Sometimes clients express their wish that we could be friends. Sometimes the feeling is even mutual. There may be practical reasons, such as aspects of our personalities that align in such a way that we imagine a friendship would be viable. But this is not why our client, or we, are thinking about this. It is transferencial, it is oedipal, and must be attended to and handled as such.
There are times when this pull for friendship happens early in the clinical relationship. But more frequently it comes up much later in the relationship, when transference has set it. There are times when it comes up in a minor way, and other times when it becomes a fixation. It is always worth noting and attending to, and when part of a fixation, points to asignificant piece of early developmental issues that require our clinical intervention.
Yes, the Oedipal Complex; a subject of mocking and quick rejection in much of the non-analytic psychotherapy world. This multi-layered and rich theory is too often reduced to some simplistic notion of male children’s romantic love for their mothers and murderous hate for their fathers. While this is indeed a cornerstone of the complex, (later coined the Oedipus Constellation by Melanie Klein) it is part of a larger multi-faceted, nuanced movement through the first few years of the developing child’s life. It is a framework containing in its resolution key development achievements extending beyond simplistic notions of maternal love and fantasied patricide.
As a radical feminist I was once a rejecter of all things Freud, offended by and in disagreement with the gendered language and gendered assumptions. Upon much deeper and more thorough reading of Freud, his predecessors and more contemporary theorists, I was able to dislodge for myself gendered assumptions, and gain access to invaluable developmental information. (I will try to write something at another time on how to read clinical theory freeing up concepts of gender).
So while the Oedipal Constellation is certainly related to issues of gender, it is as keenly about generations and authority. Again, I am going to try not to get too far into the gender issues inherent in the Constellation, since it is not relevant to our current topic; the psychological variables at play for the client who wishes they could be our friend.
So first, here are how Oedipal issues look when stripped of gender, and further simplified to the classic Oedipal family of 3: one child and two parents.
In the good enough home children fall deeply in love with their parents. At some point around age 3 or 4 they start to identify with one of their parents. They start to look up to that parent somewhat differently than the other parent. They want to emulate them, be like them, act like them. This could be wearing perfume like their mom, or shaving with their dad, or grinning when they hear they walk just like their mom, or are silly just like their dad. They continue to love their other parent, but with that parent, developing a sense of difference, of distinction, of separateness (not separation). They enjoy chances to point out differences, in the same way they point out similarities with the other parent.
In the early years of life in a good-enough family children are so consumed with love for their parents, they hardly notice the parents love for each other. But that also changes around age 3 or 4. Children start to notice the connection between their parents. One of the feelings it stirs up for them is envy.
In their identification efforts to resemble one of the parents, to “be like them”, one of the ways they could “be like them” is to be the other parent’s love object. So if I am a typical* little girl, I would likely identify with my mom, and in my desire to be like her, I would want to “marry” her husband, my dad. And if I am a typical boy, with heterosexual parents, I will likely identify with my dad and want to emulate him by making my mother my love object.
*typical, average…gender identity, sexual orientation, energetic self-presentation, of children, of parents, has significant impact of who the child chooses to identify with.
Children display different levels of distress and intensity about their wish to subsume one parent’s identity and replace them as the other parent’s love object. Children will squeeze themselves in-between parents on the couch, push parents away from each other when they are trying to kiss. Parents often enjoy these acts of bravado and aggression. But they represent internal conflict. The conflict is generational.
What the child must come to terms with if they are to resolve this element of the complex, is that the parent they identify with is not the barrier to becoming their parent’s partner. The unconquerable barrier is age. The child can not marry their parent because their parent is of a different generation. And nothing can change that. The child must face that their love, is insufficient to feed the parent.
Alright, does that start to sound familiar as a parallel process with clients who want to be our friends? Is it not true that many of our clients who wish they could be our friends simply do not have to offer us what we would expect from a peer? That certainly, if we have been working with a client for a while, we have established a transferencial dynamic that means, at least during moments of the work, we could hardly be called peers.
The client who wishes to be our friend is struggling with the differential in power and authority in the relationship. They are wanting to reject what is a re-experiencing of the hopelessness, powerlessness, and infantilization of being a child, who wants to be the partner/love object/confidant of their parent. They are asking to eliminate the aspects of the relationship that institutes a power imbalance. This is not the first time they have sought to reject the “natural order of things”; the generations that separate children and parents, the professional boundaries that separate client and therapist. In fact if this is a pivotal enough issue for them, we will have seen them attempt to make peer relationships of many previous relationships with traditional authority figures, like teachers, professors, medical and mental health providers. These re-enactments will persist until they can untangle its first incarnation; the child and their success or failure at acquiring their original love object.
Let’s be clear; if they “successfully” displaced their rival parent of identification to become the possessor and confidant of their love object, this bodes very poorly for them and the work is to come to terms with that “success” as coming at a terrible cost. “Failure” to acquire the confidant/love object is as it should be, but it must be accompanied with the understanding of why they failed; namely, that they are appropriately to young/small/not-yet-enough to meet the needs of an adult object.
Alright, so what do you do about it.
First, I like to acknowledge how weird and contrived the constructs of psychotherapy are. It is a truly bizarrely constructed relationship, whose rules and parameters are not known and understood by the client. I like to acknowledge how strange it all is first.
Second, I like to acknowledge that it is the circumstances that are prescribing our relationship, and that if the circumstances were different, our relationship might be different as well. This is easier to say solidly and firmly if the client is indeed someone who could be a peer if we had met under different circumstances. If it is a client who would have little to offer as a friend, I don’t lay this on to thick, as we will have to address the not only the circumstantial imbalance, but the developmental imbalance as well later.
Thirdly, I talk about the upside of having an imbalanced, clinically constructed relationship. I talk about the transformative opportunities offered through transference. I talk about the freedom inherent for a client who is not burdened by the therapists’ needs. I help them think about what what it will feel like to have someone only invested in their well-being. If we have been working together for a while, I offer examples from our work.
Fourthly, this is not only a concrete conversation. If we hold in our own minds that we are also speaking to the parallel issue of what their relationship with their parents might have held, their unconscious will hear us. The client who needs to discuss with us that they wish they could be our friend has a relationship with one of their parents that must be unpacked. They have not resolved their inability to healthily gain exclusive access to their parent. They never accepted the inadequacy, and inequality of the relationship they had to offer their parent.
The consolation prize the child gains when they accept their limitations as a love object for their parent, the one that helps them let go of the dream of partnership with their parent, is coming to realize that the parent they love, is fed, enlivened, loved, and made whole by their partnership with their other parent. The child comes to some level of understanding that to let their parents’ love each other, is what generates sufficient love for them, the child.
The client who needs to talk about their wish that they could be our friend, especially the clients who is somewhat fixated on it, needs to work through the oedipal complex with us in the transference. They need to understand that the power imbalance in our relationship, and the generational divide in their relationship with their parents, can be a benefit to them. They need to come to see us as someone who is being fed by “a third”: peers, friends, a partner, our work, etc. They need to face the painful truth that we do not need them the way they need us, that they cannot be our peer, that the circumstances/construction of our relationship means they will receive form us in a way they can never give to us. And they must, in the transference, like all young children, face they are too young, small, inadequate to offer pose a real rivalry to the parent of their identification, and to satify the needs of their adult love object.
Smith is an analytically oriented psychotherapist with 25 years in practice. She is additional the Founder/Director of Full Living: A Psychotherapy Practice, which specializes in matching clients with seasoned clinicians in the Greater Philadelphia Area.
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