Relationship Problems Thurrock nr Grays, Essex
Diagnosed: Borderline Personality Disorder. Abandonment Schema. Relationship problems. (Client lives in Thurrock (Grays), Essex)
"Sandra" (not her real name) is a thirty-six year-old woman who came to me about eight months ago because of recurrring relationship problems. It seemed that she was unable to keep a relationship with a man going for a significant amount of time and in the previous seven years has had at least twenty relationships, all ending in the same way: when it begins she feels fairly well in control, and can lead her life with ease and little difficulty.
Until she starts having sex with her partner.
As the relationship becomes more intimate, she experiences a sudden upsurge of anxiety and fear that he's going to leave her, and find someone "better". Sandra starts to feel insecure, paranoid and very jealous, and starts to notice other women, particularly blonde women, who she thinks will attract him away from her.
At this point, Sandra starts to act in a very 'clingy' and 'needy' way. Inevitably, this creates a sort of 'vacuum' in the relationship and the guy starts to feel 'smothered' and then the relationship ends because, and the guy will tell her this, he can't stand her overwhelming, smothering behaviour.
So, when the relationship ends, Sandra determines to live a life without relationships, and doesn't see anyone at all for quite a while, but eventually enters another relationship, only to have the same problem re-occurring.
Together we identified a pattern of 'extreme abandonment' problems where she's either clinging to people, or pushing them away. Originally, our work was Cognitive Behavioural (CBT) Therapy-based, looking at her core beliefs. This gradually evolved to Schema Therapy, where we worked on her Abandonment "life trap".
I started to work with Sandra using a technique known as "Limited Reparenting", which is where a therapist will seek to meet some of the needs of the patient/client that were not necessarily fulfilled in their childhood (within the appropriate boundaries of the therapeutic relationship, of course). This involves Sandra re-experiencing her current feelings of abandonment, and trying to take it back to its origin, creating a 'bridge' to current experience of the same feeling.
During this phase of her therapy, Sandra went back to a recent event which proved very relevant to her relationship problems.
A few years ago, Sandra's father died. Sandra, herself, describes her relationship with her father as very one-sided, "almost suffocatingly close" one, at least from her own perspective; he had been a fairly absent figure in her childhood. As she understands it, her parents married because her mother fell pregnant, and does not believe her mother and father were 'well-suited' to one another.
Sandra had felt invalidated, to the point of outright rejection by her mother who overtly blamed Sandra for the difficulties in their marriage, as well as the 'sacrificing' of her youth. Consequently, Sandra began to characterise, in her own mind, her mother as an 'evil witch', and idolised her father as her hero.
During Limited Reparenting, Sandra saw herself as a child sitting very close to her father, stroking his arm, looking up at him, with a feeling of desperately trying to please him and make him happy. She remembers feeling an "electrical charge" run through her body at being so close to her father and tried to make herself 'small' and inconsequential, so he wouldn't get up and walk away, in the hope that he might show her similar, simple affection.
It was clear to Sandra as an adult, in therapy, that there was a direct relationship between this behaviour towards her father, as a child, and her current behaviour with men, where Sandra would try so very hard to please the man in her life, subjugating her own needs, holding back from asserting her own desires or standing up for herself. In fact, she described herself, when with other men, as a "doormat".
Sandra is quite used to men using her, then getting bored, and leaving her.
Still as a young girl, Sandra's parents' marriage ended in divorce, with her father leaving to set up home with a much younger blonde attractive woman. And this devastated her.
Not long after her father died, Sandra became depressed, and sought help through a hypnotherapist, to work on her grief. She worked with the hypnotherapist for about six months.
The hypnotherapist felt that there was a possibility of memories that had been repressed, which needed to be discovered, in order to help her with her depression, and work through her grief.
The memory that seemed to come through for Sandra during hypnotherapy, related to the image of stroking her father's arm, where she remembered the charged feeling running through her body (what might be called a "libidinal charge") that she had felt at the time. Sandra became convinced that she had repressed a memory that the arm stroking and feelings indicated sexual abuse by her father.
There followed a very painful two year period where she was extremely confused about whether or not her father had sexually abused her. She slowly understood that there was no evidence to support this, and her mother and other relatives have confirmed this.
It is true, though, that when her father left the family home, and began a relationship with another woman — blonde, young, pretty — Sandra felt betrayed: she herself felt let down by him with all the resultant feelings of a betrayed woman, jealousy, anger, fear.
Sandra, at the tender age of ten, was the woman scorned and betrayed.
When she would see him, he would always be with his new girlfriend, and this caused her to feel jealous of their closeness. The only man she had loved had left her for a prettier, blonde woman. Emotionally deprived, she would ask herself, "Why has he left me for her?". This jealousy, is something that continues in her adult relationships now, when feeling threatened, Sandra becomes that child, terrified that her father is about to leave, hypervigillant to the blonde woman who will steal him away.
This unravelling, this drawing of the link between her childhood and her adult relationships, has helped to really clarify for Sandra the reasons behind her relationship patterns, due mainly to the Limited Reparenting technique that we used in therapy.
It also helped Sandra to realise that this "libidinal energy" is a normal feeling of extreme intimacy without there needing to be a sexual context.
It became clear that one emotion was missing from Sandra. One that, considering everything she had been through, and would have been quite justifiable, given those circumstances.
During a discussion today, Sandra told me, first, of an incident that occurred at her father's funeral. At the wake, people recalled memories of her father, and when it came to Sandra's turn she recalled being taken around by her father (he had been a policeman) in a patrol car, wearing his police helmet, and riding around. At that moment, her father's second wife, and widow, made it clear to all in the room that he had done the same with her own children, as though seeking to invalidate, or wipe out her memory, and replace it with the memories of his other family.
Secondly, she recalled that in her father's Will, nothing was bequeathed either to Sandra or Sandra's sister. The money went to his second wife and her two children, one of whom is Sandra's half-sister.
Whilst telling me about these two incidents, Sandra became indignant with anger. This was the first time, she surprised herself, this emotion had surfaced.
In session, I asked her why she'd never expressed this anger before. She didn't know. "But I'm angry now, and want to do something about this", perhaps see if she can contest the Will.
I have suggested to her that she write (but not send) letters to the source of her anger (her step-mother, and her deceased father), to express her hurt, anger and betrayed feelings, and she will work on this over the coming days.
The work we did today is going to be key to Sandra standing up for herself in future relationships if and when men take advantage of her. She will be more able to put her needs first more often.