Countertransference in the Rearview Mirror May Be Closer Than it Appears By Lawrence Rubin, PhD, ABPP on 5/14/18 - 1:34 PM

My wife and I had reason to be on the “other side” of town last week, that part of the city where I lived my previous life with my previous wife. While my wife listened patiently to a story I had surely recounted many times, I do believe I caught the slightest hint of glaze slowly creeping its way over her eyes.

As we drove by an otherwise innocuous restaurant, I slowed down and replayed a scene in my mind’s eye that unfolded dramatically and indelibly over 30 years before in that very same spot. I wasn’t simply a novice therapist at the time, green around the gills, but one who was quickly and easily stymied into therapeutic paralysis during family sessions, particularly those that were contentious and loud, too closely paralleling the not-so-just-below-the-surface drama that pervaded my childhood.

The particular family I was working with at the time consisted of a mother, stepfather, father, stepmother and two children from the original marriage.The mother and father had divorced several years before they got to me, and if they had attempted therapeutic intervention at the time, it was surely not evident and the wounds from that original bond had not even remotely begun to heal.

I often felt sad, powerless and wordless in those sessions, which my supervisor suggested I expand to include all members of the family. Had I been more experienced, I could have more adeptly navigated that brutal emotional terrain. And had my supervisor even the slightest sense of how to move beyond simple structural realignment of parental hierarchies, I could have more effectively guided these desperate people in their re-integrative work. And perhaps, had I been more forthcoming with my supervisor about the immense internal struggle I experienced with that family and how it triggered my own childhood insecurities and rage, I may have been more effective in helping them move forward in their lives. And maybe, just maybe, a traumatic and traumatizing event would have been avoided.

The long and painful short of the story is that I received a call from the father from his hospital bed and listened in horror as he told me how he had been shot that morning by the stepfather… in front of the children.


Flash forward to the present and that very same restaurant parking lot in which I now sat with my wife, once again retelling the story of how years before, on that side of town, in that very spot, the drama of what would eventuate in my own divorce played out.

I had just discovered that my first wife was having an affair with the law partner of my best friend. Drugs were involved, as were all-night binges, secrets, lies and betrayal; you know, the usual. I had followed my wife one night to that very parking lot and soon found myself in a made for-television imbroglio, fitting for the reality show “Cheaters.” At the height of that blazing row, a car pulled up, the drive slowly rolled down his window, and said “how you doing Dr. Rubin… need any help with your marriage?” It was, you guessed it, the father from the warring family who had been shot the week before by his connubial replacement.

The rock singer, Meatloaf has a song “Objects in the Rearview Mirror May Appear Closer Than They Are” in which he recounts painful memories of childhood abuse, stinging him still and dragging him back. In that moment in the parking lot I was transported back to the state of emotional pain and therapeutic impotence that working with that family had triggered in me at the time. And that feeling lingers still, although not as painfully and poignantly, thanks to subsequent (good) supervision, personal psychotherapy and the wisdom to know and feel the difference between past and present when working with couples and families, particularly when countertransference comes a knocking. 

File under: The Art of Psychotherapy, A Day in the Life of a Therapist, Musings and Reflections