Therapy as Poetry

Poetry can be a form of therapy. But have you ever thought about how psychotherapy itself is a lot like poetry? Yeah, me neither.

Until the other night in a dream, I was telling a group of other psychotherapists that “Therapy is like poetry?” I sounded as if I knew what I was talking about.

But truthfully, before my dream, I had never considered the analogy.

It’s not so unusual for dreams to reveal knowledge that seems like uncommon wisdom — similar to the kind of wisdom found in poetry. Once I had a dream in which I heard the distinct voice of a German woman, with a thick German accent, telling me, “Whatever you do that is not from a place of authenticity, will incur a debt!” She sounded like she meant business, so when I woke up, I wasted no time calling a woman whom I had been dating for a short time to say what I had been afraid to say before my dream: “I’m sorry, but it’s over.” It was the right decision, though awkward and sad.

Dreams and poetry can do this for us, can’t they? Images and metaphors clarify and penetrate us in a way like no other forms of communication. Images speak to us, disturb or enlighten us, and they can transform us. Through images, we are able to imagine what’s going on with our souls and what our souls actually desire — authenticity, for example, as in the dream of the German woman’s warning.

A long time ago, I was in a marriage that would eventually dissolve, and I had a dream in which a man who was suicidal split himself, right in front of me, into multiple clones of himself. If it had been a poem, it would clearly have been a poem of travesty and despair and deep internal conflict. But, at the time, I didn’t interpret the dream, nor did I present it to my therapist. Only two years after my wife left me, did I dare open my dream journal to review what had been going on inside of me prior to my marriage’s demise. When I finally looked into the frightening image, I saw the self in me I had been afraid to face at the time I had the dream. I saw that my sadness, fear, and anger had escaped my conscious awareness because I did not want to see it. I had been holding onto my marriage too tightly, ignoring problems that were festering underneath what seemed like an otherwise very good relationship.

“Therapy is like poetry,” then, in the sense that therapist and client listen to the spoken images and the unspoken ones. Often, for example, it is the image of the “inner child” who has been forgotten and ignored. He or she will show up in symptoms such as burn-out, or irrational anger or overwhelming anxiety because that part of the self has not been given a voice in the cadence of our lives. Just as poetry can stir up emotions and thoughts we didn’t know we had, so does good psychotherapy make space for spontaneous thoughts and emotions that lead to healing and hope. It’s as if we need to speak out loud in order to know ourselves in the presence of someone who cares to hear our deepest inner rhythms.

I recall these lines from Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem “The Man Watching”:

How small that is, with which we wrestle,
what wrestles with us, how immense;
were we to let ourselves, the way things do,
be conquered thus by the great storm,—
we would become far-reaching and nameless.

What we triumph over is the Small,
and the success itself makes us petty.
The Eternal and Unexampled
will not be bent by us.

Think of the Angel who appeared
to the wrestlers of the Old Testament:
when his opponent’s sinews
in that contest stretch like steel,
he feels them under his fingers
as strings making deep melodies.

Whoever was overcome by this Angel
(who so often declined the fight),
he strides erect and justified
and great out of that hard hand
which, as if sculpting,
nestled around him.
Winning does not tempt him.
His growth is: to be deeply defeated
by ever greater things.

Rilke is referencing the story of Jacob wrestling with the Angel of God in the Old Testament; but even if you aren’t familiar with that story, you can probably feel it’s sense in the “sinews” of your body and soul — especially during those times when an illness or a relationship or a loss has wrestled with you all night, or for weeks, or years. Or you’ve wrestled against something, as in my marriage, that you wouldn’t or couldn’t face — until, if you were to move on with energy and desire and hope, you had to come to terms with your own dark Angels.

So if we listen deeply, as in therapy we try to do, we may hear the sounds, the images, the hidden rhythms of our lives seeking to sing songs of our souls. We may have to let go of something precious — like our egos, or a relationship that’s run it’s course, or a dead-end job — but what we find may be far greater than we could have ever imagined.

Affairs: Cancer or Cure

The couple sitting in front of me in my counseling office looks nervous and concerned, almost frightened. It’s as if their marriage has been threatened by a kind of cancer and they already know that the outcome is going to be disaster or a very painful process of recovery unlike anything they ever imagined. I know and they know this won’t be easy. We have a lot of work to do, and we need to get going. The sooner the better.

I have been doing this kind of work for over 30 years. The couples who have experienced infidelity surprise me. The ones I think will be able to heal and rebuild trust often fail. The ones who succeed defy my expectations. Those ones are often the “worst case” scenarios — multiple affairs over many years with secrets on top of secrets, and betrayal on top of betrayal. Yet, these couples are the ones that have taught me the most about what it takes to heal from the damage caused by infidelity.

The question I hold, privately at first, is this: “What was the soul of the one who had the affair looking for?” And “What was it in the soul of the marriage itself that was missing?”

So often in our culture, marriages begin with lots of soulfulness, magic, mystery, inspiration, and of course romance. But the demands of jobs and careers, raising children, maintaining homes and loyalties to extended family and friends take precedence over the deeper needs of one’s soul. What began with spontaneity and lots of heartfelt desire devolves into a relationship that is functional and conventional — mystery, novelty, and romance have left the scene.

Looking for and finding answers takes time. In therapy, hurt and anger are center stage initially. Truth-telling, too. The whole truth. Though, there’s only so much truth a wounded partner can take, and it has to be administered in doses, like chemotherapy, so as to not kill whatever slim rays of hope there may be of rebuilding trust and desire. The one who betrayed may promise that it won’t happen again. But of course, it will, unless the soul somehow gets a voice.

