am one of those people who loves to talk about her therapist. I should make that plural, actually, because I’ve had more than one. There was Laura, my first, who told me that, yes, “even drugs are okay in moderation.” There was Lynn, who told me my emotions were like a symphony and it was my responsibility to listen to the music. And I’ll never forget stern Jeanne, who made me feel victorious every rare instance that I managed to make her laugh.
But loving and losing therapist after therapist comes with a few pitfalls. While I’ll admit to reveling in the fantasy inherent to searching for potential therapists online, the transition between them has always proven rocky. Typically, when I end things with a therapist that I haven’t “clicked” with, I tell little white lies that leave me feeling guilty but also get me off the hook. “I’m moving,” for example, is a classic. But it wasn’t until Natalia that a therapist broke up with me.
I’d been seeing Natalia for a year before she suggested I might benefit from working with someone else — the therapy version of “seeing other people.” I wasn’t devastated, exactly; I’d been wondering how to move on for a while, simply because we never quite “gelled.” I just wasn’t brave enough to say so, for fear of hurting her feelings or severing a perfectly fine relationship for the risk of something better. So when she broke up with me first, I understood, but I also felt a bit wounded.
Every time I’d left Natalia’s office, I thought about other fantasy therapists, but it never occured to me that she might be considering alternatives as well. In fact, I hadn’t even known it was a possibility. And despite all the work Natalia and I had done on “authenticity,” I couldn’t bring myself to admit to my friends about the way things had ended between us. I’ve been in therapy long enough to know not to use the word “normal,” but I couldn’t help but question how normal it was for a therapist to end things.
According to therapist Kristin Lyons, the severing of the relationship between patient and therapist is called, to put it not at all gently, “termination.” But it doesn’t have to be as harsh as it sounds. “The therapeutic relationship, like other relationships, may need to come to an end,” Lyons tells me, when I reach out to inquire about therapy breakups. Prior to Natalia, I’d always assumed a breakup was a ball in the patient’s court — as if therapists are somehow beholden to help us because we’re paying them. But Lyons confirms that therapy is a two-way street, and that a therapist may decide to end your sessions for a number of different reasons, including an incompatibility with their specialty or a style mismatch.
Still, even if Natalia’s decision was in my own best interest, I tell Lyons, I wish I’d had the tools to end things with her when I first felt a lack of understanding between us. Lyons says that if you feel a similar hesitation, it’s important to remember that “if there is anywhere to talk about uncomfortable shit, it is in therapy,” which means bringing up a mismatch can be great practice if you shy away from confrontation. In fact, when one of Lyons’ clients decides to terminate, her first thought is, “Fuck yes! Good for you in advocating for your needs. Let’s take a closer look to process and identify what may be going on for you.”
If you’re thinking about ending things with your therapist, you should feel comfortable checking in with him or her — not only in terms of your goals, but also in terms of how you are relating to one another. “Therapy is a rare relationship where you do not have to take care of the other person in the dynamic,” Lyons says, “[but] if this confrontation is too threatening for you, write it out via email, and follow it up with a conversation in person.”
Her guidance makes sense, but still, I worry that employing it might make me sound rude and ungrateful. When I admit as much, Lyons guesses this kind of fear “may not be an unfamiliar feeling that comes up for [me] in [my] other relationships.” At this point, it occurs to me that Lyons sounds eerily like my current therapist, whom I love. I had to stop myself from shouting, “BINGO!”
Compatibility in therapy can be hard to find — sometimes so much so that people shy away from it altogether for fear of never finding the right one. But after my “breakup” with Natalia and impromptu session with Lyons, I feel more equipped to view therapy as a conduit for practicing emotional honesty, even when that honesty is directed at my therapist. Ending things with a therapist doesn’t mean you’re a bad person; done right, it can even be quite empowering. Therapy must work for both parties in order to fully serve its purpose, and commitment to it isn’t a zero-sum game. Next time I’m dumped, I’ll keep that in mind.
Illustrations by Isabelle Feliu.