September 11, 2004


Do you have friends who seem intent on making the same mistakes over and over again? They either choose lovers who are wrong for them or stick with relationships that bleed them of their energy and self-respect.


As well as perplexing, friendships like these are incredibly difficult to maintain.


One of my patients, for example, finally left her man, but it took 17 years. That length of time isn't unusual in my experience, even if statistics show the peak marital breakdown at five to seven years.


Her first treat as a single woman was a reawakening of her long-buried sexual desire, followed by a renewed interest in men and hope for new relationships. So she was dismayed to find that her first attempts at dating all went down the same road.


She could see the old familiar patterns -- passive men combined with her tendency to take over, to need to be needed. She had been doing that for so long that she felt destined to attract the same kind of guy who had made her so unhappy. So, with no more time to lose, she came to me seeking a referral to a counsellor.


I send many patients to therapists for what we glibly label a "reframing" exercise.


It is a strategy that doctor and patient both agree needs to happen if the next relationship is going to work -- the patient must unlearn old patterns and be brave enough to risk new ones. There's a cliché to describe this, one used in recovery from addiction: "Doing the same thing over and over, hoping for a different result."


If you're an addict, that "same thing" is reaching for liquid courage or a handful of pills in the hope that this time anger and shame won't dance in the background, that this time you will be bold and courageous or even just plain lucky. Instant relief, protracted guilt.


Not surprisingly, the same forces come into play with failed relationships. So my patient will begin another, harder journey -- trying to understand her own demons so she can try a different response and produce a different effect.


That's one of the avenues open to dealing with heartache. But another way to help a friend reframe is simply to be a reliable source of moral support.


One woman I know has seen a dearest friend through repeated mismatches, and says she can tell when the breakup is near by the anguish she hears in the voice at the end of the phone line.


At that point, she sets up her ironing board and prepares to listen patiently as her friend's tears and whimpers resurface. Her approach is always the same. After so many times, she has heard it all before.


Does she come back with "You always pick these losers," "Stop needing to be so needed by this jerk," or some other reality check? No. She simply listens, even though her friend is clearly falling into the same trap.


But recently the plot line changed and something unusual happened. A very different man surfaced, not her friend's type at all. Rather than a smooth lady-killer type, he was the exact opposite: a very decent sort of man who had been so intent on achieving his career goals that he had spared himself little time for anything, or anyone, else.


After a very casual introduction, he offered casual company for social occasions. And that was very different from the usual tumultuous emotional coil of her previous relationships.


Now the woman found herself responding differently because she was with a different kind of man. The rewards spread into her other friendships; she no longer had to hold her tongue whenever she talked about her relationship.


So, while friends may lack the credibility of a professional counsellor, they can play a powerful role in supporting a "changed woman" once she has made a breakthrough.


In fact, friends helped to raise the son of another of my patients. She had masterminded a household of women to assist her in the days when communal living was the hot new alternative. They had stepped in as she pulled away from her abusive mate and struggled to establish herself as an artist.


Leaving her boy in the care of these women, she became a journeywoman of sorts. By the time she was reasonably established, her son was almost grown, anchored in his own life, content to stay where he was. Mother and son met from time to time through the years, but the occasions had a certain detachment


In the meantime, she continued to recycle troubles in her life, her career trials, even her relationships with abusive men. And yet her son invited her to his wedding and she travelled back to revisit all those women who had raised him. It was a hard trip -- she knew some would consider her a deserter.


Still, she took pride in knowing that a grassroots commune had indeed raised a child to manhood. He now stood in front of his many mothers, accomplished and confident. He was proud enough to include his mother as participant in his own celebration of hope for a future with one woman.


His mom is back in town now, still and perhaps interminably possessed by flawed relationships, a creative process that is a struggle, but satisfied that the one great project of her life was a product of her reliance on friends.

Dr. Jean



Doctor. Writer. Athlete.

Advocate. Adventurer.