I’m recently single for the first time in about 12 years. Sort of anyway. I have a dog who seems to think he’s a person in need of constant attention. Perhaps that counts as a significant other? I suppose that’s something to ponder.
I’ve never really dated. I’m one of those people who tends to jump into things with both feet and have been since I was a kid. I was far too much of an introvert to be in any relationships in high school, and through my first two years of college it was more of the same. When I was with someone, it was intense quickly and typically fizzled out in spectacular fashion. Now that I’m trying to date, I’m finding I have much to learn.
I was married for 5 years and we were together for almost 12, and in the interest of total honesty, I was a lousy partner. I kept myself walled off, rarely showed emotion, and didn’t feel like I could ever be myself. I spent those years forcing myself to be what I thought everyone else wanted and needed. In retrospect, it’s no wonder I’m divorced. I was never authentic to myself and who I was and as a result I wasn’t authentic with anyone else either.
That was true until just a few months ago when I started seeing someone new. She’s more intelligent than me, thinks as quickly, and instinctively knows how to nudge me into a direction that encourages me to be true to myself. She has, despite my subconscious inclination to the contrary, provided a safe place for me to be myself, to feel, and to take the only remaining spark of who I once was and let it grow to fill the shell of what I had become.
Sounds like I’ve found someone I should hold onto for dear life right? There’s a catch. I have to pay her every time I see her. It’s $150 an hour, and I have to wait my turn. When she’s finished with me, there’s usually someone waiting to take my place, and so it goes.
I know what you’re thinking. “Dude. WTF? You’re seeing a prostitute and that’s who makes you feel good about yourself?” No. I’m not seeing a prostitute. I’m seeing a therapist, but it’s similar in some ways I suppose. You know what it feels like most though? It feels like dating.
It takes time to find the right one.
Dating is tedious at first. It’s essentially an open tryout for people you can stand to be around and converse with. Sometimes you get lucky and find that someone pretty soon. Frequently though, you stumble from one date to the next wondering what the hell you were thinking and wanting to just give up and move to Ted Kaczynski’s cabin in the woods.
Therapy is just like that. It takes time to find the right someone, and the process can be frustrating and demoralizing. It’s important to keep trying though. That someone is out there, and when you find them it’ll be worth the wait.
You have to get to know each other.
There’s often an awkward period with dating. It’s that uncomfortable period when the two of you don’t really know anything about each other and you nibble at the edges, trying to find a common ground and an approach that works for both of you. There are awkward laughs, uncomfortable silences and glimpses of something just out of reach.
Therapy shares the same kind of process. It takes time for both of you to build that comfort level. You can’t expect to be on an intimate level with a therapist after one session. As wonderful as that might be, that’s not how it works at all.
Trust is essential.
Dating anyone for an extended period of time requires trust. You have to trust them not to stab you in your sleep, roofie your drinks, sleep with your family members, put your sex tapes on the internet, steal your kidney while you sleep, and that yes, they are wearing a condom or on birth control. Beyond those things though, it’s imperative that you can trust them with your authentic self. For any relationship to succeed, we have to feel like the things that make us who we are won’t be used as weapons against us at a later date.
If you can’t trust your therapist with what you feel and what you think, there is nothing productive that will come of your sessions. Just as in any relationship, that level of trust may not happen right away. It is, however, a process that needs to happen. If you can’t trust your therapist not to turn the things you say against you, how can you trust them to help you at all?
If you can’t Communicate, you can’t be together.
Dating and relationships require Communication. I’ve capitalized Communication because its importance cannot be understated. Communication means more than just asking about the day and what happened. It’s more than what you feel like having for dinner and what color shirt goes with those slacks. Communication means open dialogue about feelings, dreams, disappointments and frustrations. It means not being afraid to tell someone they’ve hurt you and using the trust you’ve built to tell them why and know they won’t plunge the knife deeper or rub salt in the wound. It means being able to experiment sexually because you’ve talked about it before. Essentially, it means sharing the parts of you that others don’t often get to see.
Communicating with your therapist is essential to your treatment. In turn, they need to communicate their interpretations, guidance, and goals for you. An open dialogue between the two of you is essential to the success of your relationship. If you can’t communicate, you’ve doomed each other to an un-fulfilling series of shallow conversations.
It’s hard work!
Relationships are work. Sometimes they’re easy of course. There are days when it feels like the Universe has aligned everything in your favor and your connection is as strong as steel. But there are days when it’s a grind as well. Times when you feel like autopilot is the way to go. Days when you feel as though if you can just get through somehow without a nuclear confrontation you’ll be OK.
Therapy is EXACTLY like that. There are times when showing up is as easy as turning on the television and the ebb and flow is comfortable and brings immediate inner peace. There are other times when a session is emotionally exhausting and frustrating. There will be moments when you want to lash out, to get up and walk away without ever looking back. Somehow, if you have the other elements though, you stay. You both work through it and come out stronger on the other side.
You’re a team.
Dating takes teamwork. If only one of you shows up, it’s not really dating, is it? Showing up is more than just being at dinner on time or making sure you get to Lamaze in time to practice breathing. It’s about showing up emotionally and making a personal investment, and both of you need to make that happen.
Therapy requires teamwork as well. It’s easy to see how the client will ruin things if he or she doesn’t show up emotionally. But what about the therapist? A therapist that is intellectually and emotionally engaged with their clients will help create a bond, an atmosphere of shared ownership. When a client feels as though their therapist is invested in their success, it becomes easier to feel as though they matter. Feeling significant provides an intrinsic motivation to work hard and succeed, even in a therapeutic situation.
Everything builds to this one thing: Connection.
Finally, and most importantly, relationships require Connection. Once we trust enough to be our authentic selves, we can become vulnerable. Make no mistake, vulnerability requires strength. It’s a choice we have to make and both people in the relationship have to consciously choose to be vulnerable. We have to open ourselves up to the possibilities that connection can bring, good and bad.
Once again, it’s easy to see where opening ourselves up to connection is important for the client, but a therapist must do so as well. A therapists vulnerability may not be on the same level as their client, but it still exists. They have to dig deep within themselves to offer help and guidance. A therapist that is invested in their client has already given a part of themselves, just as we do in any relationship.
No, dating and therapy aren’t identical in every way. You shouldn’t have sex with your therapist or go out drinking with them. But in the ways that matter, dating and therapy are more similar than they are different. And when we’re authentic to ourselves and what we need, both will lead us to a happier, more fulfilling life.
Photo Credit: Getty Images