The reflections that I would like to share in this post derive mainly from the therapies of two patients that, notwithstanding their different gender, age, provenience, and job, share a similar difficulty in having close love relationships. Their main problem is that they both feel a deep need for love, admiration and acceptance, but at the same time feel overly-responsible for and “suffocated” by the needs for closeness and love of their partners. They need to be loved, but cannot stand to be needed.
Antony is a forty-three year old actor who entered therapy with the stated goal of wanting to feel free to say what he thinks and to break up with his girlfriend of 14 years. He was dissatisfied by the relationship because his girlfriend constantly blamed him for his way of living and being. She accused him of being lazy and not caring enough and was envious of his success because she would have liked to work as an actress but had not been able to pursue this career. Even though he had been faithful to her, she was deeply jealous of him and controlling. He and the girl friend had not had sex in years, and he blamed himself for this because he thought he had developed erectile dysfunction. Antony was deeply unhappy in this relationship, but he felt guilty about leaving her. This guilt stemmed in part from the fact that he entered into the relationship after having been accused by the girlfriend of being a womanizer who hurt every girl he met.
After one year of therapy, Antony was able to leave this girlfriend, and few months later he started a new relationship with a woman to whom he was strongly attracted. Their relationship was very passionate, and he did not experience any sexual difficulty; however, in less than one year he felt trapped and oppressed by her need for reassurance and for declarations and manifestations of love and tenderness. Again, he had difficulty breaking up with her because he was afraid of feeling lonely and unloved and of hurting her. Anthony’s difficulty in fully committing to the relationship with this new woman was amplified by the fact that Antony continued to feel guilty toward the previous girlfriend, and by the fact the this new woman had to take care of a chronically ill relative.
Anthony is the only child of a male immigrant who had come in Italy looking for riches and of a modest woman from a little Italian town. His father was authoritarian, contemptuous, unreliable, and violent both with his wife and his child. Anthony’s mother was a passive and overly worried woman who appeared easily hurt and impossible to be reassured. Antony remembers that his father used to devalue anything Anthony said and made, and that his mother was often hurt by her husband’s mistreatment and worried about their poverty and the future of their child. Moreover, Anthony was severely neglected: starting when he was less than ten years old his parents would leave him at home alone for days during which time he was expected to fend for himself.
On the basis of these traumas, it seems that Anthony developed the belief that he does not deserve care, attention and appreciation and that he does not deserve to have a more satisfying love relationship than that of his parents. Similarly, he believes that he is responsible for the happiness of the women he loves and that in order to make them happy he needs to sacrifice his spontaneity. Moreover, he believes that his success in his work could make his father feel humiliated, and he says that his problems are the consequences of the fact that he has “inherited” the worst of his parents: he is as unreliable as his father and as preoccupied as his mother. However, he feels that he cannot be different.
In therapy, Anthony has tested his pathogenic beliefs concerning omnipotent responsibility with transference tests by non-compliance. For example, though he says he needs therapy, when he has to go abroad for work – and this happens at least four months every year - he suspends his sessions taking for granted that I will be available when he returns, and if not, he will find “other solutions”. He has tested his self-hate with transference test by non-compliance and passive into active tests by compliance: at the end of the first session, for example, he said to me that he was afraid to be brighter than me. When I asked to him why this would be a problem for him, he replied that he would find it boring to work with me.
From the start of therapy, Anthony focused on his problems with women and on his difficulties saying what he thinks: he was afraid that by doing so, he would be devalued or he would hurt other people. He pulled for me to legitimate his need to do what he wanted and to put limits on the requests of these women. In fact, he has had difficulty saying no to their unreasonable requests: for example, his current girlfriend wants to spend six hours with him on the phone (during this quarantine, they are not living together), and he is not able to say no to her, but then he ends up hating both her and the idea of talking on the phone with her.
