Chapter 12 Go Away but Don’t Leave Me Alone
Consistency is not really a human trait. Our attitude toward relationships is no exception. On the one hand, as the line of the song goes, “People who need people are the luckiest people in the world.” On the other hand, as the line of the other song goes, “Oh, give me land, lots of land under starry skies above—don’t fence me in.” We are of two minds just about everything. As a result, most close relationships are characterized by a push–pull dynamic. We alternate seeking closeness and seeking distance, sometimes within the same breath. The relationships between members of a therapy group mirror this real-life dynamic.
But some members are more ambivalent than others, and their unique style of push–pull can feel crazy-making. The swings from one to the other can feel wildly out of control. We might assume that their real-life relationships are much the same. One tell-tale sign that this dynamic is in play occurs after an emotionally charged, positive and enlightening group interaction, when members put a negative spin on it over the week between sessions. I’m always suspicious of these afterthoughts. Here’s a case in point.
Samantha was very conflicted about group therapy. She liked it one week, she didn’t like it the next. But Samantha was conflicted about all her relationships. Each week she waffled about whether to quit or stay in group, just as she waffled about staying or quitting her most recent romantic relationship with her boyfriend. Samantha said, “I don’t know what to do. Stay in group, leave my boyfriend. I need the group’s help.” Looking over at Neil, I noticed he seemed miles away. I asked him, “What’s your advice to Samantha?” He said, “I wasn’t listening. I have a bad cold. My mind was far away.” I asked him, “What’s your ETA?” Nanette asked, “What’s that?” I said: “Estimated time of arrival.” Neil said, “11:31AM”. Jean said, “But the group ends at 11:30.” Neil answered, “Correct!” I asked him, “When you’re not feeling well, do you prefer to be left alone or be taken care of?” He answered my question with a question. He said, “You wouldn’t happen to have some chicken soup on hand, would you?”
Samantha had a long history of failed romances, usually with men whose track record with relationships was as spotty as hers. When she asked the group about whether to stay with her latest boyfriend, she said, “Do you think he’s the right one for me?” The group took her at her word and weighed in on the merits of her new beau. Ophelia said, “He likes cats. How bad can he be?” Davey said, “Yeah, but he sounds too possessive. Dump him.” Some members knew her all too well and were smart enough to side-step the answer. Brandon said, “All of your boyfriends had at least one thing in common.” Samantha asked, “What’s that?” Andrea continued for him, “You.”
When Samantha asked me for my opinion, I said, “I don’t know if your new guy is the right one for you, but what I do know is that you need a lot of space in a relationship. Finding the right space has been a challenge for you. Too close is no good, too far apart is no good. But you’re not the only one in this group who has that problem.” I turned to the group and asked, “And how does this affect all of you?” Brandon answered, “I can identify with her. I’m as scared of getting hurt as she is.” I said, “Identification is a primitive form of relating. Do you have another feeling toward Samantha?” Brandon said, “I feel her pain.” Everyone laughed. Sharon agreed. “I can understand not being able to find the right distance in relationships.” That’s when Samantha announced she had been thinking of leaving the group at the end of the month. When the group tried to reel her back in, she pushed back with, “I really like the group, but I’d also like to keep this night open to socialize with friends.” The more the group tried to pull her in, the more she pushed back. Phil told her, “You’re like me… a truly ambivalent lover.” When I asked her, “Do you want us to hold onto you or leave you alone?” her answer was telling. She said, “I’m so happy that you asked that question. You’ve helped me to identify what I want. Wilma asked her, “What’s that?” Samantha said, “Both.” Samantha gave the world a contradictory message. I said, “Your message to the world is ‘Go away, but don’t leave me alone’.” Everyone got it. She continued, “This has been a good session of me. I feel warmly toward everyone.”
Samantha began the next session and said, “Over the week, I’ve thought a lot about our last session and I had a change of heart. It wasn’t as good as I thought it was at the time.” Bryan was indignant, “What do you mean? We all agreed it was good for you.” I asked her, “What changed?” Samantha told Bryan. “I realized that I didn’t like the way you spoke to me. Your voice was angry when I talked about leaving.” Turning to Jennie, she said, “It occurred to me that your affection for me was insincere.” Group members were livid that she turned the whole event upside down in her mind.
Despite her misgivings about the last meeting, Samantha asked the group’s advice about what to do. The same dance started again. When members tried to talk her into staying, she balked. When supported in her decision to leave, she felt hurt. I smiled at the irony of it all and said, “You want to leave us, but you feel abandoned.” The group understood what she was saying; it made perfect sense, in an irrational way. Samantha’s conflict about staying in group mirrored her real-life ambivalence about her love relationships. The irony of the story is that, the following week, Samantha came to group in a mix of tears and relief. Her boyfriend “ghosted” her. She hadn’t heard from him in more than a week, and he didn’t respond to her texts. Ellie was supportive and said, “Just like a man. He did you a favor.” Samantha waxed philosophically and said, “Yeah, it sure looks that way. I’m okay with it. My only regret is that he beat me to the punch!” I said, “You’ve finally met a guy who needs more space in a relationship than you do!”