Recently, a few of my clients have been contemplating whether it’s time to end therapy.
Some of my other clients have been contemplating whether to end their romantic relationships.
Should I stay or should I go? How do I know?
Fritz Perls, the founder of Gestalt Therapy says, “Just as at the beginning the patient has come under his own steam, so at the end he must go under his own steam (Perls et al., 2009, p250).”
A premise of Gestalt Therapy is that ultimately the client knows best what they need. The job of the therapist is to facilitate awareness of blind spots so that they can make a more informed decision.
As I said to both clients, I can help you to explore your situation and the reasons for wanting to stay and go. Hopefully, this will give you a greater perspective and help you to grasp more fully the dynamics at play.
This is true both for a therapeutic or a romantic relationship. Here are some questions to ask yourself:
1. What might you be avoiding?
In therapy, there is what we call an “escape into health.” This describes the process of a client moving quickly from struggling with an issue to feeling a lot better within a couple of sessions. I’m not saying that brief and successful therapy is not possible, however, the “escape into health” phenomenon describes how a client avoids the uncomfortable process of exploring the contributing factors to their distress and the resulting need to make behavioural changes, which cause anxiety. After all, however much we want to change, there is always a part of us that doesn’t: the part that clings to the better-known devil.
Similarly, in romantic relationships, there is the well-known honeymoon phase that can last anywhere from three months to a year or until after you get married. Then things get real. The intensity of the attraction lessens, we no longer feel so “in love” with our partner, and start to see them for more of the person that they are—flaws and all.
We realise we have less in common than we thought and that ensuring we are on the same page does not happen telepathically. It takes work. It takes conversations. It takes trying to understand the others’ point of view. It takes compromise. It takes times of doing stuff that we don’t really feel like doing because we want to make our partner happy or because it’s good for the relationship. On the other hand, it could be tempting to keep an eye on our dating apps. Maybe that next person who has made us their “favourite” could be better for us?
Do I stay or do I go?
Ask: What might I be avoiding?
2. Which pattern might you be repeating?
In therapy, I ask my client in the first session if they have had therapy before and if so, what they found helpful, and how did it end. Someone who has had several therapists and who found them all useless is a big red flag. The chances are that I will join the list of useless past therapists as well, unless we can agree to be curious about this pattern in order to gain more awareness, and hopefully change it.
There are many reasons why we might jump ship early. The fear of the vulnerability that comes with emotional intimacy is a key player.
Doctor Jeffrey E. Young describes this as the Abandonment Schema. We can abandon the “other” when our abandonment fear is triggered. As a child, we may have experienced abandonment because our parents were preoccupied with work, depressed, alcoholics, divorced, working away from home, or for many other reasons.
We may also have felt abandoned by our parents when our sibling was born. Feelings of abandonment often occur when we are pre-verbal so it is not something that we can look back on and identify rationally. It pops up in other ways, for example, behaving in such a way that we push people away or “close down” on them emotionally, or sexually, when they get too close. The classic symptom is to abandon them first by jumping ship from therapy or our romantic relationship, when we start to feel too vulnerable.
Do I stay or do I go?
Ask: Which unhelpful pattern may I be repeating?
3. How are you expressing your resentments?
I’m a therapist and I’m also a flawed human being like all the others on the planet. As the therapy progresses, I might say something or not say something that doesn’t land well with you. There may be a look I have on my face that you interpret as uncaring, or a question I ask that triggers your inner critic.
It might be difficult for you to express your hurt, annoyance, frustration, or resentment with me. Perhaps you had no model for expressing these types of feelings in an assertive way in your own childhood. Perhaps your fear of hurting “the other” is so great that you cannot bring yourself to say anything. Perhaps you fear that if you did say something that you would not be able to control your own rage. So as therapy proceeds with these unspoken resentments, you start to feel more and more distant from the process. You start to focus more and more on what is not right.
The same goes for romantic relationships. When either one or both individuals are fearful of expressing their resentments directly, there are consequences. All of a sudden, we feel less alive in the relationship, our desire wanes, we numb our resentments but the price we pay is our excitement also gets walled off.
If we are both doing this, then we react to each other’s behaviour. We interpret that our partner is withdrawing from us, which makes us feel defensive and so we withdraw even more. Eventually, we find ourselves both in a kind of stalemate. Leaving might seem like the best option. We tell our friends that the relationship has run its course, that we just fell out of love with our partner, that there is something missing.
Do I stay or do I go?
Ask: Which resentments have I not expressed?
4. Do you know what you truly need?
Gestalt Therapy places a lot of emphasis on response-ability, the ability to respond to a situation in order to get what we need. However, a large number of us struggle with knowing what we need. In order to know what we need, we need to know what we feel.
Feelings are the messengers that convey our needs.
For example, I feel sad therefore I need to be comforted. I feel lonely therefore I want company. I feel angry therefore I need to assert my boundaries with someone.
It’s difficult to know what you want to get out of therapy if it’s difficult for you to know what you need. It’s even more difficult for the therapy to be helpful if you do not know what you need.
Note that in the line above I didn’t’ say that the therapist should be helpful. This would imply that the therapist is responsible for identifying and meeting your needs rather than you yourself. We can feel disappointed, frustrated, or even enraged when we realise the person we are paying for therapy cannot just “fix” us and that merely turning up for the session is not enough for change to take place. But if a therapist were to “fix” you then they would be disempowering you by leading you to believe that you are not able to fix yourself.
Whilst I can’t tell you what you need, I can help you explore what gets in the way of knowing for yourself. Until that point of understanding, it might be premature to end therapy.
What gets in the way of knowing what you need is often a core belief, out of awareness, that goes something like this, “I am not entitled to need anything,” or, “If I ask for what I need, I will not get it and will be a bad person,” or, “In order to get what I need I have to meet the others’ needs first.”
These core beliefs are problematic in therapy and also in our romantic relationships. We may choose partners who do not meet our needs, or we may choose partners that do but we cannot recognise that. We may have a hard time getting our needs met in our relationships because we cannot articulate them.
It could be easy in that case to decide it’s not the right relationship for us. Or we might “project” our missing needs onto an outside romantic interest, thinking that they might be a better option when in reality even if we got with them, a year down the line we would start to feel the same emptiness. Alternatively, we may stay with someone to keep them happy but we don’t actually know whether the relationship is right for us.
The key to all these situations is to take the time to find out how you block yourself from knowing what your needs are, challenging the unhealthy beliefs, and making yourself responsible for meeting your needs.
At this point, you can separate out what you want, which might be a partner with a six-pack, five years younger, 50k richer, and a Hollywood smile, from what you need, a partner who is warm, caring, consistent, and most importantly into you and the relationship.
Or, after taking the necessary time to ascertain your needs you may establish that you are staying with someone because you “should’ and that your core needs are very different. Perhaps you fear being alone, in which case, we would look at challenging those fears and looking at how you can support yourself better.
Do I stay or do I Go?
Ask: Is this what I want or what I need?
Relationships, whether they are therapeutic or romantic can share similar doubts and uncertainties. Where we are unsure, there is often something to explore. Deciding to stay or go when we have understood more fully the dynamics at play means we can either leave with less regret and guilt, or stay with more certainty.
So, do you stay or do you go? Let me know after you have fully and honestly answered the above questions!
Perls, F, Hefferline, R, Goodman, P (2009), “Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality”, Souvenir Press, London.
Young, J.E, Klosko, J.S, Weishaar, M.E, ( 2006), “Schema Therapy A Practitioner’s Guide”, Guildford Press, London.
Author: Alexandra Schlotterbeck
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