Loving Relationships


By Maryhelen Snyder

Loving Relationships

We start with love.

Love is the way one human being feels about another when it is born.

A baby emerges into light. We see it freshly.

We are instinctively eager to do everything in our power to enable it to fulfill its potential as a human being.

Joe and Martha came to me for therapy because their marriage was in trouble. They have very poor communication skills with each other, and have great difficulty understanding each other’s "life world." They have life-long habit of inhibiting the expression of feelings (and even the consciousness of feelings) which are, of course, intensified when they don’t feel understood. These life-long habits include defensiveness, shame and shaming, self-blame and blaming the other, hopelessness, resignation, and all the consequent loss of energy.

They are now in their fifties. After years of waiting to get pregnant, to have a child together, Martha finally, at the age of 39, conceived.

Joe vividly remembers the evening she told him she was pregnant. He is a man of very few words. But when Martha and Joe described to me in a therapy session how they each felt about that yet-to-be-born baby, they spoke in poetry. They were a little reluctant I felt to express the depth at which they each felt that this baby was somehow an emissary from God, a unique conception, - a holy child. But with my attentive listening to how they experienced that pregnancy, it seemed to me that these relatively uneducated people, spoke in the poetry in which holy books are written. The awe they felt about that conception and birth did not appear grandiose. There was no sense of the child being superior to other children, only an emissary in its own right.

That child is 14 now, and a remarkable young man. He is self-confident without being egotistical, loving of people as they are, able to "march to his own drummer," and absorbed in a wide variety of creative interests. He manifests human being at its best. So it seems to me as I watch him and hear about him.

He has received love. Love of this sort is the starting point of the wheel of co-creative dialogue.

It is unconditional.

It I awed; it is in a state or attitude of wonder.

It expects to learn as much as it teaches

because it knows that it is in the presence

of a limitless intelligence,

a unique spirit,

a person.

Making Love

We are used to thinking of love as something that is either there or not there; as something that either happens to us, or doesn’t; we feel it or we don’t.

A poet friend included these lines about his 35 year old marriage in a poem he wrote to celebrate the millennium:

Every day Mona and I create another miracle.

We fall in love with each other all over again.

The "love" we are talking about here as a starting place for the wheel of co-creative dialogue is a decision to make respectful, attentive space for the other person. Even when we are angry and afraid, it is surprising how possible such a decision can be. Marshall Rosenberg (see "Gratitudes") has written about how self-empathy (self-love) may be a pre-requisite for bringing an attitude of unconditional respect and compassionate listening to the relational interaction. When one finds it difficult to provide this for oneself, the assistance of a third party may be necessary.

Bill and Ann sat on the couch in my therapy office. Ann had just spoken at some length about her feelings and perspective in regard to a heated conflict they had had the evening before therapy.

As Bill listened to Ann, I watched his face redden, his jaw tighten, the tendons on his neck protrude more visibly.

Although I had already taught this couple the "skill" of listening empathetically, it is more difficult to teach the attitude. Bill had grown up in an abusive family, had fought in the Vietnam War, had been diagnosed with "PTSD," and had a history of raging even though he had never physically harmed Ann.

It is my practice to be sure that everyone receives an empathic reflection after sharing something meaningful. I asked Bill if he would like me to do that reflecting since he appeared to be having strong emotions as he listened.

He considered this for a moment and then he opened the door to an approach I have been using and recommending ever since. He said, "I think maybe if I speak as Ann, if I become her, I can do it." The technique of "becoming" the other person is one I had learned from Guerney (see "Gratitudes" and next chapters on "Listening" and "Reflecting") as a good way to explain, model, and practice empathy the first time that one teaches that skill to clients. In general, however, I had been using and recommending the more "natural" form of empathic reflection . I was surprised by Bill’s seemingly intuitive sense that speaking as Ann would allow him to open space for her viewpoint.

When he had finished becoming her, and indeed the whole time he was speaking, she conveyed non-verbally and verbally that he was understanding her accurately.

When he finished, he looked at me somewhat astounded. His face had relaxed totally, his eyes were clear. He said, "For the first time ever I got why she feels the way she does about this issue."

Assumptions about the nature of a human being

In taking an attitude of love toward the other, it is necessary to see a human being (oneself and the other person) as separate in a certain way from any dysfunctional reactions (such as addictions, run-away emotions, ways of speaking and acting, and beliefs) that get in the way of constructive, caring relationship. This is what an effective therapist, teacher, and parent must be able to do when they hold a child or adult with unconditional positive regard.

