Red Flags and Happy Ever After.
Updated: Sep 4
I was watching an episode of the series 'The Undoing' starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant last night. In the series Nicole Kidman plays an upmarket, New York therapist and we see her working with some clients. One of these clients is a young woman who is distraught at the behavior of her partner, believing as she does that he is bi-polar and complaining bitterly about his mood swings. The interaction that follows is short but one that I can readily recognise from my own work. Nicole Kidman, as the therapist, responds to the client by challenging her subtly - is it only the partner's behavior that is the problem? she asks. The client is not happy to hear this and angrily shoots back that she feels blamed. The therapist explains that she is not trying to blame her but merely to point out that the client too has a role in the situation. She goes on to say that she has come to know her client well and say's the following - 'You are one of the most discerning people I know. If you buy a pair of shoes you try on twenty pairs first. If you want to go to dinner you read one hundred Yelp reviews before making a reservation and no doubt you did some background checks on me before making your first appointment' (I paraphrase of course). She then says the killer line - 'But an attractive man comes along and shows any interest in you and judgement be gone. So, what I'm saying is that perhaps you are more of a victim of your own moods than you are of Kevin's.......There's a particular kind of person you want to be with and maybe you're a little too quick to see that in the person you are with instead of seeing what's actually there.'
Of course, this is fiction and the lines are scripted but it is a wonderful example nonetheless of the kind of issue that often arises in therapy and a great illustration of how a therapist can deal with it. In my own work, well over ten thousand hours of client work over nearly a twenty year period, this kind of situation comes up with surprising (or maybe not) regularity. Time and again I meet clients who put more thought into what car they want to buy or to where they want to go on holidays than they do about the kind of person they want to be in a relationship with. Just like the therapist in the drama I am very familiar with the client who has entered therapy feeling depressed, anxious or even suicidal only to one day float into the session and announce that they are feeling great and that everything is now wonderful and some even express their desire to finish therapy as they don't need it anymore. And why the sudden change? Well, you've probably guessed it - they've met someone new and are convinced that this is the person for them. In his book 'The Road Less Travelled' M. Scott Peck writes of just such an encounter with a client. His client had come to their first session distraught, anguished and hopeless. His wife had left him and he couldn't imagine living without her. They arranged to meet the next week and the same client breezed into the office declaring that he didn't need therapy after all and that everything was now going to be fine. When Peck enquired about the sudden change the client announced that he'd met a wonderful new woman and intended to marry her.
All therapists will recognise this pattern and it can be difficult and sometimes even impossible to help a client who has presented in these circumstances. They don't want to hear the truth and refuse of have the magical spell broken. They cling to the notion that the other person has some kind of super-power ability to transform them and make everything ok. For this, they are not to blame for it is a sad fact that in almost every aspect of popular culture the idea that 'love' can be transformational, solve all our problems and make us feel wonderful about ourselves and our lives is pushed at people, from their very earliest days, again and again. If you don't believe this listen closely to the lyrics of most pop songs our watch a couple of romantic movies or read again with a critical eye the fairytales of your childhood. This toxic messaging brainwashes people into believing that they have no optiion but to find 'the one' if they are to be happy. So desperate are some people to find this that they will jump into any relationship that presents itself. And many, just like the client in the example from the series, will project their own dreams and ideas of the perfect partner onto whoever it is standing in front of them. Desperation is not a good position to start from when making a decision. When we feel desperate we are unlikely to make good choices.
If we are desperate for a relationship and find being single intolerable then it is unlikely that we will make good relationship choices. If we believe that we must have a relationship to be happy we are likely to ignore anything that doesn't fit into our idealised notion of the other person and reject anything that might indicate we shouldn't enter a relationship with this person. We will ignore the warning signs and we will skip along merrily convincing ourselves that all is well and will be fine. As a client of mine once put so beautifully when we were discussing this very issue and reflecting on some of her relationship choices - 'Oh, I see the red flags alright but I tell myself that they are for a parade'. In other words, 'I see the warning signs but I ignore them preferring to believe in the romanticised and idealised fantasy I have created'.
Like most ideas that were formed in childhood and have perpetuated throughout our lives the idea that 'falling in love' will make everything ok is difficult to challenge and to change. But change it we must if we are ever to be truly whole and if we are ever to have a healthy and functional relationship. I try to help clients to see that their 'happiness' lies within and that by addressing the most critical relationship of all - The relationship with self, they are better placed to have healthy, rewarding and emotionally intimate relationships with others.