[Written around 2008.]
There are endless similarities between therapists and parents – including the nurturing and guiding role, the depth and intimacy in the relationship, and the existence of a power differential between the therapist and patient and the parent and child – but three key differences stand out most strikingly.
1) The initiation of the relationship
Child/Parent: A child enters the lives of his parents after the parents have sex. He enters the parental world as a completely perfect being – and as close to being a blank slate as he will ever be again.
Patient/Therapist: Patients enter the lives of therapists through a referral (or self-referral) – and already damaged. Parents cause the primary damage, and it is the therapist’s job to try to help him pick up the pieces (though of course many therapists only add to the damage). If there were no damaging (that is, imperfect) parents there would be no need for therapists.
2) Responsibility in the relationship
Parents: Parents create the child, and thus are responsible for his very existence. This makes their level of responsibility significantly greater than that of therapists – and greater than that of any humans for any other humans. The fact that few parents deeply understand this, much less even come close to living up to it, does not change its basic truth.
Child: A child owes his parents nothing, because he came into existence as the result of their choices – be they conscious or unconscious choices. Some philosophies (based on parents’ fantasy) teach that children are there to honor and love their parents, but they have it backward. Contrary to popular belief, children are not stocks that pay dividends. Their responsibility is to become independent and break away.
Therapist: A therapist owes his patient boundaries, respect, nurturance, curiosity, consistency, honesty, maturity, and a profound desire to understand the patient’s inner world – all things a parent owes his child. The therapist, also like a parent, is responsible for devoting his life to self-reflection and self-healing – so that he can optimize his ability to meet his responsibilities. But the therapist’s responsibility, again, can never be equal to that of a parent, because he did not create his patient. His patient began the relationship as an independent entity, relatively speaking, and will leave it in the same way.
Patient: Patients, unlike children in relation to their parents, do owe their therapist. They pay their therapists a fee to balance the scales of the relationship. If a therapist charges and accepts no fee he starts behaving like an actual parent, which violates the basic fabric of the professional relationship – and usually disguises the therapist’s desire to be rescued by the patient.
3) Power in the relationship
Parents: Parents have more power over their children than therapists do over their patients. Parents have more control over their child, spend more time with him, and are subject to less external oversight with their child than therapists experience with their patients. And parents generally get infinitely less training, needing only to know how to have sex in order to initiate their role! Although parental and therapeutic relationships are both ripe for quackery and potential abuse, parents abuse their role much more easily – and much more commonly. No surprise: society, regulated by parents who are still unconsciously defending their own parents’ crimes, is far more willing to jump to the defense of parents. Is there even a parents’ code of ethics? Not yet…
Child: Children at best have limited power in their relationship with their parents. No matter to what degree parents hold children responsible for parental problems, this is not the case. A child who seems to control his parents through tantruming, crying, raging, and whining is really just expressing his furious impotence at having been misused and controlled BY them. And all too often, parents secretly love his acting out, because it makes them look like the victims – and diverts everyone’s attention away from their perpetrations.
Therapist: Therapists wield great power, but nothing compared to that of a parent of an infant or young child. If a therapist spanks his patient, he goes to jail. If a parent spanks his children, the majority shrug, give him another chance, and perhaps even praise him for being a good disciplinarian. If a therapist curses out his patient and undermines his sense of self, the patient can quit the relationship and even file a lawsuit. If a parent does the same to his children, the children are stuck. Where can they, in their dependency, realistically turn?
Patient: Patients are definitely in the less powerful position in the therapeutic relationship, but they wield more power than do children in their relationships with their parents. Patients can choose be with their therapist or not, they can skip sessions, and they can quit. They also have a greater freedom than children to “talk back” and question authority. But the inherent nature of the therapeutic relationship leaves them vulnerable to the therapist’s potential misuse of his power.