My own assumptions about human beings are perhaps most clearly expressed in the book "The Young Child as Person" (see "References and Recommended Reading"). They are:

  1. Every person wants (at heart) to be in relationship;

  2. Every person wants to be full-functioning (to do their best);

  3. Every person is (by nature) filled with wonder and interest in life.

Mutual Love in Psychotherapy

The following article addresses the relationship between therapist and client. It has recently been published in The Journal of Systemic Therapy.

Mutual Love in Therapeutic Process

Maryhelen Snyder, Ph.D.


Mutual love is an essential aspect of emotional healing and the development of co-creative relational capacities. Professional, cultural and personal factors combine to make the practice of mutual love difficult in the context of psychotherapy. The nature of these difficulties is discussed. The dimensions and boundaries of love in the psychotherapeutic relationship are explored. It is suggested that mutual love can be constructed consciously; intentionally invited and co-created with the therapist’s active participation. Case examples are given.

Introduction: The Significance of Love

Every psychotherapy session presents us with the challenge and privilege of being face to face with another human being. Many factors may operate against our being totally present that event. If we are attentive, we will notice the level of our separation or connection. We are then more able to invite ourselves into complete presence with this particular person in this particular moment.

To the degree that we stay present to the relational moment, we are likely to observe some of the specific phenomena which interfere with our own and the other person’s level of connection, and we will be challenged to respond appropriately to this. For example, we may notice our own judgmentalness, confusion, uncertainty, or feelings of hopelessness. We may notice our desires to be helpful, appreciated and respected. We may observe that the person we are with appears to feel inadequate or ashamed, or otherwise disconnected from the ability to relate fully to us.

This article proposes that the psychotherapeutic relationship must be one of mutual love if the healing of relational hurts and the development of effective relational practices is desired. The word "love" is considered appropriate in describing a significant therapeutic relationship in which there is mutual empathy and respect and to which the client can bring everything that he thinks and feels and be met by the therapist’s authentic caring.

Literature Discussion

There are numerous inquiries into the subject of love between therapist and client in the history of psychological research and practice. Both quantitative and qualitative research suggest that the strength of the therapeutic relationship is at the center of effective psychotherapeutic intervention (Hubble, Duncan & Miller, 1999; Lambert & Bergin, 1994; Najavits & Strupp, 1994). Therapists from virtually every therapeutic school, have felt that it makes sense to love one’s clients and experience the mutuality of that love. The language they have used to describe this love, and the approaches they have promulgated as the best vehicles for restoring the client to healthy relationship, have varied widely and sometimes appeared contradictory.

Included in the literature are inquiries into various aspects of what is socio-culturally named "love," such as empathic attunement, respect, caring, commitment, intersubjectivity, attachment, re-parenting, idealization, transference and counter-transference. There are also numerous inquiries into the therapeutic challenges and difficulties that can occur in regard to the latter phenomena, such as dual relationships, sexual exploitation, and counter-therapeutic acting out of attachment needs. It is not within the scope of this article to address this entire domain of inquiry. Sigmund Freud was the first to describe the necessity for love in the psychoanalytic/psychotherapeutic setting. In a letter to Carl Jung, he stated "Psychoanalysis is in essence a cure through love" (see Gilligan, 1997; p. 96). In a brief, succinct chapter on "Analytic Love" in "Retelling a Life" (1992), Roy Schafer references the psychoanalyst, Hans Loewald, and the poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, as two thinkers who understood love as a focused attentiveness that necessarily moves the therapist/artist beyond the limits of a theoretical model into the "face-to-face." Schafer quotes Loewald as follows:

Scientific detachment in its genuine form, far from excluding love, is based on it. In our work it can truly be said that in our best moments of dispassionate and objective analysis, we love our object, the patient, more than at any other time and are compassionate with his whole being. In our field scientific spirit and care for the object flow from the same source. It is impossible to love the truth of psychic reality, to be moved by this love as Freud was in his lifework, and not to love and care for the object whose truth we want to discover. All great scientists are moved by this passion. Our object, being what it is, is the other in ourselves and oneself in the other [italics added]. To discover truth about the patient is always discovering it with him and for him as well as for ourselves and about ourselves. And it is discovering truth between each other, as the truth of human beings in their interrelatedness (Loewald, 1970; pp. 297-298).

