When Politics Threatens Your Relationship

Is there anywhere to escape politics? Unless you are stranded on a desert island, maybe not. Times are challenging for those of us on the mainland.

Dr. Jeanne Safer desires to help all homo sapiens chagrined over political disagreements. Friends, lovers, parents, and next-door neighbors are included; anyone who cares to make and maintain a connection with another person.


Early in her book I Love You, But I Hate Your Politics, Safer claims she is “the go-to expert on making a mixed-political relationships flourish.” Bad start. It takes more than self-congratulations to persuade me. Still, the author offers some worthy ideas.

The psychotherapist’s conceptualization of her chosen topic is this: “Our fights are rarely about the overt issues that spark them, especially when they are repetitive and emotionally devastating.”

“The key to lasting change,” she writes, “is realizing that political fights in intimate relationships are not really about politics.” This therapist identifies underlying psychodynamic distress at the conflict’s core: long-standing parental difficulties, sibling rivalry, the desire for recognition and respect, etc. The basic material of traditional forms of psychotherapy.

Should you read the book, you’ll find substantial doses of opinion and an equal amount of advice. For example, here are the kinds of things we are instructed not to do:

  • Drink before beginning any political discussion.
  • Spring unsolicited articles on your spouse as he is eating his breakfast.
  • Make sure to quiz him later about his required reading assignment, the better to guarantee he “gets it.”
  • Lecture your lover with the goal of winning her enlightenment and unending gratitude.
  • Become enraged over small differences in governmental actions. Scream at the woman you love when she fails to be persuaded.
  • Break things your boyfriend cherishes in retaliation.

Dr. Safer recognizes your project is hopeless. As Jonathan Haidt’s research informs us, attempted conversion of those with passionate political and religious beliefs is a fool’s errand in the vast majority of cases.

The reason?

Reason has little to do with those convictions.

According to Haidt, they are more instinctual, unconscious gut reactions than thoughtful, cool-headed, academic research projects. Once established, our brains instantaneously catch-up to the unshakeable sentiment already present, providing justification. We believe our point of view is well-considered and unassailable.

Part of the doctor’s solution is to let go of the fantasy of converting our counterpart to “our side.” Additional recommendations include self-reflection, looking at our contribution to the interpersonal conflict, and determining whether we want to dissolve precious intimacy over the legislative madness of the day. To her, allowing the hope for political agreement to die opens the possibility of reconciliation.

Be warned, the writer is not promising unity of a duet’s electoral decision making. Indeed, she is not aiming for the latter. Rather, she encourages prioritizing what you have together despite abiding discord over public policy.

Jean Safer argues for mutual respect, civility, and sensitivity, as well as sidelining such preoccupations as Supreme Court appointments and gerrymandering. She urges her patients to value honesty, loyalty, and affection, lest they pitch out the friendship baby with the bathwater. Insoluble left and right leanings, from her perspective, topple the straight-up qualities two people might otherwise enjoy. For the author, shared core values that are beyond politics are the ultimate couple-unifying cement.*


The book presents many examples of successful relationship rescue and a few of failure. The counselor trumpets her husband and herself as one of those successes.

While said man, Richard Brookhiser, is a prominent conservative journalist and counterpoint to his wife’s liberal tendencies, she never mentions one attitude they share: their evaluation of Donald Trump.

The major disagreement the pair overcame (abortion) was challenging enough, but I’m guessing like-mindedness regarding the Commander-in-chief improves the chances of satisfying co-existence with a partner.

Here is my summary take on the book’s argument. The psychologist suggests we carve out most disharmonies over governance to the extent necessary for rapport with those dear to us. She thereby appears to assume our current national predicament is not an existential one — rather, an incubator where a mischievous subconscious plays out its unresolved emotional injuries.

I disagree in three respects. First, I suspect many of us would descend into strife over the country’s direction even with less weighty and untidy internal baggage than we carry into conversation.


Second, our politics has morphed into matters the world will dismiss only at its peril. Between threats to the continuation of our democratic republic and life-threatening climate extremes, those who look away from the state of globe risk enablement of grave misfortune and planetary demise.