He is generally quite anxious when he talks about his relational problems and says that he knows what he should do but is not able to do it: he cannot fully commit to his love relationship without feeling “suffocated” and cannot leave his girlfriend without feeling guilty and lonely. I have tended to remain relaxed in order to pass the passive-into-active test component of his behavior and thus be a role model for feeling less worried by the problems of other people. At the same time, however, he adds that he has never been able to be particularly warm or caring with his girlfriend, and that this is what this woman misses the most, but this theme has been generally less relevant in his communications and he does not seem to be particularly interested in changing this side of his personality.
Angela is a twenty-five year old woman in therapy with a male colleague. All of her love relationships have had the same pattern: after a few years, she betrays her current boyfriend multiple times and feels guilty for this, but is unable to break up the relationship until she finds another boyfriend. After ten years of this behavior, she thought that she needed to stay alone for a while and to have sexual affairs only, without emotional involvement. She stated that she wanted to find a partner who could accept her tendency to betray and her desire to live abroad for long periods of time. She claimed that that she has no problem being physically distant for weeks; for her, a few text messages each day would suffice, she hates time on the phone. Angela has difficulty identifying, discriminating, and naming her feelings. At the beginning of her therapy she was not able to understand that she was feeling anxious, or to differentiate anxiety from a strong feeling of guilt.
Angela described herself as “quite disturbed” since her childhood. She never felt fully accepted by her mother, who would have liked her to be more feminine and outgoing. In middle school, she thought that she should lie in order to be interesting for her peers, and she felt different from them as if there was something wrong with her.
Angela’s parents got divorced when she was ten years old because her father had fallen in love with a younger woman. This divorce was totally unexpected by Angela. Her father had always been playful and calm with his children, and Angela felt she was his favorite. After the divorce, he became physically and emotionally unavailable to them and to his former wife. Angela’s mother became deeply depressed, and after some time developed a severe illness. Angela was constantly worried about her mother, had to take care of her at the expense of her own needs, and felt that all her efforts were useless because the mother showed no relief. Angela described her teenage years as being spent at school, then at the hospital visiting her mother, and then at home where she had to take care of herself and her younger sister. She clearly remembers the anxiety she felt when she went to visit her mother at the hospital and when she had little time to study. She also recalled the pain she felt when, during a holiday, she decided to ask for more presence and support from her father, and he reacted ragefully.
On the basis of these traumas, it seems that Angela developed the belief that she is unlovable, that if someone really got to know her they would not love her. Similarly, she believes that if she develops a strong attachment to a man she will be disappointed because she is unlovable and does not deserve to be more loved than her mother. Moreover, she believes that taking care of another person requires renouncing her own life and failing. Finally, Angela’s behavior with her boyfriends represents an identification with her father which is the basis of her passive-into-active tests: she cannot let herself be better, more caring, warmer and faithful than him.
Because of her pathogenic beliefs, for Angela to feel safe in a relationship a boyfriend would have to deeply love and support her, totally accept her and, at the same time, not need her care and not be hurt by her difficulties expressing her love with words and her difficulties in being warm and consistently present. The boyfriends she has chosen were generally older but weaker and warmer than her.
Angela has regularly attended her therapy sessions, but after five years she continues to struggle with these issues. She is attached to her therapist, but it is important to her that he not tell her what to do and does not criticize her choices. She does not like him to give her homework and will generally not do it when he does.
The therapies of both these patients are still in progress, and I think that it is possible for a therapist to pass their tests and help them reduce the grip of their pathogenic beliefs. Both these patients have a clear enough picture of the nature and origins of their problems, but they do not know how to feel differently and how to overcome them. However, I would like to finish this post with a question. We know that what occurs outside the therapy office may be even more important than what happens into the therapy room for the evolution of the life of a person. And we know also that people get better mainly thanks to corrective emotional experiences. Thinking about the testing strategies that these patients adopt in their everyday life, I ask myself: is it possible, in real life, to find a person who really and deeply loves and accepts you but does not need you, is not hurt by your difficulties in saying that you love her/him, that you are there for her/him if s/he needs you? Is it possible to ask for complete freedom and a lack of attachment needs to your partner and, at the same time, a total acceptance of who you are without hurting the other person? Is it possible to find a person that loves without needing you? Will these people be able to find someone who will give them a real corrective emotional experience in their everyday life?