The passages from Rilke that most impressed Schafer were part of a series of letters Rilke wrote to his wife, Clara, on the work of Paul Cezanne (Rilke, 1985). Rilke wrote:

[Sentimental artists] paint: I love this here; instead of painting: here it is. In which case everyone must see for himself whether or not I loved it. This is not shown at all . . . It’s that thoroughly exhausted in the action of making, there is no residue.. . . Ideally an artist should not become conscious of his insights; without taking the detour through his reflective processes, and incomprehensibly to himself, all his progress should enter so swiftly into the work that he is unable to recognize them in the moment of transition (Rilke, 1985; p.51)

In the humanist and existentialist schools, Rogers (1951) and Buber (1988), both discussed in the substance of this article, articulate in different language this same quality of attentiveness that Schafer is highlighting. Gregory Bateson (1972), considered by many to be the father of family therapy, wrote in his article on "The cybernetics of self" (1972) and elsewhere about the "self" and the "mind" as immanent in relationship and in action, rather than transcendent. His concept of "double description" (as in binary vision) has been influential in family systems thinking an in the dialogic focus of the post-modern, social constructionist therapies. Bateson’s perception of "self" is similar to the "movement-in-relation" concept of the Stone Center therapists whose work I explore in some detail below (Jordan, Kaplan, Miller, Stiver & Surrey, 1991).

Tom Andersen (1994), in his development of reflective processes and his attention to the literal embodiment of relational practices, has greatly influenced family therapy and therapeutic work with people who have been diagnosed with severe mental illness. Attunement is key to Andersen’s work in the ways described by Daniel Stern (1985) as developmentally and therapeutically essential; attunement to the physical self, the feeling self, and the more cogniitive (intersubjective) self.

In the narrative therapy field, David Epston and Michael White (1992; White, 1995) have found fresh language to separate "person" and "problem" in a manner similar to that emphasized by Carl Rogers. The person is always a source of self-healing and self-creation; the therapist’s role is to free this source from its erroneous identification with problems or "pathology". Kenneth Gergen, a social-constructionist philosopher at Swarthmore College who has greatly influenced postmodern therapists, has developed the concept of the "relational sublime" (1996). This concept is explored with different language in my article on poetry as a meta-metaphor for the therapeutic experience (Snyder, 1996). It refers to the non-verbalizable ways of knowing that many thinkers (Epstein, 1995; Winnicott, 1965; Penn, 1993) have expressed as core to the capacity for love. Humberto Maturana and Francesco Varela’s (1987) attribution of love to biological roots and description of its nature as the opening of space for the other to exist has been influential, particularly on social constructionist therapists.

In regard to the difficulties that may arise around issues of boundaries in the therapeutic relationship, Marilyn Peterson (1992; 1994) is among those who have done in-depth explorations of the ethical and therapeutic issues involved when therapy focuses on relationship. In support of her model of "relational responsibility," she writes: "If we continue to rely solely on codes of ethics and standards of professional conduct, . . . we will merely reinforce an external monitor that shifts our attention to content and behavior and away from connection (1994, p.64). Peterson addresses the significance of understanding power differences (in regard to race, class, gender, education, and the helping professions themselves) if therapy is to be truly relational. These power issues are explored at length in her chapter and those of others in "Ethical Issues in Feminist Family Therapy" (Snyder, 1994b). The central point of these chapters is that codes of ethics reflect the views of the dominant groups and discourses in a culture, and are, necessarily, rigidifications of what generally appears effective in protecting people from harm. In a relational context, the enforcement of rules by persons who have the power to enforce them becomes part of a larger context of respect and caring for the "offender" as well as the "offended." This context usually requires a co-creation in dialogue with all the parties concerned of appropriate protective and supportive action.

For example, in a recent peer consultation session, a situation was discussed at length that involved complex issues of race, class, patterns of family interaction, and cultural definitions of sexual inappropriateness. A three year old girl with an Hispanic father and Anglo mother had told her grandmother that her aunt had let her to play with her breasts and had touched her vaginal area. The therapist who presented the case had been asked to see the little girl, now four years old, because the family was not sure about the effects of this on the child. All the relevant data cannot be presented here, nor is it apparently fully known. But what emerged in the peer consultation session was the large number of questions that need to be addressed if action that is supportive and healing of all parties concerned is to be taken. The aunt was the father’s younger sister. She had been living with the family at the time and was very close to the child. She was immediately asked to move out by the child’s parents after which the paternal grandparents and siblings became very cool to the family. The little girl had asked why her aunt didn’t love her anymore. An African-American woman who was part of the peer consultation group spoke with considerable passion about cultural differences she had personally experienced in regard to appropriate and inappropriate touch.

What is relevant to the subject of this article is that the full consideration of particular human beings in their particular contexts is a higher priority than the imposition of rules. This consideration is a dialogic, interactive process in which the voices of culturally subordinate groups is essential. An outstanding example of both the difficulty and effectiveness of such dialogue is the "Just Therapy" model developed at the tricultural Family Centre in Lower Hutt, New Zealand (see Waldegrave, 1990).