Granted, Dr. Safer doesn’t suggest constraining political expression and action outside the relationship, but donations to antagonistic causes tend to come out of the identical family savings account. Moreover, tolerating participation in opposing get-out-the-vote activities will take a lot of hard-swallowing if you believe posterity is on the line.


Third, for those hoping to raise children to become honorable and responsible citizens, you will need some virtuoso parenting skills to fence off the divergences between you and your mate as the growing offspring begin to voice their opinions. Parents with young children, but distinct and contrasting world views, are not addressed in Dr. Safer’s book.

The gentlewoman healer provides more optimism than I can about a politically mixed love and friendship future in our unsettling moment in history. I fear the period into which we are marching cannot keep those differences back any more than flood waters menacing low-lying areas of the coastal United States.

Here is the best I can do:

  • Choose your friends and lovers with discernment, not ignoring their outlook in a world where the middle ground is small. I’m not suggesting you shun those with different views, but be mindful that fraternal closeness and marriage can tax even those pairs who vote in unison.
  • As Dr. Safer suggests, work on your unfinished internal disquiet with the intention of making yourself a less difficult person, slower to provocation in and out of political discussions. She lists practical suggestions you and your counterpart can use to defuse your news-driven clashes.
  • Try to recognize people as personalities with individuality, not as members of a disliked or unfamiliar group, simple replaceable parts in the human food chain from which you benefit.
  • Engage those of different ethnicities, gender identification, religion or color without reliance on stereotypes. Talk to them, not at them; with them more than about them. Use their names. Shake hands. Work to see a kindred soul within the faces of political opponents.
  • Give tender devotion to the values binding you to those you love. Life would be boring if everyone thought and acted the same way.

—–

*There are limits to Dr. Safer’s tolerance and optimism: “You won’t find encouragement to tolerate a mate or a friend or a family member who is a recalcitrant racist, a sexist, or a supporter of Antifa or the Alt-right.”

I received an advanced copy of Dr. Safer’s book courtesy of St. Martin’s Press. My commentary was done without compensation, with the understanding that it might as easily be negative as positive.

The top painting reproduction is Metamorphosis by Joan Miro. The next two are by Paul Klee. In order, they are Ancient Harmony and Angel, Still Groping. The final work is a Study of Hands, by Egon Schiele.

Learning Who You Are

We reveal ourselves to ourselves by our actions more than our words. That is, if we choose to observe. Not all of us do and none of us look all the time. Instead, we disguise ourselves to ourselves, perhaps as much or more than we do with others.

Maya Angelou said, “When someone (else) shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” Yet we often fail to accept the behavioral evidence of our essence. The reality is there, waiting in plain sight, waiting as long as we take.

A dream summoned such a truth-telling college moment not thought of in decades. My grandson’s recent fascination with battling dinosaurs served as a backdrop, too; the kind of metaphorical identification a man my age discovers in those extinct beasts.

Evanston, Illinois, around 1967.

My buddy Alan invited me to join him at a friend’s apartment. Alan knew M fairly well. The latter would create the circumstances for revelation.

He lived in a modest abode typical of university students. Unmatched furniture, well-worn area rugs, a clean but not spotless space. M, himself, was more imposing: perhaps six-feet-tall, strapping arms hanging from broad chest and shoulders. Overall an impression of hearty, radiating physical strength, but also apparent good cheer.

The clock did not threaten. No school the next day. The three of us laughed a lot and we drank. This small group formed a rough triangle sitting on the floor a few feet from each other.

I do not recall what brought me M’s displeasure. An idle comment? No matter, he was pissed. The M of robust build. The M who overmatched me by maybe 40 lbs. of muscle and loads of menacing intensity.

The formerly amiable fellow wanted my apology, demanded it.

I tried to explain what I meant by the unfortunate utterance, misaligned with the meaning M took from my words.

M insisted again, fueled by his liberal ingestion of alcohol, he more than me.

