Is love a dirty word?
Do therapists love their clients?
Carl Rogers talked about unconditional positive regard. We hear words like compassion and empathy. I wonder why we don’t talk about love.
I guess it’s because love is a word that applies to so many different kinds of relationships: romantic love, parental love, sibling love, friendship love and so on. Although if I turn the radio on in the car and listen to the words of pop songs it seems like romantic love is the only kind that exists.
Romantic love can have a kind of greed that goes alongside it. Falling in love can be falling into wanting as much as anything else. Of course, this wanting, that is especially intense in the early stages of falling in love, also exists in other relationships as well. We are conditional beings, “I’ll keep hanging out with you, as long as you don’t change” for example, or “I’ll stay with you as long as you keep meeting my needs.”
The love that is the foundation of the therapeutic relationship does not want anything in particular, only what is best for everyone.
How do you describe the relationship between a client and therapist?
So the love of a therapist is not romantic love. It is more like the love of a good parent for their child, say, or the love between good friends, or between siblings.
But in real life all of these relationships can be complicated forms of love. Or perhaps we should say – in all of these relationships the love is mixed with other things that create complications.
The complications of real world love can be wounding. We are wounded when our love isn’t received, or when we don’t receive love at an early age. As a result of this disappointment we move into self-protective mode. Perhaps we become wary, or keep ourselves from loving again, or we look for love in unreliable people or places, and perhaps we simply distract ourselves from the whole business.
If the word love evokes all of these complications and disappointments no wonder we don’t talk about the therapist’s love for their clients.
And yet, I don’t know what other word quite covers the wish for the client’s well-being, the fondness that appears for the client, the deepening understanding of the client, the compassion and the empathy.
In Buddhism the four ‘Brahma-viharas’ describe this kind of attitude well. This list of four qualities comes out of a conversation that the Buddha had with some spiritual seekers who wanted to find the way to the place of Brahma (to heaven, we might say). The Buddha suggested cultivating these four attitudes:
- Maitri: loving-kindness - wanting the best for everyone.
- Karuna: compassion - recognising the suffering of others as the same of the suffering of ourselves; knowing that we are all in the same boat.
- Mudita: sympathetic joy - celebrating in the joys and successes of others.
- Upeksha: equanimity - taking the rough with the smooth.
These four virtues also describe the attitude the therapist aims to hold for the client. And I don’t know about you, but it sounds like love to me.
Ancient Greeks distinguished between four types of love.
- Agape: charity, the love of god, or “to will the good of another” (Thomas Aquinas).
- Eros: Romantic love and appreciation of beauty.
- Philia: Friendship between equals.
- Storge: Natural empathy of parents towards children.
These are overlapping descriptions, and we can see that the love of a therapist for a client might contain some mix of all of these.
We might say that the ideal love of a therapist for a client is agape: wishing the client well, in that agenda-less way I mentioned earlier.
In reality the therapist moves in and out of this experience, and this moving in and out can be useful for the healing process.
If there are moments when the therapist is not in agape, when the client detects the therapist frustration, or boredom or whatever, the process of moving back into good relationship can be healing. The client learns it is possible to survive disruption in the flow of love and compassion. The client learns not only to survive such disruption, but that it is possible to flourish, and for relationships to flourish beyond it. This is an incredibly useful lesson.
Moving in and out of agape can also be useful as it provides a gateway into learning about how it is for the client to be in relationship more generally: when the sort of person that you are, and the sort of person that I am come together, and this happens, what’s that like? And what’s going on in this moment? Exploring the disruptions in this way can be a rich and fruitful therapeutic process, and lead to insight and healing into the client’s wider relationships.
Apart from that – the therapist being in a space of love for their clients is incredibly healing in and of itself. Whether you call it unconditional positive regard, having the client’s best interests at heart, maitri or agape, it is the foundation of the therapeutic process.
Through being in this relationship the client learns to access their own love of this kind, for themselves and for the people in their lives.
Love is a fundamental human emotion. Almost everything that brings us to therapy can be seen as healing wounds around love, not being loved, being badly loved and so on. Healthy love is the foundation of safe communities, and finding our way back to being loved and, for loving ourselves and others in a safe way is the basis for emotional healing.