Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Actually, they're NOTHING alike.

Laura and I had a fun conversation last night. We were on the subject of counseling and therapy. I was remarking that I've always enjoyed seeing a therapist/counselor/spiritual director, since I was a kid. What better experience for a self-doubting guy than to have the attention of another human being for a solid hour, whose entire purpose is to be understanding?

Laura asked, well, isn't that one of the perks of having a relationship or a marriage? Aren't we like one-another's counselor?

And for some reason, that I couldn't put my finger on at the time, I had to reject that comparison. "No. NO. Those two relationships are nothing alike."

That statement was impulsive, but the conviction with which I said it was real. I'm taking this chance to examine why I not only said it but stressed it. Something about the comparison between a counselor-client relationship, and a marriage, was repugnant to me. Why was that?

A clue actually came to me on the drive home, while I was listening to an interview on public radio with a psychiatrist. He gave up a comfortable practice in Manchester to serve the devastated victims of mental illness in Libya.

One of the things that he mentioned is that a powerful obstacle to practicing in Libya was maintaining emotional distance while listening to people's heartwrenching stories--the women whose shrapnel-wrecked husband died in her arms, the woman who, together with children, was used as a human shield by the Gaddafi forces.

I believe that a good counselor walks a thin line between, one the one hand, empathy and advocacy, and on the other, losing perspective. Counselors are mediators between a client's intimate experience and unveiling the blind-spots (whether that take the form of advice, treatment, consolation, etc). When a counselor loses perspective, he loses the capacity to be a mediator.

Professional distance is not only for the protection of the counselor but for securing the his ability to perform and succeed in enabling the client to reach psychological/emotional/mental/spiritual/social checkpoints. In fact, it is not so much a "distance" in the sense of being "far away," as much as a "vista"--an elevated view, that serves in the same capacity as a lighthouse in a storm.

That same professional or emotional distance, while not completely absent from a romance or a marriage, takes a radically different shape. In any case there is no expectation for lovers to maintain what anyone would call professional or emotional "distance".

Where the comparison is spot-on is that both a lover and a counselor provide an oasis of intimate understanding in a desert of empathy.

But where a romance is so much more profound is exactly where it is less useful.

When a couple become lovers, they enter the room of intimate mutual understanding; and when they become husband and wife, they close and lock the door behind them, and throw away the key.

They enter the labyrinth without string.

They walk one-another's forest without anything so much as breadcrumbs.

They dream each other's dreams, sans totems or kicks.

No ruby slippers.

The mutual self-gift of married lovers is total. That does not mean that said lovers lose their individuality--I've written on this point before. But they freely relinquish an eject button. They prioritize love over perspective--love, through faith, becomes the only perspective.

From this we might infer that married lovers do indeed serve one-another's need to be understood, but yet they do not substitute one-another's need for that mediator, that lighthouse, that is the occasional visit to a counselor.

1 comment:

Thomas Gricoski, OSB said...

Like a priest who hears your confession; you don't want to know whatever sins the priest may be struggling with, you want forgiveness. No matter how polite and self-giving a counsellor or priest may be, they are there for you more than they are there with you.

A counsellor is really more like a parent than a spouse. Good reflection, Jeff. And a good reminder that counsellors, and priests, need to have more relationships in their lives than the counselor relationship.