I repeated the attempt to find the right nuance, the right cover; terms reflective of what I intended, not what he understood from my language. Back and forth, back and forth we went.

M warned of the cost of my continued failure to give him satisfaction. My teeth were now in danger of disassembly, rearrangement, and extraction by a non-licensed dentist of sorts — who was out of sorts. A man whose fisted hands resembled mallet heads, like crude surgical instruments powered by entwined steel cables extending from his shoulders.

Now you recognize why my grandson’s recent fascination with smashing toy dinosaurs together evoked this memory.

Being a reasonable young man, knowing myself no match for M in brawn and recklessness, you might imagine I capitulated: gave him the confession he stipulated in whatever words the bloke preferred.

You’d think so.

I didn’t.

I could tell you my intransigence was a matter of pure principle, since I want to think myself a principled person.

I could say I was brave, but a lofty philosophical stance and courage don’t explain my noncompliance.

Rather, I couldn’t do what he asked. It wasn’t in me.

This is the way I am made. I take no extravagant credit for it most of the time. It’s kind of similar to being almost 5’9″ — my height then and now — an unchangeable thing. Like the length of my human fabric, the behavior was fixed. I wasn’t made to apologize for a statement I didn’t regret.

If my child’s life were at risk, I’d have been flexible. My children were then not even a twinkle in my eye.

Fighting for a principle over nothing of importance is, I might argue, foolish. Masochistic, too. No careful reasoning prepared me for the moment, nor did time permit.

Longtime friends witnessed many changes in me, qualities I worked to alter, insecurities and fears among them. Not everything is amenable to transformation, however. In fairness, I never wished to lose the capacity just described once I found it. While this peculiar talent can manifest in the ill-advised form presented here, it appealed enough to my self-concept to retain it, consistent with who I wanted to be.

Thus, in a situation recommending a different way of being I revealed to myself who I was. But two other players took part in the drama, don’t forget. They also disclosed themselves, one in a manner far more commendable than anything I did or didn’t do.

Let’s go first to my antagonist, M. The host betrayed himself as a belligerent drunk. To fact-check this, a few days ago I talked with Alan (my companion in this adventure) and Harmon, someone who knew M longer than Alan; also a precious old friend to me, but not present at the drink-a-thon. By graduation neither one wanted anything to do with M because of his growing addiction and the anger it stoked.

On to Alan. The final member of our ill-matched triumvirate showed an admirable quality as rare as it was necessary to me.

As M’s rage moved toward climax, Alan said something to him designed to stay the impending explosion.

Alan was not M’s physical equal. Though the tallest fellow in the room, my friend is slight and unathletic; a man at home with books and Bach, not fist fights.

The back and forth shifted in Alan’s direction. At some point one of them hit the other, on the shoulder I’m guessing since I can no longer remember, and the other returned the blow.

To my surprise and relief the rising column of red in M’s eyes, like a thermometer’s mercury, started to fall. We left soon after, with all our body parts still attached. I’m pretty sure I thanked Alan as I drove him back to his place, but did so again this week. M could have dismantled him instead of me.

This comrade of more than 50-years told me he recalled feeling responsible for putting me in the situation. Not everyone risks his own body as he did.

Alan revealed himself.

Had my ally not intervened, whatever number of teeth I put under my pillow at day’s end would not have earned compensation from the Tooth Fairy.

She, I’m sure, doesn’t reward anyone of college age who should have known better.

——-

The top reproduction is Paul Klee’s The Bounds of Intellect. The next three are Egon Schiele’s Self-portrait (1916), the Seated Boy, and his Self-portrait in a Shirt. Finally, Paul Klee’s Battle Scene from the Comic, Fantastic Opera, “The Seafarer” and Joan Miro’s The Escape Ladder.

Surviving the Small Stuff with the Help of Joan Miró

Since major losses are unavoidable, what can we control? Perhaps our reaction to the small stuff, the daily indignities and frustrations: the inevitable bruising in a crowded, high-speed, super-tech world preoccupied with itself.

