Category Archives: Defenses

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.


Optimal hopelessness

A patient was angry with her husband. As I started to explore her anger, there was no sighing. Hmm. I thought. “This must be a defense.” I paused and asked what this anger made her want to do. She said she wanted to bring up his failure to pay for their children’s college, even though he could afford to. For some time, he had refused to pay for house expenses and was no longer wearing his wedding ring. Since she was thinking of bringing up this issue to him for the 1,000th time, I realized this rage was a defense. Then her unconscious therapeutic alliance came to the rescue. She said she felt “hopeless.”

Th: That makes sense. Would you agree that bringing up this issue again would be hopeless?

Pt: That’s true. It has never done any good. That’s why I feel so hopeless.

Th: So I don’t know if you are hopeless, but could we agree that arguing with him has proven to be a hopeless strategy?

Pt: I hadn’t thought of it that way. I just thought of myself as hopeless. Hmm. A hopeless strategy.

Th: Right. It’s like you were on a hike in the woods to get to a particular mountain -top. And it was a great trail for a while. But now we have come across an area where the trail has been swept away by a landslide.

Pt: But shouldn’t he want to pay for his own children?

Th: Shouldn’t reality be the same as my fantasy?

Pt: It would be nice.

Th: Yes it would. We can wish the trail was still there, but it’s not. We can sit here and rage at the trail for not existing. Or we can realize we will have to take another path. This one doesn’t work. Giving up on this trail doesn’t mean you have to give up on yourself or on life. It just means we have to retrace our steps and take another trail to get to your destination.

Pt: I get it. I have to face reality.

The patient used rage as a defense against hopelessness. When reality bumps into your fantasy, you suddenly realize your fantasy is hopeless. However, rather than give up on our fantasy, we may mistakenly give up on ourselves.

Holding onto her fantasy and bullying her husband into being her fantasy were defenses against facing reality, loss, and the hopelessness of her fantasy (I want my husband to want what he does not want.). Hopelessness is not a state. I am not hopeless. I give up hope on a fantasy. I never give upon a person or myself, although it may look that way. In fact, I have to give up hope on a fantasy about that other person or myself. But rather than face the hopelessness of my fantasy, I might turn the rage upon myself or someone else for not being the same as the fantasy. But this rage toward others or self-attack is a defense against facing the hopelessness of a fantasy, a failed strategy to deal with reality.

That’s why we need to talk about optimal hopelessness. When a patient sees that a fantasy or defense is hopeless, that path is closed. Good news. Now we can shift to a hopeful path. That is essential for change.

And that murderous rage we have heard so much about? As long as the patient uses defensive rage to avoid letting go of the fantasy, the complex mixed feelings cannot rise. I have worked with people who in previous therapies had many breakthroughs to rage, but it did no good. They would go home and rage at people to get them to change rather than accept reality: the other people could not or did not want to change. Once the patient lets go of the fantasy and faces the grief and loss, then the murderous rage and complex feelings will rise as a whole.

Take home point: when rage triggers no sighing, it is probably a defense. If so, examine how rage may be form of denial through fantasy. [I will rage until reality turns into my fantasy.] Undo denial through fantasy so the patient can mourn the loss of her fantasy. With denial out of the way, access to mixed feelings becomes possible. When a patient reports feeling hopeless, she is giving up on herself rather than her fantasy. Find out the fantasy in which she must give up hope. After all, we should feel hopeless about hopeless defenses and fantasies. That’s optimal hopelessness.