Preface: The following isn’t gender, age, race or sexual orientation-specific. I refer to the client as ‘they’ and to the boyfriend/girlfriend as the ‘partner’.
The First Call
I get the call from the client, I can tell right away they’re fighting to keep themselves together. I can clearly hear the pain in their voice as they struggle to breathe so they can complete a full sentence. What I’m not hearing is hope. Even without knowing any details I clearly sense the absence of hope. They’ve been dumped. They didn’t see it coming and it has smashed their heart into mush. Or they did see it coming and it still smashed their heart into mush. They can’t eat; sleep is just a fantasy. And work? Well, they tried but couldn’t make it through the day so they had to go home early and then called in sick for a couple of days until the doctor’s note was required. Yes, the pain is palpable and so is the sense of hopelessness. There is no hope.
We book a session for the next day. They walk into my office, eyes red and swollen, struggling to put one foot in front of the other. They say they don’t have any tears left but the tissue box is right there and for the next few minutes it slowly empties as tangible proof they were wrong pours out. I initially provide the space for them to sit in their pain and then gently start the process of hearing the story behind it.
The partner is gone, the relationship is over. Regardless of the exit line, i.e. “It isn’t you, it’s me (or it isn’t me)”, “It’s you or I’ve found someone else or I need time to find myself” or actually, “I’m married or one of the million other possibilities”. The relationship is over and the pain is physical, mental, emotional, excruciating. The despair is palpable and the grief is real. Friends and family are doing their best to support and love them through it, but it’s at best unhelpful (partner doesn’t deserve you, you can do better) and at worst harmful (go find someone else right now).
In that first session, I always ask for – and help clarify – the client’s goal(s) and expectations for our session(s). What do they need and what do they want to walk out of my office with. Often the answer is hope; they want hope. I can’t give hope that the partner will come crawling back begging for forgiveness, that they made a big mistake and want them to please take them back. I’m good but I’m not psychic. That may happen and it may not. One thing will happen for sure, the client will be heard; their story will be heard.
My approach is based on not ‘treating’ my client but rather to work collaboratively with them to help them find ways to create less pain and discomfort as soon as possible. It’s been my experience that the first and most important way to start that process is to affirm that they’re not nuts. That they’re not going to die from this pain though it feels like it and that they’re not alone in the pain. They now have an invisible arm around them, an objective, trained and professional arm as we sit in the pain of the story and then start to slowly walk through it towards the other side.
It’s been my experience that I think it’s fair to generalize here. The bottom line is that the client has very likely lost any true sense of their own value and worth, they have slowly, unintentionally, and unconsciously handed it to the partner to manage. And when the partner walks away, they take it with them. Or at least it sure feels that way. There IS hope; there is always hope as long as the path is cleared of the overgrowth so we can find it.
Stay tuned for the next blog where I’ll dispute the YOU COMPLETE ME myth.