Relational Therapy and the Use of an Object

When the term “therapy” is used, images of a patient stretched out on a couch, relaying repressed memories to a man with legs crossed, a pad of paper, and no eye contact comes to mind a la 1950’s psychotherapy. This idea of “head shrinking” is pervasive in our cultural representations of what it means to go to therapy. In such a one-way exchange of dialogue and presence in the therapy session, is it any wonder that the housewives and mental patients of the early to mid 20th century gravitated towards becoming the “Prozac nation”? Patients were showing up in a room and receiving questions from a therapist who was trying to direct the patient into a direction that the therapist believed was most correct…but this method is flawed. If a therapist said “don’t you believe this stems from your mother’s inability to hug you?”, then a patient who doesn’t understand themselves or psychotherapy well enough would trust the expert (the therapist) and accept that they choose abusive significant others because their mother didn’t hug them…and not inspect their emotions surrounding the situation any further. There is no curiosity or inspection of what is occurring inside and outside of the therapy session. Such one-sided and directive therapy can be damaging to a patient because it fails to take into account 50% of the room’s occupants…the therapist.

And here is where relational-based therapy can be an uncomfortable and enlightening experience…for the patient and the therapist. Relational therapy invites the therapist into the room as well…and encourages the therapist to engage the patient’s experiences with curiosity and the concept of “holding space” for the patient. Relational therapy encourages a true relationship between the therapist and the client…and the therapist is encouraged to “show up” in whatever capacity they can in order to examine and hold the relationship with the client…and see what use they are to the client (and in a lesser sense, how the client is of use to them).

My therapist told me about relational therapy and how he chooses to practice in our first session. I thought “yeah, yeah, yeah, relationship therapy, I know, I know, that’s what I need help with…let’s get on with it.” And it took me months to actually even remotely understand this kind of therapy and begin to see the shape it takes in regard to my relationship with HIM, my therapist…Dave. Finally, he said “I think you need to know the name of how I choose to practice. Typically I don’t talk to the clients about this but you seem like you need to know.” And then Dave proceeded to name relational therapy with a basis in British Object Relations…of course I went and researched this school of thought in a lot of depth. With admission that I am merely a curious client with access to Google, it should be known that I am not educated formally or informally on anything beyond Psychology 101. BUT I find relational therapy and its applications fascinating…because I need it desperately.

Because of this development in my understanding of relational therapy and the use of an object, my day to day relationships are becoming strained because I want to discuss every aspect of the relationships…and most people cannot handle that level of intensity or dismantling of their purpose and use to me (and conversely, my purpose and use to them). The only person I have met who seems to be capable of discussing relationships intellectually and emotionally happens to be a therapist educated in relational therapy himself…and who is also my therapist’s best friend. It is refreshing to engage with someone who doesn’t shut down when questioned about the realities of their experience in relation to mine. Even if feelings are hurt, they are communicated and then accepted and processed by both parties. When I pressed my friend about my fear that I was using him to get closer to my therapist, he said “you are…” and we discussed what that meant for each of us.

I need to use my relationships (with men especially at this point in my life) as objects to attempt to destroy…and realize that I can’t destroy an object. So when I attempt to dismantle my relationship with my therapist and he sits there with tears in his eyes, holding space for me, letting me use him, and showing me that he is still there…I am enabled to trust his permanence as an object in use…he is still safe, just as my friend is still safe because I can question our relationship.

And when I attempt to destroy an object (a relationship, a person, a connection), I have to learn how it impacts them…which is extremely uncomfortable for me as I watch my therapist cry. So while we use people as objects, the objects are still subject to change… and that is the essence of relationships. Through the use of others, we can change ourselves…and them. So therapists, show up in the room. See how you impact your client and how they impact you.




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