Freud’s view

On close reading, some of the language with which Freud described the therapeutic stance, such as "blank slate," "coldness" and "neutrality," were terms with which he hoped to emphasize a type of totally open listening that involved what the Buddhists might call "bare attention." (For an extensive exploration of this comparison, see the psychoanalyst Mark Epstein’s "Thoughts Without a Thinker," 1995.) Freud did not appear to mean the absence of a personal presence. For example, he wrote:

  1. It remains the first aim of the treatment to attach [the client} to it and to the person of the doctor. . . . If one exhibits a serious interest in him, . . . he will of himself form such an attachment. . . . It is certainly possible to forfeit this first success if from the start one takes up any standpoint other than the one of sympathetic understanding [Einfuhlung] (Freud, 1913/1958: p. 140).

Peter Shaughnessy (1995) has written an important article on the mistranslation of "Einfuhlung" in the Standard Edition, and particularly in the often-quoted passage above. This mistranslation undoubtedly has had an immense effect on the field of psychoanalysis in particular, and psychotherapy in general. Einfuhlung translates as empathy in modern German usage. Ein means into; fuhlen means feel. In 1913, when Freud used the term in "On Beginning the Treatment," it had only fairly recently been introduced into the German language, (It did not appear in the 1906 edition of Cassell’s New German Dictionary). Theodor Lipps, a psychologist, had introduced it into the German language in 1897, to describe the phenomenon of becoming completely absorbed by, or attuned to, an external event or object (e.g. a piece of sculpture). It is taken from the Greek "empathiea" (to feel into). The word emphasizes personal resonance; and requires, as Freud acknowledged (see below), a suspension of theoretical models and interpretation.

Freud was definitely familiar with Lipp’s work and uses the word Einfuhlung twice before 1913 in 1905 In both these cases, James Strachey translates the word accurately as "empathy." However, Strachey does not translate Einfuhlung as "empathy." in another significant place; Freud’s 1913 article, "The claims of psychoanalysis to scientific interest." Here Freud claims that "only somebody who can feel his way into [Einfuhlen] the minds of children can be capable of educating them" (quoted in Shaughnessy; p. 227).

Freud described the nature of therapeutic listening by stating that the analyst "should simply listen and not bother about whether he is keeping anything in mind" (Freud, 1913/1958; p.112). He stressed that both thoughts and feelings can interfere with the fullness of attention required for Einfulung:

  1. It is not a good thing to work on a case scientifically while treatment is still proceeding – to piece together its structure, to try to foretell its further progress, and to get a picture from time to time of the current state of affairs, as scientific interest would demand. . . [The] most successful cases are those in which one proceeds, as it were, without any purpose in view, allows oneself to be taken by surprise by any new turn in them, and always meets them with an open mind, free from any presuppositions. The correct behavior for an analyst lies in swinging over according to need from the one mental attitude to the other, in avoiding speculation or brooding over cases while they are in analysis, and in submitting the material obtained to a synthetic process of thought only after the analysis is concluded. . . .I cannot advise my colleagues too urgently to model themselves during psycho-analytic treatment on the surgeon, who puts aside all his feelings, even his human sympathy, and concentrates his mental forces on the single aim of performing the operation as skillfully as possible (Freud, 1912/1958; pp. 111-120).

Freud’s cautions in regard to sympathy, affection, excessive tenderness, and support, reflect his concern that such attitudes risk collusion with the client’s already existing belief systems; they risk shaping the client into keeping those beliefs, thereby closing off the investigation of ways of thinking, feeling, and acting that have interfered with the client’s freedom, stability, and creative intelligence. In many ways, Freud was a fore-runner of the "postmodern" perspective on the necessity of a "not-knowing" position in the therapeutic relationship (Anderson; 1997). He wrote, The processes with which [psychology] is concerned are in themselves just as unknowable as those dealt with by other sciences. . . (1938/1958; p.158).

Freud believed that it is extremely difficult for a therapist to know her own motives for "re-parenting" a client, or otherwise bestowing affection. Freud felt that a "patient’s" attraction to, and adoration of, the therapist was due to the therapeutic context (non-judgmental thoughtful, intently attentive, committed, boundaried, reliable) and was not something that the therapist should take personally. Furthermore, in Freud’s view, the "patient’s" longing for love from the therapist could become a distraction and a defense (a resistance) to the discovery and working through of painful emotions.

