Where You’ll Land: Can We Choose Who We Love? By Jacqueline Simon Gunn on 2/7/19 - 12:10 PM

Aimee (an amalgam of several of my patients), came into session, plopped onto the couch and said, “It happened again. Just like I knew it would.” Aimee was a 35-year old woman who came into therapy over a year ago, describing a series of failed relationships with men. She wanted to understand why it never worked out.

It can be a quandary for therapists to distinguish between outside, uncontrollable circumstances, and the patient’s participation in creating the opposite of what they consciously want. There are no absolutes. We have to understand each individual story and the patient’s unique psychology.

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Intimacy is scary. Letting someone see behind the walls we use in everyday life is scary. Sometimes people protect themselves by continuing to choose relationships that are destined to fail over and over--different bodies, same problems.
Aimee went on, “He gave me another excuse as to why he couldn’t see me this weekend. I knew he was blowing me off, so I asked him what was going on and he said, ‘I don’t think this is going anywhere. It’s the same sentence the last five guys have said to me. What’s wrong with me?” She buried her head in her hands.

Let’s face it, relationships are complicated. It’s hard to meet people who we want to be with, and who also want to be with us. Some parts of this we have no control over. What we do have control over is removing our own obstacles to finding the love, the commitment and the relationship we want.

Having seen this dynamic so many times in therapy, I decided to write a novel exploring this very theme. I began the story, as I do with all of my fiction writing, with a question. In this book called, Where You’ll Land, the question was: Can we choose who we love?

Alex Daily, my protagonist and a psychology graduate student, meets Will. The relationship is filled with passion but is quite tumultuous; the angst from both characters, as well as some of the secondary characters, forces them all to look at the obstacles that are in their respective ways.

As psychotherapists, we all know that we don’t see things about ourselves until we are ready. It can be a nail biter to sit with a patient, observe their conflict and self-sabotage, and know that the patient is in their own way, while also knowing they are not ready to garner the awareness that leads to change.

Timing of interpretive comments is vital for insight. We have to respect patients’ defenses and we can only guide them toward the awareness they are ready to have. Our job is often clearing out the weeds (defenses) so that the flowers can be seen, while watering the flowers (fostering innate strengths) so that the patient can grow into who they really are.

Toward the latter part of the book Alex has an insight, “She kept making the same mistake over and over until she realized that if she wanted a different ending, she had to have a different beginning.” This was also my client Aimee’s dilemma.

There is an irresistible draw toward the familiar, even when we say we want to change. If we hope for a different ending, sometimes we have to rework the beginning.

But where is the beginning? For Aimee, it began with not feeling her needs were met as a child. Whenever I explored how she didn’t feel taken care of in her relationships with the men she dated, she associated that to similar dynamics in her family. She’d choose men who reconfirmed that her needs were either too much or that she wasn’t good enough.

I redirected the session. “Maybe we can talk about what Jake wasn’t giving you throughout the relationship. What you don’t get from each of these men.”

“I feel like they could leave at any moment. I’m always anxious. I want someone who will be there.”

“Could you be confusing anxiety for attraction? Maybe the anxiety has to do with knowing they can’t meet your needs, the way you felt sometimes when you were younger.”

She contemplated. “That makes sense, intellectually. But it doesn’t feel that way. I can’t make myself be attracted to the guys I’m not attracted to.”

When it comes to feeling those emotional sparks – chemistry – understanding these conflicts is a dense conundrum. We have to create curiosity. We have to ask different questions.

“True. But I think we have to start asking what you’re actually attracted to, since you’re choosing men who make you feel on edge. How is that attractive?”

She flitted her hands around. “I – It’s not.”

“Let’s try looking at the anxiety as a sign that something’s wrong, not that something’s right.”

“OK,” she said.

We spent many sessions discussing how when there was anxiety, it was usually a sign that her needs were not being met. And we talked about her right to have needs and to allow someone who wanted to meet them, close.

I don’t believe we can control physical attraction entirely, but we can change some of what we are drawn to and we can control the decisions we make regarding who we allow ourselves to open our hearts to. If we are being open to people who continually disappoint and frustrate us, who perpetuate narratives from our life that are painful, then we need to ask why we are deciding to fall for the same type of relationship. And as therapists, we need to guide our patients to be curious about these questions. Because as Alex comes to understand in her story and as Aimee came to understand after a few more failed relationships:

Maybe we can’t decide who we fall for, but we can decide who we want to be with when we land. 

File under: The Art of Psychotherapy, Musings and Reflections