…courtesy of a 1972 NYRB article by Ellen Willis that I’ve just read, called “The Fantasy of the Perfect Lover” (subscribers only, unfortunately). Ultimately Willis grounds her feelings about the potential for therapeutic relationships to become sexual in her belief that therapy really can be profoundly restorative:
I am still romantic—or is it just quixotic?—about the possibilities of psychotherapy. As mapped out by Freud and his epigoni, it promises nothing less than an opportunity for human beings to recover their wholeness—to exorcise their most profound terrors, to accept their bodies, to regain access to the full range of their emotions. It is a religious quest, cast in materialist language that secular pilgrims can grasp, and a scientific one too … In a society set up so that one person can grab on to some autonomy or security only at the expense of someone else, the therapist who accepts, who guides us into the unknown without ulterior motives, may be as millennial a fantasy as the perfect lover—or the incorruptible revolutionary. But I can’t give up on it entirely; the urge to preserve and extend my sanity is as irrepressible as the urge to love or revolution.
It was important for Willis, a leftist after leftism had gone out of style, to locate the therapist-patient relationship as a potential site of political change, one in which the therapist relates to the patient solely as a helper who helps simply for the intrinsic pleasures of helping (never mind that he/she gets paid for it).
But the purely personal facet of the argument interests me more: the notion that if you, like WIllis, are a “romantic” about the possibilities of therapy, then how can you neatly circumscribe the boundaries of what should and should not happen therein? Willis acknowledges the potential dangers of sex or romance between patient and therapist (which I won’t bother to enumerate, since I think they’ve been written about ad nauseam), but wonders whether these dangers are more severe than those inherent in any other relationship. After all, aren’t love and sex always perilous? Should we really be limiting the irreducible, inexplicable chemistry of human relationships?
The underlying idea is that the therapeutic relationship and the sexual relationship are similar anyway. We look for many of the same qualities in a therapist as in a romantic or sexual partner: trustworthiness, integrity, sense of humor. And in some ways the therapist is positioned to be the perfect lover: the patient witness who is always on your side, who listens endlessly, who (ideally) pierces through all the fictions you create about yourself. But the kicker is this: the patient’s emotional investment in the therapist will always be greater than the therapist’s emotional investment in the patient. Probably drastically so. Both parties can usually live with that kind of imbalance–within the 45-minute blocks that define the therapeutic relationship. Beyond that, it’s no man’s land.