Enlarge the meaning of those events and you will sink to the point of drowning.

You needn’t.

Maybe Joan Miró can help.

I was on the wet way to the Museum of Modern Art. Spirit-sucking morning weather was not predicted. No mention of violently chilly rain, driven in horizontal body blows by the air. The leering wind lifted skirts, groping for female skin. People halted at the lip of the 57th St. subway exit to avoid the deluge, lest umbrellas turn inside out.

An annoyance only, I thought or tried to think. I’ll soon be at the Miró exhibition.

Poor planning. Spain waited for me.

An entire country, to my surprise, was on Spring Break. Every Spaniard (so it seemed) left home to see the work of their Catalan/Spanish countryman, Joan (pronounced Juan) Miró. The 54th street lobby, the size of a high vaulted, grand church nave, impersonated a forest of bodies: little bodies held by big bodies, vigorous and infirm torsos, people in your way and you in theirs. The ticket-issuers were past the horizon.

I considered whether the art would be worth the travail, hidden behind the mob of which I was a part. Instead I pushed on, avoided the block-long coat-check line, and chanced no one would steal my umbrella from the unguarded stand on the wall.

The slow-mo mass inched when it could, grew when it couldn’t. My elevator made its tardy human deposit on the third floor, revealing a new throng already there. One stepped around traffic in front and beyond the drawings and paintings. Chatter above and a drone below. Periscopes were not for sale. 

But then Miró appeared!

Not the artist himself, dead since 1983. I’d not known much about him. Unfamiliar art must be encountered with an open mind. To achieve an aesthetic connection one must engage the maker. A passive viewer, waiting for a painter to do something to him, is unprepared.

Miró’s work is hallucinatory, not of this world, outside the real. Hitch a ride with him and he focuses you elsewhere, on escape, one of his personal preoccupations.

The lump of bodies no longer mattered much. The Catalan and I engaged in unheard dialogue. “Look here,” he whispered. “I’ll part the sea of souls between us.”

Even Alexander — he of the “terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day” — might have enjoyed it.

Here is advice, offered in the hope you will manage with grace most of the frustrating, sub-catastrophic times ahead.

  1. Fill your lungs to unwind the coiled spring inside you.
  2. Do not require perfection of life in any circumstance, except perhaps surgery. People cough when the music is still, highways suffer congestion when you are late, and any queue you choose will be the wrong one. Reframe your situation. The Buddah would suggest these obstacles offer you an opportunity to learn patience, for which gratitude (not resentment) is an appropriate response. Your choice.
  3. Remember, you are not alone. All in the legion of Miró’s admirers were at the mercy of themselves and each other. Though well-behaved, they doubtless wanted a solo turn in front of the art as much as I. Many had crossed the ocean for it.
  4. Save your indignation, disappointment, and sadness for bigger things. The life-wrenching, knee-buckling, terrifying battalions led by an indifferent Fate will visit soon enough. Small disturbances would escape your biographer’s attention. Make your life larger than such incidents.
  5. Be open to possibility: the delightful surprises, the beauty in the everyday, the small kindnesses others bestow upon you or you on them. In the course of my time at the museum I chatted with a couple of uniformed attendants who protect the collection, deal with emergencies, and give directions. They are people, too — challenged to keep a silent presence while performing their invisible work. A blind John Milton saw enough to know, “They also serve who only stand and wait.”

Do not think I am never maddened or impatient, unhappy with the conditions in which I find myself. But I try to effect change where I can, welcome the possible, and accept what is not.

Life offers many opportunities to make ourselves better and take in the loveliness still present in the world. Do not miss your Miró-moments, whenever they come.

—–

The Miró paintings begin with Persons Haunted by a Bird (1938), The Green Moon (1972), The Birth of the World (1925), and Painting (1950). The second image was one I took on the day in question, on Broadway near 57th St., New York.

On Human Inconsistency, Hypocrisy, and a Touch of Genius

We think of ourselves and others in simple words and categories: good/bad, outgoing/bashful, assertive/passive, and so forth. Friends are offered halos until we are sad or angry enough to be done with them, and then the devil’s pitchfork becomes a part of the vision we recreate.

