'Do I Need A Therapist Or A Friend?'

Sad woman sitting on sofa
Sad woman sitting on sofa

Reader Talk To Me writes,

I am very very unhappy with my marriage. Whenever we have a fight (we have a major one every 3 months or so) I spend days crying by myself and wishing I had a friend to talk to. I have friends but I can't talk to them about this: it's too embarrassing.

Is that what a therapist is for? I've been in therapy before and found it boring. But now I'm like yearning for someone to talk to.

Dear TTM,

I am so sorry to hear how much you're struggling in your marriage.  Although this isn't what you're asking about right now, it is not normative to have a blow up fight every few months that leaves you feeling this upset and lonely.  I encourage you to try couples counseling with your husband to work on this marriage.

Your question is interesting because it speaks to the wide range of issues and motivations that lead to people seeking therapy.  Some people do seem to want a therapist who acts mainly as a friend, and they do best with supportive presences that mainly listen to your stories and bear witness to your thoughts and feelings.  Some therapists, like me, are more active and engaged participants in therapy, and I don't think that we come off quite as friend-like, although we can be extremely motivating and encouraging. The style of your prospective therapist is something to consider when picking the best therapist for you, and you may have to "audition" a bunch of therapists to find the best fit for you.

It sounds to me like right now you wish you had someone who would just listen, and I wonder why you don't have any friends in whom you would be able to confide your marital issues.  I know it's an awkward, private, and painful topic, but believe me, most people have experienced some sort of marital conflict and can commiserate, even if their fights haven't been as bad as yours. And all the therapists in the world don't add up to one true confidante.

I think that it would be useful to examine your assumptions about friendship and about privacy. Were you raised to keep feelings secret, and to believe that people won't want to be close to you if you don't appear to have a perfect life?  Were you taught to be ashamed of struggles, and to put on a happy face in public at all times?  This is a common way that parents teach their kids to get along in the world, and it comes from the parents' own insecurity and their own desire to protect their children (and themselves, if their behavior is what they don't want their kids to talk about) from potential rejection.

Parents who say, "Don't tell anyone what goes on in this house" raise kids who cannot be vulnerable or open with others even in adulthood.  They cut themselves off from social support because they have been trained to keep their mouths shut out of fear of others' judgement. Ironically, it is nearly impossible to have close and sustaining friendships if you are unable to be open with your friends about difficult issues in your life, so this secrecy stunts the very friendships that it is intended to protect.

In fact, I wonder if you also kept your most private issues and insecurities secret from the therapist that you saw, which would explain why you might have found therapy boring.  When clients engage in small talk during the majority of sessions, it is indeed boring, both for the client and the therapist!  (Therapists are people and can get bored too.)  It usually speaks to a childhood where a person was taught that getting too deep or sharing private matters is inappropriate and "wrong."  All the small talk in the world cannot help you to feel as close to someone as just one truly genuine and intimate conversation.
I suggest that you do try therapy, but not to replace a friend.  I suggest that you resume therapy and focus on sharing the things that you may have previously kept hidden, and see if that doesn't make therapy more interesting and feel more productive.  I also suggest that you do an inventory of your current friends and find a few that you'd like to try and get closer to.  With these friends, you can try confiding a bit about your marriage and seeing how it goes.

 Usually, people enjoy being confided in.  It makes them feel good about themselves, and like they have been especially chosen because of their kindness or intelligence.  Try it and see.

 Therapists and friends are certainly not mutually exclusive.  Everyone needs friends, and most everyone could benefit from therapy, or at least that's what I think, being a therapist and all.
Good luck and keep me updated.  Till we meet again, I remain, The Blogapist Who Thinks Being "Real" Is Not Just Something They Talk About On The Bachelor.
This post was originally published here on Dr. Psych Mom.  Follow Dr. Rodman on Dr. Psych Mom, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Pinterest.  Order her book, How to Talk to Your Kids about Your Divorce: Healthy, Effective Communication Techniques for Your Changing Family.  Learn about Dr. Rodman's private practice here, and email her to schedule an appointment here. This blog is not intended as diagnosis, assessment, or treatment, and should not replace consultation with your medical provider.