Does Love Melt Defenses?

If it did, no one would have defenses anymore. Writers from Bruno Bettelheim to Aaron Beck have pointed out that “love is not enough.” Why does this myth persist? It was our childhood strategy: “If I love mom or dad enough, they will love me back.”

But it doesn’t always work. Love is powerful. But people have to let love in for it to work its power. And we have to be open to our own capacity to love, so that our act of loving will change us. When defenses are in the way, love can neither go in nor out.

The child believes that if there is a problem in the relationship with mom or dad, the child is at fault and must compensate by being a “better” girl or boy, more loving. Due to centration, the child assumes he or she is at fault. And then the child hopes to gain omnipotent control over the relationship through loving.

When we start as therapists, we sometimes still cherish that wish, if not consciously, often unconsciously. This manifests in therapy models that claim the therapist’s love will “melt” defenses. Unfortunately, that works in only a tiny minority of patients. One model of therapy years ago involved patients dressing up in diapers, sitting in the therapist’s lap while sucking the nipple of a baby bottle. The idea was that the patient needed to be “re-parented” to make up for failures in the past. This is not psychotherapy. It is magic. Why?

We can’t “make up” for the past. We can’t un-ring the bell. What we lost in the past is gone. It is dead. We can’t rewind the tape of life and re-record it. But we can help the patient see and let go of his defenses against loving and being loved in the here and now. Then he can have the love that is possible today while mourning the lost love of the past.

Trying to “melt” defenses with love is like trying to light a fire while someone  throws water on it. Trying to light a fire under those circumstances might seem loving, even heroic. But it’s denial.

This “heroic love” is the defense of omnipotence. “I will keep loving you while ignoring how you push away my love.” It’s a refusal to love the patient in all of his complexity: aggressive feelings, grief, guilt, anxiety, and defenses. It’s cheap love, the easy kind. “I love my patient who wants to have a loving connection. But I will ignore and fail to love my patient’s defenses, resistances, rage, guilt, and grief that drive his resistances. I will pretend I can make him love me if I love him enough.”

Defenses prevent love from getting in. We wish that our love would be enough to heal. But therapy takes two people. If defenses prevent love from entering, no healing can begin. But once patients let down their walls, love can walk in.

Our love does not melt defenses. The patient’s awakened inner longings for life and healing, the unconscious therapeutic alliance, melts the defenses. The healing force does not come from us; it is awakened and rises from within the patient. We are just the servants of that force.

 

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