Not always, but often.

We are not all one thing or another. Consistency is more self-delusion than a reality. A close inspection suggests carve-outs, areas of our life where we are perhaps better or worse than our “imagined self:the way we like to think of ourselves or the way we can’t help but think of ourselves.

These are boxes and compartments of our unconscious making, to a degree. The parts we like are visible to our internal eye. More dubious sections live behind partitions.

Were the various zones fenced off by fixed lines with clear borders, we’d manage them with less trouble. The blurry, fuzzy, porous demarcations are scarier for us. We sense the leakage of our darker truths, harder to rationalize, harder to live with.

Life would be more fraught if we kept asking the question, “Who am I?Then we would be near relatives of the Wicked Queen in Snow White , who asked instead, “Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?I’m told her therapist suggested she stick with the first pleasing answer and put the looking glass away.

All of us are hypocrites at times, but call others by the name. When was the last time someone told you, “Yes, I am a hypocrite. I said one thing and did another” — or “I believed one idea yesterday, but acted today as if I didn’t because, well, uh ... ”

Too often the changes are opportunistic, impulsive, or driven by fear. An admirable new direction requires the never-easy task of soul-searching, not a backflip.

Want a dramatic example of human inconsistency? If you are acquainted with Holocaust literature, you know some of the children of war criminals claim the apparent contradiction of having kind parents. Take Edda Göring, who died in December, 2018. She was Hermann Göring’s daughter, the man who headed the Third Reich’s Luftwaffe (air force), and a potential successor to Adolf Hitler.

Here is what Edda said about her dad:

I loved him very much, and it was obvious how much he loved me. My only memories of him are such loving ones. I cannot see him any other way.

Were this lady alone as an example of faith in a corrupt father, we might doubt the possibility. Again, people are self-contradictory. Perhaps Göring’s brutality stopped at the door of their home. He could have separated his villainous inhumanity from his private life.

Who among us, if well-treated by mom and dad, would believe he is the offspring of monsters?

Can anyone bear full self-awareness? Defenses, rationalizations, and mind-tricks must be acquired. Those drowning in self-criticism live in floundering guilt. They struggle to advance, to adapt, to be anything but transfixed by an accusatory finger before their face. The digit is theirs, at least by the time they are adults.

One of the hardest lessons in the social world is this: we must accept people whole — other than the abusers and unrepentant users — or become forever disappointed or resentful. Yes, humans can change, but it is easy to expect or demand too much.

Within our confusing and confused bipedal race, a handful of creatures display a genius of which inconsistency is an essential component. Their elements don’t appear to fit together, but the ensuing unpredictability itself produces fascination. When combined with an untroubled, occasional defiance of convention, their acquaintance causes diamantine delight.

They exist at the intersection of innocence and adventure, vulnerability and bravery. Four-way stops signs are not always observed in this spot. No wonder you wonder how they can survive at all.

Like Vincent van Gogh, you might call them intensifiers of experience and emotion, mimicking his search for a more yellow yellow, a more blue blue, a greener green. Life becomes like a canvass, filled without aid of paint or brush, textured as compared to the flatness many of us exhibit.

Such unparalleled spirits live to their fullest in moments both spontaneous and unselfconscious. Immersion in the present, however, comes at a cost. The world is encountered more through intuition and feeling than among those who lead with thought. Mindfulness of possible danger is given up in the embrace of the now.

Such precious artists of living should take care not to die for their art. Each one is the sole representative of an endangered species, missing even in Borges’s Book of Imaginary Beings.

Few understand them. Perhaps no one can, including the specimen himself. Indeed, if one greets you, you’ll blink before letting their light in again, the better to make sure no hallucination stands at a handshake’s distance.

Don’t mention the meeting to anyone, by the way. Like a unicorn or UFO sighting, no one will believe your report. Keep quiet and consider yourself lucky for the encounter.

