By Esther Mann, LCSW
I guess I’ve never been good at relationships. My mother and I never got along particularly well, though I always blamed her for our lack of closeness. She was a tough mother, demanding and critical. I didn’t take well to her constant negativity and always saw her as not loving in the way that I needed to be loved. I’m sure she did love me in her own way. Maybe she even felt that she was doing me a service by being so hard on me, but it was always difficult for me to be around her.
As an adult, I now talk with her once a week. Not even really talk, so much as touch base to acknowledge that we both know that the other one is still alive. There is no real conversation. We both realized long ago that if we tried to really talk, it would always somehow turn into an argument. We just rub each other the wrong way and at this point accept the relationship for what it is—not much.
Sadly, I also don’t have a great marriage. Maybe I never learned, growing up, how to get along with another person. Stupidly, I married someone similar to my mother—also critical and demanding. For the life of me, I don’t know what I was thinking. Or maybe I just wasn’t thinking. Whatever the case, conversations usually lead to yelling, so we talk to one another as little as possible.
Then there is my sister Ruth. Another sad disappointment. Ruth is two years younger than me. I don’t have a lot of memories of her growing up. Not sure why, but I seem to have tuned her out. She now lives in another state and we rarely see each other. We talk occasionally, but I don’t feel any closeness to her.
So what really broke the camel’s back is that I had a close friend named Mindy, who was my one true soul mate. She also had a rough childhood and lots of issues. We understood each other. I thought of us as two wounded birds who were there for each other no matter what. We went through a lot together, and though we had arguments here and there, we always were able to bounce back.
Four months ago we had a terrible fight. I don’t even want to go into the details of the fight, but it was so bad, there was no going back. We both said things that were disgusting. I know that I regretted things I said; I’m not sure about her. I tried calling her a few times, but she never took my calls.
It was at that time that I decided it was time to work with a therapist. After all, I clearly did not know how to do relationships. Something was wrong with me and I decided my priority was to get help. So I asked my internist for a referral and starting seeing an experienced, highly reputable therapist.
At the beginning, I was feeling hopeful. Maybe this intelligent man was going to help me learn why I wasn’t able to sustain meaningful relationships with people. I thought maybe I had a chance at happiness. We began to meet once a week. He started getting into stuff about my childhood and particularly my mother that at the time I found interesting and I hoped would be helpful. He opened my eyes to certain things that I had never before thought about.
However, and this is why I am writing in to you today, at some point I started not getting along with my therapist! I started feeling frustrated that he really wasn’t “fixing” me and that after more than three months, my life felt as hopeless as ever. I wanted a cure and he just wanted to talk. It just didn’t feel right.
Our last session definitely didn’t go well. It actually felt kind of combative, probably because I kept challenging him. Toward the end of the session, I told him that he was failing at his job and that I wouldn’t be coming back. So here I am, even unable to get along with my therapist. I think I’ve really hit rock bottom. There is no hope for me.
Now what? I stink at relationships and wonder whether I should just crawl under a rock somewhere and call it a day. Obviously, there is something very, very wrong with me and I’ve used up the last of my options for getting help.
Know of any good rocks?
Let’s start with the good news. You aren’t completely in denial and you seem to understand that you have a serious problem with getting along with others and maintaining healthy relationships. Not everyone can recognize this obstacle within themselves. Some people believe that it is everyone else’s fault and refuse to accept any ownership of discord with others. It sounds as though you are recognizing a pattern in your life and understand that you must be contributing to your various failed relationships. That’s always a good start.
The other piece of good news is that you decided to turn to a therapist for help. Excellent move. The problem and question is why you and your therapist failed so miserably to maintain a successful alliance so that you might have been able to embrace significant change within yourself.
It is possible that it was entirely your fault. If you walked into his office expecting him to do all the work, while you just sat there, waiting for him to sprinkle you with fairy dust and make you all better, you were definitely under a false impression. That is not how therapy works, and maybe that’s the first thing you need to understand. Though a good therapist puts out much effort and even hard work at times, the real work must take place on the part of the patient. A patient must be willing to go deep, sometimes feel the pain, and work through some serious discomfort, so that eventually he or she will emerge from the other side of that dark tunnel that had fed into feelings of distress, arriving in a happier and healthier state of mind. But there are no shortcuts, no magic wands, and no miracle workers. It’s hard work.
You must ask yourself at this point whether you were realistic about your own role in therapy and that of your therapist. However, so as not to put the entire onus on you, I might back up and ask whether your therapist explained to you how the therapeutic process works and what you should expect. If not, and you had no previous experience in therapy and no way of understanding the process, then that would have been a dreadful start.
Another issue to look at is whether you were recommended the best therapist for you. Like any other relationship, chemistry is important. Perhaps you would have felt more comfortable and been more successful with a female therapist. Perhaps you would have preferred someone older, younger, gentler, tougher . . . the options are limitless.
Some people shop around and go through several therapists before they find someone who is the right fit for them and who is capable of doing the best work with them. Like with any other professional, the first one you meet isn’t necessarily going to be the one you stick with.
It’s important that you know that although you got off to a terrible start with this therapist, that doesn’t mean you can’t go back to the drawing board and begin again with someone new who is a more appropriate fit for you, while at the same time bringing to the table a more realistic attitude toward what you are committing to. Understanding that there is no quick fix, but rather accepting the need to embark on a journey that may take time, may in fact feel frustrating at various intervals, and may kick up a lot of dust.
However, in the long run, you need to know that the journey is well worth the time and effort it may take. It very possibly holds the key that can unlock the door behind which lies the answers to your quest for rectifying old relationships and forming new ones that will give you what you no doubt crave and deserve.
As social creatures, we are not meant to be alone. We become the best we can be by connecting with others and cheering one another along. But some of us need a lot more guidance in this area than others. For whatever reason, you need guidance. So please don’t shy away from another attempt at therapy. The work will have to begin there.
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Lawrence. Esther works with individuals and couples. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 516-314-2295.