Friday, July 30, 2010

Why Does Psychotherapy Treatment Take So Long?

This is a question I have heard, in one form or another, many times from my

Sometimes the question is not posed explicitly, but the client assumes at the opening of our work together that he/she will be in and out in six weeks (said client having just told me that she has a long history of failed relationships, periodic dark depressions, and an eating disorder).

There are of course treatments that are shorter, but I tend to think in terms of years, if a client is suffering a great deal and has for some time.

Explaining why psychotherapy treatments are not generally brief affairs is complicated. My model of therapy is of course not everyone’s model. Models of short term therapy exist. I am not a practitioner, although I am aware of these modalities and have read their literature.

I think of the realtor’s motto—there are three things important in the sale of a home “location, location, and location.” In the kind of psychotherapy treatment that I practice, those three important things are : “relationship, relationship, and relationship.” What happens between therapist and patient is the cornerstone for effective change with and for the patient. The relationship is the crucible for change. Obviously building a trustworthy resilient (if not perfect), mostly predictable relationship takes time. If there has been a major betrayal at the heart of a person’s life experience, building trust can take a very, very long time.

In the ordinary course of events the relationship stumbles, there are crises, loss of faith, mistakes made, failures of understanding and empathy. As in life, so in therapy, it is in the repair of those rents in the fabric of the connection that hold the real promise of lasting change in the structure of the self. This is a basic tenet in many theories of therapeutic change.

Within the context of the mostly safe relationship, our clients have the opportunity to develop new skills. Most of us developed our coping skills early in life. We adapted to whatever conditions we faced with the best tools available to us at the time, that time being childhood. Checking out (dissociation), cheerful denial, taking care of others, distancing ourselves from others, controlling others, numbing ourselves, living in a fantasy world are only a few of the popular choices.

As circumstances in our life change we fail to update the toolkit. We go on automatic. This is true for all of us. If you have always been cheerfully unaware of thunderclouds on the horizon you will probably continue to be so, even if the consequences are dire. It takes a lot to get us to reconsider our choices or even to become aware that we are making choices(!) and to re-evaluate the appropriateness of our adaptations.

That’s where the therapist comes in. Its their job to identify those automatic choices and to help the client evaluate them. Dissociation, to take an obvious example, is wonderfully adaptive for a child trapped in an abusive family. Why not check out, if there’s nothing you can do to remediate the situation? Obviously this is not so adaptive for an adult who needs to find the wherewithal to get out of an abusive marriage, a heinous job situation, a sadomasochistic friendship. But now the dissociation is ingrained and it takes real work and real time (!) to turn that around.

So the blood, sweat, and tears that it takes to build a relationship and the difficulties of learning new tricks are two important factors contributing to the long term investment involved in change.

These are only two of several factors that make therapy very hard work. I will leave more commentary for another post.


  1. Great, can't wait to see the next post.

  2. the idea that dissociation is a choice is disturbing to me. most evidence now indicates dissociation is biologically based. "checking out" or psychological denial/distancing, and true dissociation, are fundamentally different concepts.

    also, the fact that therapy takes years to ameliorate many of these problems is a short-coming, not something to be praised. and the fact that so, so many patients leave therapy should be an indication that something is wrong with the treatment, not the patient.

    but so it goes in the rationalization of why so many things are the patient's fault, and a choice, whether conscious or unconscious, that they are apparently making.

  3. This is my first time i visit here and I found so many interesting stuff in your blog especially it's discussion, thank you.
    Chicago Psychotherapy