If you are looking for consistency in passersby, here’s some advice. Stop looking. It isn’t there. Watch the sky instead for flying things or search the ocean for the life that swims. No complexity will be found in our winged, finned, and four-legged neighbors. You can live with them unperturbed.

Back here in the peopled world, little chance exists of finding individuals who are wholly integrated, top to bottom.

But the inconsistencies make life interesting, don’t they? Here’s to our contradictions. Let’s join van Gogh’s Drinkers, just above; the baby, too.

Salute!

——-

The second and third paintings are by van Gogh: Madame Roulin Rocking the Cradle and The Bedroom. The next image is Picasso’s Man with a Pipe. Finally, three more from van Gogh: The Poet’s Garden, The Drinkers, and Red Vineyards at Arles. All of these come from the Art Institute of Chicago with the exception of the last, which derives from Wikiart.org.

Looking Back: How Do We Judge Our Past Selves?

A recent exchange of comments with a talented blogger provoked the question of how each of us judges our past. I’m not talking about instant guilt, but indictments of older action or inaction. Multinomial offered the following account of her historical failure to say “no.” Here is a partial and edited quote:

(I sometimes failed to say) “no” to certain men who propositioned me for sex when I was homeless, desperate for a place to crash, and alone … in his home. I didn’t want to be raped again, and I didn’t want to be homeless. I didn’t want to be vulnerable, but I was.

I figured if I said “yes,” it would be quick, easy, my choice, consensual — and not rape. I regretted saying “yes.” I feared saying “no.” I wanted to say “no.” And the men weren’t entirely wrong to ask me. They were just being themselves. I didn’t want to find out if my “no” would have meant yet another rape.

I feared saying “no” then, but today I no longer fear it, and I wouldn’t say “yes” if I ever became homeless again in a vulnerable situation like that. I wished I had said “no” back then. I really did. I can only blame myself … .

Here is what I wrote back, also edited:

I’m so sorry you had to experience this.

No one, except perhaps another homeless rape victim in a similar dilemma, has the standing to judge you. Of more concern, however is your lasting judgement of yourself.

Holocaust survivors sometimes frame the post-war perspective of their tragedy in a unique way. They describe the world of “before and after,” as if surgically separated from the endless horror show in which they played the part of Untermenschen, the German word meaning “those who are less than human.”

The concentration camps were like another planet for which no one could prepare, a Kafkaesque place of choiceless choices

In the period between “fore and aft,” those trapped lost all possessions, their homes, their loved ones. Crushed together for days in railway box cars like cargo for transport, these Jews, Gypsies, and Homosexuals soon lost their names in return for tattooed numbers. Starvation, freezing, hard labor, and physical brutality rendered Hell a comparative vacation spot.

In such an inverted moral universe, the rules of civilized society are harder to apply, perhaps quaint. Yet many of the victims (and many of us) tend to use a “before and after” standard to evaluate what they did to survive.

I would say this to you, Multinomial. Be careful not to disparage the bygone self — the one who didn’t say “no” — by guidelines appropriate to the world you inhabit now.

Those who live in “normal” circumstances encounter a more moderate case of the same problem. A person of mature character is not identical with his younger persona. These two hold different valuations of money, risk, friendship, time, and more. Illness and injury, experienced or witnessed, remind them lifelong health is not promised. If lucky, perhaps the middle-aged are optimistic now; if unlucky, more pessimistic than the neophyte who went by a duplicate name.

A growing stockpile of deeds requires justification as time vanishes. Opportunities, like blocks of ice, melt away. The past resists do-overs or at least makes them more effortful. One can and must work to enhance and partake of what remains.

A single “best” choice or set of choices — fitting for all times and conditions — is an illusive thing. Growing up, for example, requires risk; age, not so much. The financial advisor suggests a more conservative approach in retirement. You can no longer easily make money if your gambles don’t pay off, he reminds you.

An old saying tells us, “Youth is wasted on the young.” Perchance the senior man who coined the phrase was correct for his place and time, but off-the-mark for his junior version: the one who challenged himself or raised hell or acted on impulse. And had great fun in the process.

