We know that we have different types of relationships with different people, but sometimes we do not distinguish them, and this can cause confusion for us. We know, for example, that we have caregiving relationships with our children, or students, or clients, or employees. The relationship is not equally balanced, and we have a responsibility to promote the well-being of people we care for without expecting that responsibility to be reciprocal. For example, as a parent, my responsibility is to do everything in my power to provide the resources, encouragement, and guidance that will help my children grow and develop in the best way possible. I do not expect the children to provide anything for me, just to do their best with their own life. This kind of relationship is not equal, reciprocal, or mutual in a strict sense. We do get a great deal from our children, but it is not their responsibility to take care of us or make us happy.
Other relationships we have are more mutual. Each person has the same type of responsibility toward the other. Each person acts in similar ways, even though they may be complementary in some superficial sense. Sometimes mutual relationships are friendships; sometimes they are business relationships, and sometimes they are conjugal relationships. In any case, we do not have the same kind of responsibility for the well-being of the other person as we do in a caregiving relationship. That responsibility belongs to that person. We do have a responsibility to behave in the relationship in line with our own ideals for ourselves. We are responsible for ourselves and our own motives. We are not responsible for the other person’s life or motives or choices. We can participate. We can be available emotionally and even physically. But we cannot take responsibility for that person’s happiness and well-being in the ways we can in a caregiving situation.
This means your therapist can set aside his or her own needs and feelings in order to listen and help you sort out your thoughts and intentions. Your therapist has a caregiving commitment to you. When you go home, you cannot expect your spouse or your family to provide that kind of care. And when your therapist goes home, he or she cannot expect to be able to provide that kind of care in his or her mutual relationships. Setting aside your own needs and motives for the purpose of promoting another person’s growth is structured within a caregiving relationship. Outside of that very clear context, the same intention becomes a distortion of the mutuality of the relationship. It can be disempowering, distancing, controlling, or a myriad of other things, but it is not intimacy.
Being close to another person, that is, creating intimacy, and still maintaining your own autonomy and responsibility for yourself while respecting theirs is a challenge. It is easy to become merged and lose autonomy, and it is easy to become distant and engage in parallel, disconnected lives. This very delicate balancing act is one that requires a serious commitment to an optimal kind of relating as well as an ongoing reflective attention. Perhaps developing this capacity to be together and still a separate self is a lifelong learning process. And, in the process, the learning is in the doing.