Freud’s cautions about sympathy and comfort are relevant, to a large degree to all relationships. If tenderness is defined simply as a "holding or facilitating environment" (see Winnicott, 1965), then it is almost always useful. But if a person is given sympathy, agreement, or support for whatever story/picture she has about her life, there is an interruption of the possibility for an exploration of what is most fundamentally real for that person, an exploration which will tend to occur naturally when the relational stance is curious and compassionate, infused with unconditional regard, bravely loving, and commitedly "not-knowing" the answer for that person’s life.

Although the neo-analytic, humanistic, cognitive-behavioral, family systems and social constructionist schools of therapy might all have different language and varied practices for addressing these concerns, it seems to me that most therapists are interested both in creating the therapeutic bond and in having it optimize, not interfere with, the effectiveness of therapy.

The Therapist’s Fear of Love

Given the widespread insight and research into the significance of the therapist’s caring attentiveness, what is it that causes a pervasive reluctance to carry this idea to a depth that might accurately be described as love? It appears easier, more expedient, and more "professional," to focus on all the risks of love and the longing for love, than to fully engage its possibilities. In the profession of psychotherapy, widely held assumptions caution against love. Among the many expressed concerns are the possibility of sexual acting out, of the therapist’s needs interfering with therapy, and of relational interdependency being created that will unnecessarily and counter-productively prolong therapy. Again, it is not the purpose of this article to focus on the validity of all these concerns. Glen Gabbard (1989) and Marilyn Peterson (1992, 1994), writing from radically different perspectives, are among the most thorough of the investigators into questions of boundary violations. Here, my focus is on why the cautions have so often outweighed a focus on, and commitment to, mutual love in the therapeutic relationship.

It has been observed throughout the history of psychotherapy that clients may "fall in love" with a therapist who is listening to them with aware, interested, non-judgmental attentiveness. The experience of being in love may often include sexual desire. Furthermore, it may make the client more vulnerable to the therapist’s failures in empathic attunement and to any behaviors that are experienced as emotional abandonment. Human beings tend under these circumstances to develop strategies to disconnect, or to connect partially and inauthentically with others. In effective therapy, it is vital that the therapist not disconnect from a client’s anger or withdrawal, on the one hand, or a client’s sexual desire, idealization, dependent attachment, fear of abandonment, or attempts to be admired, on the other hand. All these responses must be accepted and listened to attentively so that they can be resolved in the relationship. In order to remain attentive and connected, rather than reactive, the therapist must become knowledgeable and experienced with these protective strategies, and conscious of his/her vulnerability to them.

I have found a short segment in Carl Rogers’ "Client-centered therapy" (1951) to be one of the clearest expressions of both the nature and the fear of therapeutic love. Oliver Bown, a staff member at Carl Rogers’ Institute in Chicago in the middle of the last century, became interested in exploring in depth his own reluctance to love and be loved by his clients. As is widely known, Rogers’ postulated that the three essential ingredients of effective therapy were unconditional positive regard (the word "regard" has a connotation of attentiveness), congruence or authentic alignment of feelings, thoughts, and practices, and empathic attunement of a high degree (Rogers, 1951). Bown was curious about what personally inhibited his carrying out this theoretical foundation to the fullest extent.

At first, he gave himself the reason that he was under the influence of statements on the part of experienced people in the field, that the therapist’s needs can be damaging to the therapeutic process. The client is not in therapy to take care of the therapist’s needs. Furthermore, the therapist’s emotions can interfere with "objectivity." Bown acknowledges that in light of the kinds of involvement that therapists can fall into, these are reasonable cautions. The point that Bown makes is that he discovered that, although he had thought that these cautions were the reason for his reluctance to allow his own feelings to emerge, they were not the primary reason. He noticed that his fear of emotional involvement with his clients was primarily due to his inability to accept his feelings and needs in relation to other people. Further self examination disclosed certain unnoticed and unexamined assumptions. One of these assumptions was that his clients were potentially poor satisfiers of his own needs for closeness, and therefore these relationships were not a safe place to express those needs. An even stronger assumption and fear was his feeling that his clients might trample on, misuse, or ridicule the tender parts of himself. He writes:

  1. I assumed, of course, that the client knew nothing of this [vulnerability]; that I appeared to him to be a professionally adequate person. This may have been true. . . but. . . I think he was learning directly from me, "Do not be free in this relationship. Do not let yourself go. Do not express your deepest feelings and needs, for in this relationship that is dangerous." . . . I can only say that when it became less necessary for me to hold this attitude in therapy, my clients immediately moved into those more delicate areas which I had been shutting off within myself. (In Rogers, 1951: pp. 162, 163)

As Bown explored his own experience with love between therapist and client, he came to the conclusion that the term "love" applies when the following criteria are met: First, as a therapist, one can allow a very strong feeling of one’s own to enter the therapeutic relationship, and expect that the handling of this feeling by the client will be an important part of the process of therapy. Secondly, a basic need of the therapist to receive love can be (in fact, must be) satisfied legitimately in his/her relationship with the client. Thirdly, therapeutic interaction at this emotional level, regardless of the content, is the effective ingredient in therapeutic growth. (Bown, in Rogers, 1951; p.160).