So called “wise men” persist in preaching at graduation ceremonies. The tiresome message leaves the class reaching for their phones. The oration amounts to this: never trade “short pleasures for long woes,” a paraphrase of John Milton, a man whose authorship of Paradise Lost implies heavenly wisdom not even he possessed.

Julian Barnes’s mid-life protagonist in The Sense of an Ending could well counter those who disparage adventure:

We thought we were being mature when we were only being safe. We imagined we were being responsible but were only being cowardly. What we called realism turned out to be a way of avoiding things rather than facing them.

Tread cautiously before you criticize another’s decisions. Without your feet in his Adidas, your derogation is unearned self-congratulations. The statement, “I wouldn’t have done that,” reveals your impoverished understanding of life. You glory in an imaginary identity from your self-appointed place on a pedestal you didn’t build.

Some desirable opportunities only come once, if at all. When two such roads appear equally inviting or necessary, the solo wayfarer is now forced to meet a traveling companion: the ghost of the road not taken. The specter will afflict him unless the wanderer befriends the wraith, permitting a measure of peace.

Satchel Paige, the fabled pitcher of baseball’s segregated past, advised: “Don’t look back, something might be gaining on you.” Such suggestions, of course, are easier to quote than follow.

Your remembering self is a curator of treasure and heartache, joy and pain. Happiness grows if he is selective, or an expert in rationalization, denial, or self-distraction. Like a masterful mechanic, his ability to readjust the rear-view mirror of your elapsed days makes him a handy tradesman.

I’m told he is in high demand, though this wizard doesn’t advertise. If you find his phone number let me know. I’ll pass it along.


The first photo is called, Meerkat Looking Behind in the Singapore Zoo, by BasileMorin. The next two are reproductions of the same statue, Lot’s Wife, by Hamo Thornycroft. The first picture of it was taken by Stephencdickson, the next by Don Macauley. Finally, Rembrandt’s Belshazzar’s Feast. All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Thinking About Transference in a New Way

Transference — erotic and otherwise — is worth an unconventional look.

What past events push one toward an unconscious like or dislike of his therapist? What previous learning does the patient now misapply to a stranger who offers help?

A child reacts to his parents based on reiterated experience. If the adults are pleasant and welcoming, his sentiments tend toward the benign. If the guardian’s proximity signals rash criticism, irrational outbursts, or inappropriate physical contact, he associates them with troubled, private states of mind and feeling.

The young one’s mood changes even in anticipation of adult attention. Looking forward to mom or dad’s return home from work can trigger joy or fear. Repeated signals of happiness or trouble will be learned. When an alcoholic overseer opens a beer can, the internal stir tells the child what might soon happen.

The scene or place connected to a wound matters. The familiar location informs a sensitive offspring of potential discomfort. A bedroom, for example, causes alarm if sexual abuse tends to occur there. The boy or girl’s emotional alteration becomes automatic. Conscious thought isn’t necessary.

We are thus conditioned by neglectful or abusive parents. The brain is a predictor, foreseeing danger. Our time at home trained us to notice subtle warning signs of mistreatment. High alert occurs in proximity to anyone resembling those who inflicted the injury, as if we are wearing glasses enlarging false positive features of menace. The distorting lenses sometimes govern how we see employers, friends, and lovers. Youthful coping mechanisms kick into gear.

A trauma survivor’s life is one of constant reliving.

What characteristics of the therapist contribute to this? First, counselors are most often older than the patient, just as the mom and dad were senior to him. The treating professional has an advantage of authority and power in the relationship, as guardians do. He also sets rules and requires their fulfillment. Payment is expected, rather like the home stipulation to do your chores, or else.

The doctor creates the schedule and determines the length of the session. If you wanted more intimacy with your parent, you might be frustrated by your provider’s boundaries. If you never felt special in the family, the doctor’s full caseload reminds you of growing up without status. You are one of a crowd, not first in line.

