Love Junkies and Other Addicts

Next month, there’s a new movie coming out with Anne Hathaway and Jake Gyllenhaal called “Love and Other Drugs,” so I thought I’d take this opportunity to discuss the ways that romantic love can function as an intoxicant and how serial romance relates to other forms of addiction.

In an earlier post about different forms of love, I described one version where loving a person springs from the way he or she makes you feel and involves little concern for the other. What the “lover” wants is the heady feeling of intoxication, that blissful state where you feel as if life has become a sort of heaven on earth and all your troubles have disappeared.  Falling in love means living happily ever after.  Hollywood, that relentless pusher, pedals this drug in one romantic comedy after another.

Unfortunately, it’s impossible to stay high forever.  As we come down, we begin to realize that the person we love isn’t so perfect after all.  Even worse, we find that we still hate our job, we still don’t make enough money, and nothing about reality and its frustrations has changed.  Obviously, we made a mistake in our choice of love object … time to move on. Lather, rinse and repeat.

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What We Mean When We Use the Word ‘Love’

(1) I love french fries.  (2) I love the way I feel when I’m on vacation in Mexico.  (3) I love my children. (4) I love my profession.

All four of these statements are true but the word “love” in each one describes a very different experience.  In the first, it means I enjoy having french fries inside my mouth, the way they taste and then swallowing them down.  Sentence number two describes a subjective experience of pleasure aroused by my environment.  The third sentence concerns emotions I have about other people, while the fourth applies to a value or ideal that I hold.

At first blush, it would seem these experiences or feeling states are so diverse that to use the word “love” for all of them is absurd.  Does it make any sense to use the same verb to describe how you feel towards your children as well as your favorite food?  In most cases, those experiences are entirely different; but in truth, there are varieties of love where the feeling someone has for another person isn’t so different from “loving” french fries.  If individuals who suffer from Narcissistic Personality Disorder fall in love, it usually means they “love” how the other person makes them feel about themselves. Continue “What We Mean When We Use the Word ‘Love’”

Love in the Face of Hatred

In an earlier post, I talked about how clients sometimes feel anger and hatred for their therapists; I believe this is inevitable on occasion and appropriate.  Today I’d like to discuss how therapists may respond when they’re hated, and how much it can help the people we treat if we’re able to tolerate them and not retaliate in kind.

Often these clients, especially severely troubled individuals, need to express their hatred.  They need to feel they can show what they actually feel and still be accepted.  One of my long-term clients, a man in his early 30s, would scream at me during session after session.  He’d vent in the most vicious tones, week after week, accusing me of any number of crimes even when I might have said very little.  For me as his therapist, it was extremely painful to be in the same room and feel his hatred — hard to be the object of his hostility but also to feel his pain. (See my much later post on countertransference issues in treating depression).  I knew he suffered from profound shame and that venting his hatred was a desperate effort to ward off that shame and hold himself together (see my earlier post on the ways in which hostility can function as a kind of psychic glue).

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Hatred and Anger for Your Therapist

As I discussed in an earlier post on psychological defensiveness, we humans try to protect ourselves from emotional facts too painful to bear – that is, we “lie” to ourselves about them.  That’s our nature and everybody does it.  The job of a good therapist is to make you aware of those things you don’t know about yourself (and probably never wanted to know).

As I listen to my clients talking, they inevitably reveal things about themselves without knowing it, and I try to tell them what I’ve heard.  I rarely get through on the first try (you know, that “resistance” thing).  I keep listening.  If I hear more evidence, I’ll try again to show it to my clients.   If I was right and my view becomes more persuasive, they usually become uncomfortable.  Maybe they’ll get angry.  Sometimes they hate me for telling them what they don’t want to hear.

With all of my patients, at one time or another, they’ve hated me … even when they agreed with what I’d just told them.  In my view, this is an expected part of the relationship, just the way it’s normal for children to hate their parents from time to time.   With severely disturbed clients in long-term treatment, one of the main jobs of a therapist is to allow room for their hatred.  With borderline personality disorder, hatred is often the central focus of early work.  My clients who’ve spent months or years hating me and come through on the other side always feel profoundly grateful that I could bear with them and not retaliate.

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Hatred and Anger as Glue

Responding to an earlier post, Rafael Mendez-Arauz wonders whether the inner “brat” is in reality the “pseudo-self”.   My good friend Marla Estes has stated, on both her own site and in a comment to one of my posts, that she believes anger can be a response to forces from the outside that disturb our tranquility.  I think the three of us would agree that a response of anger or hatred isn’t always primary; that is, it might be a defense to ward off something else. The best way I can illustrate this is to discuss the “drowning kitten.”  This metaphor came to play a central part in the treatment of one of my long-term clients, a very disturbed young woman who was cutting herself when she first came in, and suffered from a kind of depression that bordered on psychosis.  Years later, after much improvement, she’d stabilized and had developed a positive relationship with a man.  From time to time, though, when she was under great stress, she’d erupt in anger at him; with a cruel sort of insight, she would savage him for his faults, spew invective at him, and then feel horribly guilty afterward.  We tried to understand this in various ways but didn’t seem to be making headway. My own theoretical point of view at that time was limiting my understanding, and I’m very grateful to this client (and others like her) who stuck with me long enough for me to grow into understanding.  Real insight came when she described herself during one of these outbursts as “a drowning kitten”, lashing out with her teeth and claws at those around her.   What we then were able to understand was that her rage helped ward off an unbearable experience of anxiety that verged on terror:  she felt she might literally fly into pieces (death), and the outburst of rage helped hold herself together in the face of this disintegration anxiety.  It acted as a kind of “glue”, in the way Marla Estes has described the function of psychological defenses. Continue “Hatred and Anger as Glue”