Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer


Posted by Dr. Vollmer on February 10, 2010

Nancy, the subject of came in, as she does every week, to talk about the love she feels from her children. Nancy has four kids, two from her first marriage and two from her current marriage. They all have their struggles, but Nancy feels so incredibly proud of them. She tells me how much each child has moved her in a particular way. She gets teary-eyed when she talks about how her adult children want to live near her. Her warmth and affection to them feels genuine and heart-felt. Yet, I ask myself, “why does Nancy come to therapy to discuss how much she loves her kids?” The short answer is that Nancy is avoiding talking about the more difficult part of her life, her marriage. Nancy has been married to Woody for ten years and for the most part, all ten years have been challenging. Nancy does not feel understood or appreciated. She feels that her work, both in the world and at home, goes largely unappreciated, especially by her husband. So, I wonder, why are we not talking about her marriage. I know the answer. If we begin to go down the road to discuss her marital problems, she will get scared that she will conclude she needs a divorce and she does not want to get near that path, so she comes to therapy to remind herself about all the warmth in her life.

Nancy used to view me as adversarial. In the past, she saw in me someone who wanted to take her down from her good feelings about her kids into the ugly world of a difficult marriage. After many years, Nancy has come to see that she has assigned me the role of wanting to make her feel bad by pressing her on the difficulties in her life. Now, she says with amazement that she sees me as trying to help her work through her problems. She marvels at how she used to believe that  I was trying to “take her down”.

Avoidance is a powerful defense. Nancy goes to the good things in her life to avoid the challenging things. For years, this was an unconscious process. Nancy had no idea why she would come to therapy to talk about how wonderful her children are. Now, she sees that just like a child who avoids doing his math homework  because he struggles in math, Nancy has avoided talking about the part of her life that needs work. Further, she used to feel that my wish to bring her difficulties to her attention was malicious. Fortunately, Nancy also knew that we had a long history of working together and although she felt in certain moments that I was trying to make her life worse, most of the time, she understood that I was there to help. Nancy’s mixed feelings allowed her to hang in there with me so that we could explore her avoidance behavior. Patience paid off.

5 Responses to “Avoidance”

  1. Shelly said

    Interesting blog. If Nancy truly felt that you were “trying to take her down”, then why did she continue coming to therapy for so long? She would have continued to bask in her children’s adoration and not have been forced to face the problems in her marriage. She therefore must have known all along that she was in your office for some other reason.

    • Yes. The point is that her anger at me floated in and out of her consciousness, as did her appreciation for my patience. It was a dynamic that has ultimately led to some insight. Thanks!

  2. Cali said

    As a fellow avoider…I am like Nancy unconsciously focusing the good aspects of my life while in therapy. Do you think that perhaps Nancy was testing the Doc to see how far she could go? I for one can say that sometimes when you shine the light on an avoider’s issues it causes massive anxiety. I wonder if this counseling relationship serves as a transference tool of how Nancy wants her relationship to be with her current husband? I’m pretty sure that there are a lot of people like Nancy who venture into a therapeutic relationship as a buffer/substitute to avoid having to deal with the real issues of their lives. BTY great topic.

  3. I think it is more like an approach/avoidance tactic. That is, there is massive avoidance, but there is also a strong desire to work on the troubling issues. Thanks again for your comments. Shirah

  4. Suzi said

    So… could Nancy’s behaviour also be seen as ambivalent?

    I do understand her difficulty in feeling safe. The deeper you go the more testing things may become.

    I understand that.

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