A clinician needn’t do anything remarkable to provoke a facsimile recreation of a historical script he never read. As if by magic, he arranges the set for the client’s long-running drama. The latter’s well of resentment, love, sadness, and yearning reveal themselves act by act.

A considerate and wise healer gives all his attention, looks in your eyes, and accepts you without judging. You know little about his life. His imputed resemblance to the rejecting sire allows you a mirage-like new chance at the love you never won. He assumes the form of the imagined caretaker you didn’t have, now come to life.

Transference is a kind of disguise, a costume the unknowing client applies to his doctor, who is taken for someone else. The apparel designer’s imagination fills him with qualities belonging elsewhere.

A risk exists here: the mistaken identity can overwhelm the therapist’s capacity to interpret it and refer it back to the initial source.

If this sounds like a guarantee of a bad outcome, however, it isn’t.

Once you accept the idea of transference, you may begin to actively catch the triggered emotions as they develop (or soon after) and work on their underlying cause: the ancient shadow of old relationships and the need to grieve them.

An erotic transference must be more tactfully managed. Tender feelings, romantic or not, are problematic even when unmentioned. While their connection to the past is identical to more common transferential moments, the universal hope for a sainted parent or perfect mate adds a layer of complexity to emotional resolution.

In each case, if your counselor does not overreact to your unhappiness, resentments, or thirst for unique closeness, your imbedded responses should lessen: they will be extinguished or unlearned with time. Likewise, the ability to recognize the difference between your doctor and early custodians is a first step toward doing the same with bosses, companions, and suitors.

People will be recognized more as they are, less similar to Halloween characters. Improved life choices and increasing ease of intimacy becomes possible.

Life and therapy offer us endless challenges. Muhammad Ali, a man who knew a bit about contests inside and outside the ring, offered this advice:

I hated every minute of training, but I said,
‘Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.’

——

The first and last images above are both untitled painting by V.S. Gaitonde, the last from 1953. The middle work is called Painting No. 1, 1962, by the same artist.

What Does Erotic Countertransference Look Like?

Words are hard labor. Let’s therefore add some pictures. The moving kind in matters of the therapist’s heart.

Much is written about erotic transference, but this is countertransference. Ladson and Wilton (2007) report:

The intense emotional experience of countertransference in psychotherapy … is not rare. Some studies have reported 95 percent of male therapists and 76 percent of female therapists admit they felt sexual feelings toward their patients.

The above video, from the HBO series In Treatment, offers you a glimpse. Enough to know — if you are open to knowing — how a therapist’s erotic countertransference can divert psychotherapy from its intended aim.

Observe TV’s portrayed counselor (Paul). His discomfort is evident in his speech, his body, his silences. The grip on his role is slipping.

The first and last two minutes of the nine-minute excerpt offer the session and the words. The center segment is given over to silent film.

Do you believe their relationship will turn out well? Do you think office hours will remedy the problems for which Laura booked her first appointment?

The second clip begins with Paul looking for guidance from his analyst Gina. He has lost himself to a mutating agenda. Laura came to him to improve her psychological state. This man was sought as an expert healer, not a man soon to be in love.

The pair now struggle with a different goal. Doc Paul is like a person hanging from the wet window ledge of a twenty-story building. The strength and clarity of the woman who is his client will overpower his ambivalence. The flashing EXIT sign makes no difference.

The most remarkable moment in these two fragments opens at 7:47 of the first one. Paul is told who he is, what his weaknesses are, by his perceptive patient … and that she loves him just as he is. No wonder the ledge is slippery. To be known and accepted — here is the ultimate aphrodisiac.

You might be stirred or troubled by your own transferential emotions if you are in treatment yourself. Perhaps you hope for physicality, but should the professional’s self-control crumble, the collapse renders impotent all his education and ethical resolve; and your safety with it.

A therapist must draw a line never to be crossed.

Lower your eyes to his office floor. The indelible mark was present long before your meeting.

Any other barrier, more movable or less precise and clear to him, risks injury to both of you.
STOP signs help only if you recognize where to look, and the brakes still work.