The Joy of Small Miracles in Psychotherapy By Melissa Groman LCSW on 7/12/12 - 5:27 PM

I confess that sometimes in the course of my work sadness overwhelms me. I am not talking about compassion fatigue, burnout or a concoction of transferences and inductions. I’ve been listening to folks talk for almost two decades now, but sad narratives still affect me, as well they should.

Sometimes the healer in me dips under the radar and I feel only like I am standing at the station watching a train wreck happen, or so I think. Faith and that good old fashioned “patience for the process” that I learned back in social work school get eclipsed by the urgency and impulsiveness that often walks through my office door. Even though I know that we do not control outcomes (and as my career ages into its mid life, I am finding this truism to be a relief), I do sometimes wish for miraculous epiphanies and prescient strides forward.

Not too long ago, I got my miracle.

A couple I’ve been seeing was in therapy to discern whether or not they were going to stay together. He wanted to stay married and she was, she said, not sure. She did not feel loved. He did not feel supported. When she felt angry or hurt, she threatened divorce, or told him what she hated about him. When she did this, he became more frustrated, backed away further, and so went the dance.

We’d been unpacking things for a while—the dialogue between them, her history, his. But still she maintained that he was a louse. (He had never impressed me as such.) There’s more to their story, but over the course of the therapy, I began to feel utter sadness. I found myself wondering why I was such an advocate for their marriage. Was I thinking of their four kids? Was I feeling his sadness? Or hers? Was I feeling my own sadness? How do I know what’s best for them? Or their kids? Was I lapsing into judgment? And if so, why?

My sadness in this case was this too: This guy really did step up. And this woman kept knocking him down at every turn. She seemed to be deeply, wholly cathected to killing him, the marriage and love itself.

As a defense against my sadness, I began to diagnosis her in my head. “She is borderline,” I’d tell myself. Or, “She is a typical ACOA.” And then, “She suffered too much trauma to be able to sustain a mature relationship.” Silently I found myself begging her not to destroy her home. She did love this man, she claimed. And she fessed up to his good fathering. But for session after session she wept about how her husband was not her hero, and how out there somewhere her real love awaited.

And then one day, out of the blue, she came into session and said that she had prayed. And that she had made a decision. She said that she had been behaving terribly and it was going to stop. She said that her husband was a good man and deserved her respect and support. She said that she sees that he is not her father who disappointed her, that she is loved and loveable and that her relationship with her husband and her self fair much better when she acts reasonably and kindly, and handles her feelings better. She told me that she understands that when she feels vulnerable and afraid she threatens instead of saying a feeling or expressing a need. She understands that words can build or break, and that she wants to build. That she is now fully aware of this and can and will do it differently.

Her husband was right on board, appreciating her openness and her effort, restating his love for her and his willingness to keep working on himself and on their emotional connection.

Perhaps all those elements of EFT, IFS, CBT, DBT, Imago, Attachment and good old psychoanalysis that I’d been pulling from did their job. Or maybe it was my attentiveness or occasional loving looks, or as of late, my restraint from saying very much at all. In my mind, as I listened to her I would visualize writer Ann Lamott’s acronym for WAIT – Why Am I Talking? Perhaps in my silence she felt understood, and that her profound longing and sadness could breathe.

I admit that I really do like to see breakthroughs now and again. I suppose they help me hang in better when all those feelings come through my door, whipping up my own like a wind gust on dry leaves. With all my ideas about what really happened swirling about, I’m settling on the miracle. I’m giving myself the gift of joy, of seeing the train wreck derailed and not the train. I know that in this business some miracles are temporary—sometimes it seems like character, relationship and repetition difficulties are more resilient than their resolutions—so I’ll take the miracles when they come.

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