What couples have taught me is that an affair is, almost always, an unconscious agreement on the part of two people to bring a third party into the marriage in order to address a problem or problems they have been unable to resolve on their own. The marriage has become centered around the children, with no time to nurture the relationship that brought those children into the world. Or work at the office and at home has consumed all hours in a day except what’s left for sleep. There’s no time for nurturing the self. The couple has forgotten that playfulness and freedom fed the soul of the relationship in the beginning, and the marriage has gotten lost in a life of obedience to multiple commitments, paying the bills, and keeping a constantly busy schedule. You get the idea. It’s a familiar story. Often, it’s the price of success — success narrowly defined, that is.

And yet, most textbooks treat infidelity as if it was a cancer to be removed or destroyed; and then, all will be restored to the way things were before the betrayal ever happened. The story of how the couple unconsciously created the affair can get lost and forgotten. The symptom has been cured, but the seedbed for the next potential betrayal simply lies dormant, undiscovered, and unhealed. I tell a couple in the first session the most important sign of healing is someday, if they’ve done their work well, a total stranger could ask each of them separately, “what happened,” and the story each of them told would sound basically the same: stories of what their souls had lost and what their souls had found.

I receive postcards and notes occasionally from the couples who have been willing to go deeper together. They are smiling and happy, usually in some scene on a lake or in the mountains, or at the beach. I know the courage it took to reinvent themselves and recreate a marriage with legs for the long run. They didn’t just get rid of the problem. They used the problem to discover paths of soulfulness and hope. Marriage 1.0 was exchanged for a completely revamped Marriage 2.0: marriages with plenty of responsibilities, but also marriages filled with heartfelt honesty, emotional vulnerability, playfulness, and dreaming together about lives of meaning, honesty, and renewed desire. Every marriage has it’s set of problems, even the happiest ones. What makes the problems worthwhile is a couple’s willingness to stay conscious of their authentic needs and working towards their dreams together.


messy relationshipsCan we be completely honest about relationships – even the best of them? Relationships are messy, are they not? Yes, relationships can be wonderful, and they can also be difficult. Ending a relationship is certainly one of the most painful of human experiences. Beginning a new relationship that seems full of expectation and hopefulness can be one of the most frightening of human experiences, while also being exhilarating and magical. We may try, try, and then try again, with the help of the most recent manuals on love and “divorce-proofing” a marriage, and yet, no one that I know ever avoids the maddening and unavoidable messes that intrude on the heights and joys of intimacy.

I recently began re-reading Thomas Moore’s book, Soul Mates (1994). Since my first reading of Moore’s insight-filled work, I have experienced the odious experience of divorce, not once but twice. I have fallen in love — well, let’s not count the times — and fallen out of love. And sometimes, even though I am remarried to a wonderful partner, we have our times of hurt, confusion, and messiness. It is not so much that we necessarily lack the communication skills that we need, or that we could benefit from improving on techniques for conflict resolution. It is, rather, that our souls are created for conflict and messiness. Let me explain.

In romance, relationships seem to blossom and flower. We feel a sort of expansion, a feeling of us against the world. The couple in love usually is viewed by others as being a bit crazy or out of step with everyone else in their social circles. The couple in love may act as if they are above the strife and suffering of life in the world. They appear almost ethereal, given to aesthetics and emotional heights that regular human beings often experience as pure indulgences. But this is the way of romance. It’s an adventure, full of hope, expectation, feeling larger than life, and often filled with riskiness and daring and even a kind of wondrous madness. The feeling of having found one’s soulmate sustains us through the maddening times because the other person feels like the one and only person in the world who is just right for me.

Psychologically, a unique feature of romance is that ego defenses come down. We tell tales to each other in love, sometimes tales never told to another person, because vulnerability reigns supreme. We are open, full of wonder, and full of whatever acceptance feels like – in love, acceptance is the aphrodisiac that sets our souls to flight. Until, somewhere along the line, someone gets their feelings hurt. The ego defenses that had softened, slowly begin to harden again, and a little distance creeps into the previously unfettered intimacy. The soul, at this point, imagined by the Greeks as a fragile butterfly, retreats little by little, unless the hurt is repaired.

On our better days, we know how to repair these hurts, but the truth is that most of us are ill-equipped to know how to repair the wounds of love. Where would be have learned how? Did anyone have the kind of upbringing to teach those skills of healing love’s wounds? I have been working with couples for over twenty five years, and I have yet to meet couples who are masters at knowing how to do this. Some are better than others, sure. But we all have egos, we tend to defend ourselves too much, and over time the soul tends to withdraw into a safe harbor far away from the life of the ego. The soul may reappear in a relationship at work, or in other zones where there is safety, or else the soul makes a new home in the shadows of fantasy, addiction, or some other symptom or illness.

Such is the way of soul. When the fragile butterfly of our being retreats, it enjoys creating a conflict just so it can come out of hiding once in awhile, even though the result is unpleasant. Or the soul may contribute to some other symptom or form of disturbance – anything to have a semblance of life. Carl Jung referred to the dark expressions of soul as having to do with the Shadow, the land of the repressed. So, if we want more soulfulness in life, this is the exploration the soul requires. We have to be willing to go down into our imaginations to see what the short-tempered outbursts symbolize at the level of the soul. To see what causes us to daydream and fantasize, what distracts us from our ego-centered consciousness, we have work to do on making peace between ego and Shadow.

So the messiness of our relationships, ideally, is our teacher. Our messes, when consciously engaged, are the teachers that show us the way to bring soulfulness to the lives we seek to live. I would have never consciously chosen the failures of my relationship history. At the same time, however, they have turned out to be exactly the wise teachers I have needed to serve me along my way. I have learned much because of the wounds of love, and I am grateful for those partners, pastors, and other healers who have opened my eyes to see the light in love’s dark shadows.