone.  She didn’t answer and didn’t respond to messages I left.  I had no idea if she would attend our next session and was sure I had missed the mark in bringing attention to our relationship so explicitly.

Much to my surprise, she was early for her next session.  She tentatively entered the room, leaned back in the sofa, began to cry softly, and starting talking without any prompting from me.  She spoke about her history of childhood trauma.  Her life at home never felt safe and being vigilant—looking for possible danger—was a necessity.   She managed safety in relationships by staying on the periphery, always ready for the next “assault”, and always ready to run.  She acknowledged that when she felt someone did or said something that felt critical or dangerous, she ended her relationship with that person.

When I asked her about her reactions to my comments in our prior session, she quietly explained: “That’s what all my friends tell me.  And I didn’t really understand what they were talking about until last week. I did with you what I have done with other people for years”.  For her, when I noticed her fear and asked her about it, though she felt initial panic, she also felt safer to enter our relationship more fully.  And she began experimenting similarly with others in her life.  She no longer canceled or arrived late to sessions.  She even began to take her shoes off and curl herself into the couch.

The Power of Real Relationships

Of course, these are examples where my invitation to look at our relationship in therapy resonated strongly with each person.  There have been many other times when I’ve invited the same type of reflection and was rebuffed.   “This isn’t a real relationship” has been a common response.   I still place a bookmark in this space, hoping another opportunity arises to build a bridge from our relationship in the room to relationships in the world outside.

Recently one of my clients told me he was talking about therapy with a friend and was explaining how I often invited him to look at his relationship with me as a way to understand his other relationships.  With a sense of pride in his voice, he said that he appreciated the extent to which our relationship in therapy has served as a platform to understand other relationships.  Through this understanding, albeit uncomfortable at times, he recognized how it helped him experiment with new ways of being in relationships with others.

Equally powerful are times when I am challenged to look at what I have said in a session, or how I have said it.  While I’m not directly asked to explore how my comment mirrors my responses in my relationships outside of therapy, I remind myself that my own history and patterns enter the room as well.  And through understanding these in the present moment, I too am invited to grow and change.

While the relationship we build together in therapy has many elements that set it apart from other relationships, a real relationship exists nonetheless.  A connection develops between people.  And isn’t it through our relationships with others that we learn about ourselves, we grow the most, and we become more authentic?

“Once you are real you can’t become unreal. It lasts for always”.
—Margery Williams
The Velveteen Rabbit

by Jeff Levy, LCSW, CTRS

Published on November 15, 2017