One of the most interesting aspects of my work as a therapist is how much I learn from my clients. Years ago, I worked with a young woman who was struggling to find a happy, healthy relationship. She easily, breezily summarized her challenge:
"My sorority sisters say my problem is that I keep dating candy bars when what I really need is an apple. Their advice makes perfect sense. A candy bar looks so good when you first see it, and I crave it with passion, but whenever I have it, I end up feeling sick. I know that apples are much healthier, but I don't crave them with the same sense of longing."
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This succinct summary of her dating pattern is one I observe time and time again among both men and women who claim all they want is a happy relationship, and they lament that this wish is never fulfilled. And yet, when exploring their dating history in more detail, they will frequently admit to a pattern of actively choosing unavailable or otherwise unsuitable partners.
The psychological theories related to this phenomenon are quite interesting. One theory says that a happy, reliable relationship is not something that is familiar and so it makes someone uncomfortable. Freud, on the other hand, might wonder if the client is unconsciously repeating a painful pattern from the past with a fantasy that he or she might fix it and therefore heal old wounds.
According to this theory, such fantasies are rarely successful and usually involve compulsively repeating something painful from the past and opening and re-living old wounds. Behavioral theory talks about learned behavior. Cognitive theory explores how one's thoughts about one's self and others play into the relationship experience. Regardless of the theoretical approach a therapist uses to explore why the pattern occurs and how to change it, the language of candy bars and apples is a compelling way to begin the conversation.
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Many times, the stated problem in therapy is, in fact, the opposite of what a client claims. In other words, if someone says they are in pain as they long for an intimate relationship, they may actually mean they are terrified to be in a close and committed relationship. Fortunately, my client gave me permission to share the metaphor of candy bars and apples with others. When I presented this concept to another client she shook her head and replied: Keep reading ...
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