I was a green, newly licensed psychologist in my 20s about to meet my new couple. Ted and Marci had been married 25 years and were hanging on by a thread. It made me more than a little intimidated when I realized they’d been in and out of couples therapy since I was in grade school. As I opened my door, Ted, a bulldozer of an orthopedic surgeon, burst by me and promptly took the only chair that seemed suitable to him—mine.
As Marci and I took our places on my couch, I already sensed this session would be a difficult. “So, Doogie,” Ted started immediately, referencing the child doctor of 80s sitcom fame, “where shall we start? My narcissism? My heartlessness? Those tend to be Marci’s favorite complaints.”
Marci interrupted. “Look, Ted. We’ve been to nine therapists already. I’m tired of therapy, and I’m done with you. I want a divorce.”
Silence. Thirty seconds in and the bomb had been dropped. Ted, who’d just seemed so chatty, if not chipper, was now having a staring contest with the floor. Not knowing what else to do, I turned to Ted and asked, “After hearing what Marci just said, how are you feeling right now?”
Ted looked at me like I’d spit in his coffee: “Feelings?! This is hardly the time or place for that!”
I was disoriented. “Well, this is therapy, and your wife did just ask for a divorce,” I managed.
“Don’t bother,” Marci said, turning to me. “That’s how he is all the time, either angry or numb, an emotionless robot.”
“That’s not true at all!” Ted blasted back. “Everyone at the hospital says I’m great with handling emotion. I’m compassionate, patient. I hug people when they cry.”
The distinction suddenly hit me. “But, Ted,” I said, “reacting to other people’s emotions isn’t the same as expressing emotion yourself.” And then the most grandiose interpretation of my first decade of practice flew out of my mouth: “I wonder if you got into your profession because it gives you the illusion of intimacy without any risk.”
My brilliant formulation landed with a thud—we barely limped through the rest of the session. Ted and Marci slunk through the door, and no future appointments were made. I’d lost them.
Two years later, Ted called to schedule an individual appointment. “Hey there, Doogie,” he said. “I wanted to check in and bring you up to date.” The Doogie reference became one of three regular, condescending power plays from him. The second was that every time we’d uncover something vaguely interesting, he’d smile and say, “Hmm, maybe I should see a good psychologist about this. Do you have any referrals?” The third was that he always sat in my chair.
Ted’s update was that he and Marci had divorced a year ago, and while he could get over the loss of the marriage, what I’d said about an illusion of intimacy without any risk had stuck with him. Apparently, he’d started seeing it everywhere in his life—with his patients, coworkers, children, recent dates he’d taken to dinner. He was often part of moments filled with emotion, but was always a step removed. We decided to work on this together—unless a better psychologist came along, he said.
To help him access feelings beyond his resentment toward his ex-wife, we initially tried talking about his kids, his beloved staff, his childhood—but it didn’t get us very far. All we did was talk in a way that just seemed to skid along the surface. At one point, when he started regularly arriving 10 minutes late for our sessions, I tried to leverage this to tap into his more immediate, unfiltered feelings about me, as I’d been trained to do. “Does your consistent lateness have anything to do with me or our work?” I prodded.
“Nope,” he said, “just traffic.”
“But if there were another reason, what might it be?” I pushed.
After about a year of going round and round together and not making much progress at all, Ted handed me an envelope at the end of a session. “Hey, Doogie,” he said, “since you’re so big on emotion, I wanted you to take a look at a letter to my kids before I sent it to them. If you’d rather not, just point me in the direction of a psychologist who’s better trained.”
“Sure,” I said, smirking at his usual jab. But as I went about my week, somehow the letter got buried under other pieces of paper, notebooks, half-read articles. And there it sat.
At our next session, he actually bounced in on time. “So, Doogs, what did you think of it?” he asked.
“Think of what?” I replied, honestly dumbfounded.
“The letter, the one to my kids,” he said.
“Oh, whoops,” I said, thinking this was a lighthearted moment. “Looks like you should’ve gone with that other psychologist.”
But Ted didn’t joke back. He sunk into his chair—my chair—with a dejected look on his face I’d never seen before. And no wonder: he was being vulnerable for once, and I’d let him down.
Genuinely remorseful but sensing an opportunity, I said, “I dropped the ball, Ted. I’m so sorry. What is this like for you?”
His response belied what I could clearly see. “It’s fine,” he answered, shrugging. “You’re busy.”
I stayed on him. “No, really, Ted, how does this feel?”
I could see him wrestling with his response—his eyes darted around the room, then locked on mine. “I’m disappointed, hurt,” he blurted. “You said you’d read it and you didn’t. What the hell?!”
“You’re right. I totally fucked up,” I told him. But as I felt my thin guise as infallible therapist slip away, I started to feel something more important was happening. “This seems to strike a deep chord—does it remind you of any other time in your life?”
“Yeah,” he said without hesitation. “It’s a little like when my mom died. I was so young, and suddenly she was gone. It’s hard to describe: I was pissed and sad at the same time. You know, I don’t think that feeling ever went away.”
“I get that, Ted, I really do,” I said. He was showing me a tender place deep inside him he’d never let me see before.
“What are you talking about, Doogie? How would you know what it’s like?!” he snapped at me. Perhaps it was just his usual way of keeping me at bay, but in that moment my own words came back to me: the illusion of intimacy without any risk. Had I been guilty of that with Ted? Just playing it safe as his therapist this whole time?
“My mom died when I was young, too,” I told him before I could even think better of it. “Cerebral hemorrhage. I was 10. I know what those feelings of loss and confusion are like.”
Ted gave me a look I’d never seen before, one that said, You get it.
“You could’ve let me off the hook, but you didn’t,” I said. “Just now, you let me know what it really feels like to be you. For the first time, I feel like we’re actually connected. And frankly, I deserve to feel shitty about not reading the letter.”
Ted thought for a minute. “But why you didn’t read it? It would’ve taken less than five minutes. I don’t understand,” he said. “It just doesn’t seem like you.” Then stealing my line, he asked, “So what else might this be about?”
Rather than staying safe and giving a generic answer, or turning the question around on him, I took a deep breath and decided to go beyond just talking about intimacy and risk, no matter what would happen. After all, that’s what real intimacy is all about. “Well, Ted,” I replied, “maybe you’re not the only one who has a hard time sharing feelings. I don’t know exactly what kept me from reading the letter. But I do know that I’ve been angry with you for a long time. To start, I don’t like your nickname for me, or the ‘not a good psychologist’ thing. And I think it’s finally time for us to talk about our seating arrangement.”
And in that moment, three years and scores of sessions since we first met, our therapy finally began.