The good in goodbyes
It’s saying goodbye to all the good times you might have together if you didn’t have to say goodbye—all the fun, shared plans and dreams you had dared to believe in, building a future on the shifting sands of your hopeful, fragile optimism. It’s all gone now, and forever, and it is unutterably sad.
We have to say goodbye for lots of reasons. Someone has died or they are dieing. Or they don’t want to see you anymore. Or you have woken up to the fact that, though you really love them, you can’t love them in the way they need you to, or vice versa. Sometimes you’ve just had enough: the pain outweighs the gain—or you realise you have been in denial all this time about the pain and/or the gain you imagined was just a fantasy.
Perhaps there has been abuse, betrayal, dependence, mixed messages, games, wasted time, passivity, boredom, endless conflict (often over minor things that represent major things—in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ magnificent Love in the time of Cholera, the two protagonists’ differences were distilled and crystallised into an argument about soap). Your same old tired, unhealthy pattern, yet again. All kinds of hurt. You want different things. You have irreconcilable differences. It’s not you, it’s me. It’s not me, it’s you. You hate each other or, worse, feel completely indifferent. Sometimes it just comes down to choice between you or the other person. You have to choose you. Go on now go, walk out the door.
If you both try, you might be able to navigate through your turbulent waters, and find a way back to each other, and start over, perhaps with some new and different rules of engagement. But of course you might not be sure you want to--whether to stay or go is one of life’s toughest questions.
Perhaps this time, however, it really is the end. You might discover you can end this relationship without a moment’s hesitation, without a single backward glance, and you realise you only thought there was love. You were in love with the idea of love. But other times it is hard to say goodbye to love, and you are heartbroken. The amount of pain is proportional to the amount of love. If it hurts, it means you are human. You are alive.
It remains unopened. He can’t bear to say goodbye.
Another client kept all the letters from a former partner that he still hankered for. One day, he decided to burn them all, and he was astonished how intense the flames were—the old love letters produced a great deal of heat and light. It was a symbolic experience: he realised how much energy his continued infatuation took from him. After the bonfire, he was able to reclaim that energy, rouse himself from his post-break-up doldrums, and move on in his life with vigour and confidence and a renewed sense of love.
• “A Doll’s House”: Ibsen’s play—written in 1879 but still highly relevant and much-performed—tells the story of Nora, trapped in a stifling bourgeois marriage, characteristic of so many traditional pre-feminist heterosexual couples of yesteryear. One piece of research from the 1970s showed generally elevated levels of psychological distress in single men—and married women. In many old-fashioned partnerships the man holds the power and control, while the woman is subservient, obedient, repressed. The union—controlling parent “ego state” meets submissive child “ego state”—has a dysfunctional kind of equilibrium that can last for years, decades even. Until—with or without therapy—the latter finds their voice, their power, and wakes up. (Or, in fiction, comes to a sticky end, punished for the temerity of wanting to shake off their shackles, eg. Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary and other desperate housewives.) In the last scene of Ibsen’s play, Nora rejects her enslavement to the marriage, motherhood and the tightly constraining, stereotypical role that she has been assigned. She slams the door on the Doll’s House and walks free.
What do these endings have in common?
• A decisive, dramatic finality
• An action taken with a great deal of courage
• A sense of wisdom prevailing over convenience
• Style, and some good lines. Yes, we’ll always have Paris.
But fiction is easy. Real life is messier and far more complicated.
Our time is up
How do you say goodbye to your therapist? Do you just stop coming without warning, despite the fact your therapist may have a termination clause in their terms and conditions (I ask for a notice period of at least two sessions). Such a clause may sound self-serving for the therapist but it’s really for clients, who are denied the benefits of a proper ending if they don’t show up. It’s an opportunity to review and consolidate all the work you've done, to say what you’ve been trying to say all these weeks, to offer up feedback, to have a sense of direction going forward. To say goodbye.
“Many clients come to therapy with issues about unsatisfactory endings or losses,” write Emmy van Duerzen and Martin Adams. “It is important that the client does not experience the end of therapy as something else that ended unsatisfactorily.”
A recent article in The Guardian—“Breaking up with a therapist”—quoted a 28-year-old woman from Seattle, who has ended three of her relationships with her therapists by “ghosting” them: “The whole point of having a therapist is not being emotionally invested in them, [and] they aren’t emotionally invested in you if they’re doing their job right,” she said.
I disagree with this point of view. Therapy without emotional investment is like decaf coffee—nice enough but missing the key ingredient. Without some sense of understanding, acceptance and connection, without feeling anything, the potential for lasting change is limited.
Clients often wonder how important they are to their therapist. “You must have a lot more interesting clients than me”—I’ve heard that a few times. Or the other day a client stopped midsentence and said: “Don’t you ever get bored of listening to this shit?” There’s an assumption that for the therapist, saying goodbye must be easy, maybe even a relief in some cases. It’s never written about, but for the therapist, too, goodbyes can be hard.
One thing about goodbyes between people who love each other is that they are never really final. Maybe the goodbye doesn’t hold, and you get back together. Or you keep bumping into each other, or you haunt each other on social media. Even if you stop seeing someone you love, they have become part of you, and you part of they—powerful “internal objects” that continue to grow and influence you. The love, the energy, the relationship—these things keep evolving even in the absence of any further refuelling by each other’s actual presence. Human connections can thrive despite a lack of geographical proximity. Or even a lack of the loved one being alive. Jung was 21 when his father, a pastor, died. His father appeared in dreams throughout his adult life. He became a much greater guide and teacher to Jung in death than he ever was in life. Death shall have no dominion.
1. What is a psychopath?
John Barton is a counsellor, psychotherapist, blogger and writer with a private practice in Marylebone, Central London. To contact, click here.