Strategies of Disconnection

When the therapist risks inviting a high degree of mutual respect, mutual empathy, mutual authenticity, and mutual love in the therapeutic relationship, the barriers to relationship that typically occur over the course of psychotherapy will become more evident. Primary among these are what Judith Jordan (1998) has called "strategies of disconnection."

Jordan, one of the core group of therapists at the Stone Center in Wellesley, Massachusetts (Jordan, Kaplan, Miller, Striver & Surrey, 1991), reminds us that these "strategies of disconnection" are developed out of the necessity to protect ourselves from potential hurt. Jordan points out that therapeutic attunement in the face of such strategies of disconnection means a willingness to see them and address them.

She describes how the therapist might easily experience either a tendency to respond with a strategy of disconnection of his/her own, or with an attempt to repair the strategy of disconnection exhibited by the client. Neither of these responses will suffice, since both of them omit the empathic attunement necessary for change. At the same time, it is often useful for the therapist to disclose his/her own initial reactions (e.g., the momentary desire to disconnect or repair), since the client may well observe this anyway, and since such self disclosure (or "therapist transparency," as Michael White calls it) allows for the mutuality of empathy which the Stone Center group considers integral to healing.

In a recent therapy session, I had the opportunity to witness a client’s experience of having his strategies of disconnection unacknowledged by his mother. What follows is a reconstruction of their conversation and my role in facilitating the connection between mother and son.

Transcript from a Mother and Son Therapy Session

Connie (the mother): I really appreciated how sweet and kind you were on Christmas Eve.

George (the son): But I feel so distant from everybody. I’m always disappointed with our family. I mean, why are we eating at a restaurant on Christmas Eve. And then David [his youngest brother] hands me his wedding invitation. And I felt like I had to check "I’ll come," and hand it back to him right away or I might have decided not to go. He’s my brother and I’ve had no relationship with him for fifteen years. (After pause) I used to ask myself what’s the purpose of life. Now I realize, there’s only the purpose I might create, but a lot of the time I just want to die.

My thought process: That last sentence explains (perhaps) why I often feel that George is not fully here, not connected to his body, to his life, to his mother, or to me.

Therapist: That seems like a really important thing you just said. How long do you remember having felt that way?

George: Since my father died. [His dad was killed in the Navy during the Korean War when George was an adolescent.]

Therapist: I want to share something with you that might fit for you. I’ve known you now for at least a dozen years and I’ve seen how kind you are, just as Connie describes you. But sometimes I’ve felt, and I haven’t had words until now to even talk about it, that you were making yourself be loving and good on top of a feeling of being dead inside. It was as though sweetness were being super-imposed on an absence of energy and connection, as though something very big had died. (Saying this, I felt grief.)

George (appearing moved by what I had said): I feel like I’ve never been able to really grieve over my dad. No one grieved.

Connie: I think that maybe you began to feel like dying even before your father died.

George (to Connie, sounding frustrated with her): Mom, you don’t need to fix it or analyze it or explain it. In fact, I don’t want you to do any of those things! You just need to see it (he cries). Sometimes when you call me and I feel completely disconnected, you seem to try to connect by talking on and on about your life and I am completely not interested. I just want you to see me, to see that I’m not really listening, I’m not even there.

Therapist: I just noticed that when you talk to your mom this way, you look very alive, energized, and connected.

George: Yeah. I feel that.

Connie (looking tenderly at George): I’m really sorry. [This is not so much an apology, as an expression of connection.]

George cries. (After awhile, he turns to therapist): O.K., we’re cured.

The critical therapeutic action here was the attunement to George’s deadness and disconnection, in the context of also understanding his longing to be connected.

Anger as a strategy of connection

When a person stands up in whatever ways she can against any form of disrespect, this is a connecting act and needs to be seen as such. What the therapist, or a family member, might experience as anger, hostility, withdrawal, resistance, or defensiveness on the part of the client, is very often a communication of outrage and defiance over some violation of the relationship that is being experienced by the client in the present interaction. When one thinks of all behavior as communication, then even "strategies of disconnection" are connecting strategies in a certain sense. In the case example above, there can be no doubt that George was communicating, i.e., attempting to connect, with his mother when he stopped listening to her during the phone calls he described. He was saying in effect, "Mother, would you please notice that I am not here." In the context of loving relationship, these strategies are not only acceptable; they are cause for celebration.

