Half a century ago I sat in my first graduate school class that promised to reveal to my 22 year old self a path towards helping others. I remember my disappointment when my professor, a revered light in my field, began not with science and evidence-based theories, but with what seemed at the time the soggy assertion that change happens in the context of relationships.
We spent what felt like an inordinate amount of time on principles like starting where the client is and examining our own socio-cultural biases. I was bored, sure that the real thing lay in theory based on observation and I was eager to discover the secret of secrets about the mind and how to affect change in that mysterious kingdom.
When I moved on finally to courses on theories of personality development and treatment, I was confident that what I was learning was not only cutting edge but the Last Word in What Works. Time puts everything in perspective. In the fifty years I have practiced most of these theories have been tossed to the dustbin of history. Today mindfulness based interventions and cognitive behavioral techniques are in the ascendency. And I am again dazzled and sure they are another step closer to unlocking the secret to the magical kingdom.
But one thing remains truer than any of these theories: change does happen in the context of a relationship. And that change goes both ways: the relationships I have had with individuals or couples over the years has changed me in mind altering ways. Every person I’ve “seen” in my office over the years lives within me today, murmuring all the things my first professor murmured: be compassionate, use yourself, every part it: your humor and your warmth and your curiosity and your skepticism and even your fear or your horror. Understand the enormous castle of the mind has many rooms, some of which are frightening to enter. Enter but don’t enter alone. It is the locked doors which are dangerous. It is opening those doors alone which is the greatest of tragedies.
Below is a poem I wrote in some attempt to describe a first encounter with a couple (drawn completely from my imagination). It was published in Writing on the Moon: Stories and Poetry from the Creative Unconscious by Psychoanalysts and Others. Ed. Bonnie Mindel
FALLING IN LOVE, COUPLES THERAPY, SESSION ONE
By Kathleen Sullivan
outside my door
up the brick walk
discarded and torn
from his hardened eye, a tiny fire spits
she has thin hair and bitten nails
I could never love them
how do you do sit down
tell me your story your story tell me your
soon once more
she is empty like the dark universe
and beautiful and sad
he is a monk tending
closer they are coming