Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

‘We’re Breaking Up’

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on June 18, 2010

Monte, a psychotherapist, went into psychoanalysis at age twenty-eight, when he was getting divorced from his wife of eight years. Marla, the psychoanalyst, had a wonderful reputation in the community. She was known as smart, compassionate, seasoned and dedicated. Monte thought that was exactly what he needed given the pain of his break-up (see also Monte, after much drama, divorced his wife, and then he fell in love with Marla, the psychonalyst. Marla was thirty years older than Monte, happily married with three grown children. Monte and Marla met a few times a week, during which time, Marla appeared quite flattered that Monte was so fond of her. As the years went by, Monte grew more and more attached to Marla. Marla continued to foster the dependency. Ten years into the treatment, Monte’s mother passed away after a long illness. Marla was supportive. Five years after that, Monte finished his psychoanalytic training and he finished his psychoanalysis.  At this point,  Monte and Marla became psychoanalytic colleagues.

As professional colleagues, Monte and Marla are on committees together, plan conferences together, and support the community of psychoanalysts by going to the same parties, the same funerals, the same graduations. The boundaries seem clear. Monte found a new romantic relationship; he is getting married again. Marla has become a grandmother. Marla asks Monte to teach a class at the psychoanalytic institute. Monte is excited to be asked and eagerly says yes. Monte begins to teach the class, realizing something is terribly wrong. The students are not engaged. He cannot seem to grab the students to think about the articles. He turns to Marla for support. Marla, at first, seems eager to help Monte, but over time, Marla stops returning Monte’s phone calls. Monte is flattened. He seeks help from others to improve his teaching style, and his class improves, yet, his disappointment with Marla feels massive.

Monte tries to help Marla understand his disappointment. Marla becomes defensive and angry. Monte keeps pleading for understanding and open communication. Marla, rather suddenly, or so it seems to Monte, says “that’s it, we’re breaking up.” Similar to earlier posts,,, Monte is stunned. The words echoed  in his mind. The phrasing made sense. He felt that he had a very meaningful relationship with Marla, and if Marla wants to change that connection, it did feel like a “break-up”. The shocking part was that  Marla used the words “break-up,” implying that it was a large emotional upheaval for Marla as well.  Monte was confused as to how wanting support over teaching the class led to the “break-up.” Monte felt there was more to it; the uncertainty was painful.

Relationships with therapists, even without an erotic component, can be intense. When the patient is also a therapist, the situation is ripe to morph into a deeply meaningful mentoring relationship or a deeply painful split. In Monte’s case, the split seemed unbearable. For years, Monte had looked up to Marla; admiring her career, her personality, her charm. Monte counted on Marla to be there for major life events, as she was there for him when his mother passed away. Now, Monte felt rejected and confused. At the same time, Monte and Marla are still colleagues so Monte has to interact with Marla at professional meetings.

Time passed. Monte came to a point of acceptance, although he was still confused. He hoped that none of his patients would  experience disappointment in him, as he felt in Marla, but he also knew that it could happen. Long-term relationships are hard to predict. Working through conflicts and misunderstandings requires patience, attention and humility. Those qualities are rare, particularly as one ages and one has more life stressors. Monte has a lot to think about. Being a psychotherapist helps him think, but it does not take away his pain. He is going back to therapy.

5 Responses to “‘We’re Breaking Up’”

  1. Shelly said

    Isn’t any type of relationship with a patient (be it professional or otherwise) a conflict of interest and not acceptable in the psych world? It seems sort of sordid. The relationship can never be equal, as in professional colleagues, because of what Marla knows of Monty from their therapy sessions. Doesn’t the relationship sound like “transference” or whatever the psychological term is? Why did Marla dump Monty?

  2. Psychotherapeutic relationships can last a long time and as such, living in the same city, it is possible that over time the two lives interesect (community meetings, children’s schools, church, philanthropic organizations). The relationship can be sordid, but it does not have to be. Mutual respect and civility can prevail, but you are right that the relationship can never be equal.

    Transference is operative in every relationship, since transference implies that past relationship patterns are unconsciously put on current relationships.

    Monte does not know why Marla dumped him, but he assumes that it has more to do with the stressors in Marla’s life rather than anything that Monte did. Perhaps Monte believes that to make himself feel better. Marla never explained to Monte why she said that, so Monte can only speculate.

  3. Shirah said

    Keep in mind that although bad things certainly happen, the vast majority of psychotherapists and psychoanalyts take termination very seriously and deal with it in a sensitive and caring way. This example of Monte and Marla is fictional. Sure, therapists such as Marla can make large errors, but in this fictional example, Marla was also quite helpful to Monte for many years. I do not think it is right to write off Marla as a bad therapist, based on her insensitive and confusing termination. Having said that, Marla certainly acted unprofessionally. The point of this post is to show that years and years of therapy can unfortunately cause complicated and unethical twists and turns. However, one cannot make broad conclusions because the relationship has had many chapters.

  4. Finding Nemo said

    PS Your blog is very informative and interesting and it has addressed a couple of strikingly similar situations.

  5. Finding Nemo said

    Your blog is very informative and interesting and it has addressed a couple of strikingly similar situations.
    And thank you for acknowledging that associates of therapists will indeed behave in an lawful manner to protect the “Marla’s” of the mental health world because there are many unethical twist that can arise from this sort of relationship. And if it’s only one bad experience why have the therapist be affected by the Licensing Board.

    Not everyone has the resources to handle it like a Monte…with a support system of family and friends. I don’t have family and this therapist manage to alienate a lot of my friends.

    And finally bad endings and experiences, poor ethics is not the result of solely the client. Every equation takes two…yet few therapist want to acknowledge that their friend screwed up really badly.

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