Characteristics of Love that Apply to the Psychotherapeutic Relationship

In considering the following list of some of the characteristics of love in the psychotherapeutic setting, the reader is invited to imagine him or herself in the two roles of giving and receiving therapy so that the assumptions and hypotheses put forth here can be examined experientially from both positions. Most of the characteristics listed apply to virtually all loving relationships. Many of the relationships in our lives, however, have certain functions with culturally defined expectations and parameters. Honoring these, while subjecting them to ongoing dialogue, is one of the critical dimensions of love. This list is generated from the perspective of the therapist.

    I make a distinction between a person and the practices (emotional, cognitive, behavioral) that person has developed. I do not judge the person to be bad or flawed in any way.

    I am compassionate and competently empathic (see Snyder, 1995).

    I am curious, inviting (but not demanding) information about the other person’s life-world.

    I am authentic (for example, in regard to my vulnerabilities, biases, and uncertainties).

    I commit myself to interacting with the other person in a way that is relevant to my role in his or her life. (A few examples: The full focus of the session is on the client’s life. My experience is revealed only when it appears relevant; I am not sexually inappropriate; I keep our sessions confidential.)

    I remain open to dialogic interaction; i.e., I do not act as an ultimate authority over him or her except perhaps when safety requires such authority.

    I allow myself to care.

    I allow the other person to know that I care.

    I allow myself to be cared for.

    I allow the other person to know that I experience and value being cared for.

    I communicate that my caring for the other person is not conditional, that it can be trusted and does not need to be earned.

    I take care of myself, the other person, and the environment in which we co-exist by practicing and requiring civilized behaviors relevant to the context of our relationship. (These practices are dialogically co-constructed, open to consideration.)

    I keep agreements or communicate clearly about any necessity for breaking them.

    I am interested in facilitating the other person’s ability to act according to his or her deepest goals and intentions, and not succumb to counter-productive practices.

    I am interested in being confronted when my own practices feel hurtful to the other person.

    I cultivate consciousness, the capacity to be attentive to my own embodied experiencing and to the embodied experiencing of the person I am with. I am interested in developing the art of staying in "present time," holding in suspension all my already existing assumptions and beliefs, and creating mutual love and dialogic intelligence in the relational moment (see Snyder, 1994a).

There is a moment of interaction on a videotape that Michael White shows (not publicly available) which illustrates White’s application of some of these characteristics of mutual love. The woman who is in his office has succeeded in fighting against anorexia, after nearly dying from its effects, to the extent of going downtown by herself and drinking half a cup of cappuccino. This "small" act represents a monumental change from her previous state of almost total isolation, withdrawal, and starvation. When White asks her with astonishment how she accomplished that feat, she tells him that she took him and the team with her. Michael appears close to tears as he asks, "Do you know how that makes me feel?" "Happy?" she suggests. He replies that the feeling seems stronger than happy, more like joy. In this interchange, he is constructing his caring for her actively, sharing his sensitivity to the effect of their relationship on both their lives, and allowing her to handle the experience of his strong feelings.

Another anecdote that comes to mind demonstrates the significance of the therapist’s authenticity and transparency in regard to relational disconnections that may occur. A lesbian therapist described how in the course of her own therapy with a psychoanalytically oriented male therapist, she began to notice and explore for the first time the intensity of her sexual orientation. Her therapist revealed to her that he experienced some aversion to homosexuality. He explained that he wanted to tell her this because he was very sure that she would notice it anyway, and because he wanted her to know that he took full responsibility for his uneasiness and that it was not in any way caused by her. He told her that if she chose to remain in therapy with him, as he hoped she would, he would be learning from her about her experience and confronting his own biases. She did choose to stay in therapy with good results.

The following transcript illustrates some of the challenges involved in the application of these characteristics to a therapeutic relationship.

Case example: Therapeutic construction of mutual love

Mark had served a twenty-month sentence for sexual molestation of his six-year old stepdaughter. His wife Jane and the two stepchildren, Lois (then 7) and her brother, Bill (10), came to see me for about six months before Mark’s release. Jane and I went together to see Mark in prison twice during this period. I was invited then by the Department of Corrections to help design his parole agreement.

If I had to pick one guiding concept in my work with this family, it would be that of attempting to provide a container for authenticity. Jane was furious with me for several months after Mark’s release. Her perception was that if I chose, I could recommend that Mark be reunited immediately and completely with his family. She also felt that I had misled her and the family ("lied" to them) because I had initially thought, before my conversations with the Family Treatment Center where Mark attended a group for sex offenders, and with the probation officer, that reunification might occur more quickly. The authorities (including myself) believed that many steps of accountability should be taken before full re-unification with the family. Mark appeared to appreciate certain aspects of these steps (for example, his experience in the offenders’ group) before Jane could see much value in them.

During the period of Jane’s anger toward me, she had difficulty expressing it directly. She revealed it largely by not looking at me or looking at me coldly, and by answering my inquiries curtly. Both Mark and the children informed me that she showed her anger toward me more openly when she was not with me. I chose to relate to Jane’s anger in two ways, The first was to value and validate her experience, not just her subjective experience, but also the realities of relative poverty, of a split family, of her decision to go to school full time while raising young children, and of a sometimes dehumanizng justice system. Sometimes I "became" her (asking her permission to speak as her), a method I have been using in the last few years for deepening the experience of empathy and enhancing the co-creative dialogue (see Snyder, 1995). I spoke my appreciation for whatever courage she revealed in telling me the truth of her anger. The second way I related to Jane’s anger was to tell the truth of my experience. The reality for me was that I had come to have (and chosen to have) deep feelings for this family (feelings I called "love.") I valued my connection with them. I spoke to Jane about my sadness with the way in which the door felt closed, at least temporarily, to our exploring her upset with me together. At one point, Mark told me in a session where both Mark and Jane were present, that perhaps I shouldn’t have become a therapist if I was so sensitive to how people felt. This theme became part of an ongoing conversation between us, one that was highly relevant to his own upbringing in regard to never revealing sensitivity and vulnerability.

One morning, much to my surprise, Jane called me and told me that she and Lois wanted to see me right away. This was a turning point morning. Jane invited Lois to share with me the nighttime fears she had been having since a recent move. And then Jane asked Lois to go play in another room while she spoke to me about her fear that depression was taking her over again as it had in the past. She was beginning to withdraw more and more, to keep the curtains drawn during the day, to go out as little as possible. She attributed this power that depression was beginning to have to three areas in which she was feeling powerless. She had dropped out of school temporarily because of the complexity of her life; she had suddenly had to move from one "Section 8" (Welfare) rental property to another with far less space, and Mark was becoming increasingly abrupt and critical of her, including critical of her body. Through several sessions, Jane allowed me to join her in thinking about how to triumph over depression. She began to draw again after many years (and to show me her drawings), to speak more authentically to Mark, and to speak openly with me about how depression had been able to take hold of her previously in her life and how she had triumphed over it then.


When I went into a session with this family, more than with many of the families with whom I worked, I felt a certain anxiety each time, a sense of stepping into the unknown. Perhaps because this family’s experience was culturally quite different from my own, and because the damages which human beings can do to one another were more apparent than with some families, I was very conscious of my "not knowing" (see Anderson, 1997), and of the usefulness of this not-knowing approach to each relational interaction. I found that the sessions worked best when I thought of intelligence as dependably operative in the dialogic process. I also found that when I thought of intelligence as embodied, when I honored what I felt in my body and invited the family to do the same, this present time "mindfulness" assisted us greatly in the forward movement of mutual relationship. In my view, all of the characteristics of mutual love listed above applied in this case. Clearly, the aspect of mutuality was a gradual unfolding; it did not exist prior to the dialogic interactions in which it was constructed, carefully and sometimes painfully, in the manner which Kathy Weingarten (1991) has described as "the co-creation of shared meanings."


The therapist in a loving therapeutic relationship will change. Indeed, all people in loving relationships tend to change when love includes authenticity, vulnerability, and dialogic co-creation. These changes frequently necessitate giving up privilege or power or precious beliefs, and accordingly may be accompanied by a grieving process. I think this is inevitable in contexts that involve cultural oppressions and internalized oppressions. It may turn out that this means all contexts. Martin Buber said it this way: "To step into elemental relation with the other . . . requires and creates the most intensive stirring of one’s being" (1988; p. 71).

In this "post-modern" era, Thomas Mann’s quote which introduces this article is particularly apt. Love is an embodied experience that we tend to recognize without being able to define it precisely or to distinguish it fully from everything we associate with it. The "perfect clarity" of the experience can be described perhaps only with poetic language. I do think, however, that Maturana and Varela (1987) may have defined it most accurately by tracing it back to its pre-linguistic origins in single-celled life forms. Love, they wrote, "is the expression of a biological interpersonal congruence that lets us see the other person and open up for him room for existence beside us" (p. 246).


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