Navigating a Double Whammy: Losing My Partner, Then My Therapist

Is it typical for someone who has an underlying attachment disorder to experience a complicated grief recovery process? My partner died two years ago. Although he was married, we had a loving relationship for a very long time (over two decades). I had counseling and was working through my grief, which was very raw, but my progress became stymied when I became too dependent on my therapist, causing the therapeutic relationship to be terminated involuntarily. My replacement therapist is helping me to work through my grief and attachment style. The fallout is a double-blow effect — losing my partner and then my therapist. The psychological impact is enormous, as I try to make a conscious effort to come to terms with the whole messy situation surrounding the end of therapy 12 months ago. It was an undignified parting (on my behalf), and it still troubles me that the parting was so upsetting and undignified. Transference in a therapeutic relationship can be puzzling, even more so in my case, as I didn't get the opportunity to discuss the subject with my first therapist. I would welcome your comments. Thank you. —Attached
Dear Attached,

Thank you for your willingness to share so much of yourself in this very rich, complex question. It sounds like you have experienced a tremendous amount of loss over the past couple of years and it has left with you with not only pain, but shame and probably many more emotions, too. While these feelings might overwhelm you at times, I hope you are also able to take comfort in the fact you are putting in the very difficult, but necessary, work in therapy to heal and move toward peace.

The short answer to your first question is yes; research does indicate that attachment problems may lengthen the grieving process (Meier, Carr, Currier, and Neimeyer, 2013). I’m glad to hear that you are exploring attachment issues with your current therapist. Attachment styles begin developing immediately after birth and set the stage for what kind of relationships we are prepared to have as adults. Because your question centers on two relationships, and the loss of both of those relationships, it makes sense to take a look at attachment issues. I do hope that, in addition to working through your grief and attachment issues, you are also exploring the fact your partner was married. While this fact does not remotely minimize the deep anguish you feel at this loss, it does raise some important areas for exploration. Does this indicate anything about your sense of self-worth and what you believe you do and do not deserve? Does it point to potential intimacy issues? How is it connected to your attachment style? This relationship, your grief, and your attachment disorder are all likely interconnected in a complex web that deserves thoughtful and extensive exploration with your therapist.

The difficulties surrounding the termination of your therapeutic relationship also deserve a comprehensive exploration, and they are probably connected to everything else. You indicate that your behavior at the time of termination was undignified and unsettles you even after 12 months; to me, this potentially indicates shame. Therapy can be an incredibly intense experience, and because it is based on the relationship that develops between you and your therapist, that relationship can sometimes become intense, too. While I can’t speak for all therapists, I think most of us understand this and therefore would not think negatively or judgmentally about a client who reacts openly and strongly to the termination of therapy. I hope that gives you some comfort. I also hope that in your sessions with your current therapist, you will begin to address (if you are not already) the unresolved issues around the termination of your past therapeutic relationship.

I truly admire the work you are putting into your healing process, and I hope that you will continue to work your way toward peace.

Meier, Adrienne M., Drew R. Carr, Joseph M. Currier, and Robert A. Neimeyer. Attachment anxiety and avoidance in coping with bereavement: Two studies. Journal of Social & Clinical Psychology 32.3 (2013): 315-34.

All the best,

Sarah Noel, MS, LMHC is a licensed psychotherapist living and working in Brooklyn, New York. She specializes in working with people who are struggling through depression, anxiety, trauma, and major life transitions. She approaches her work from a person-centered perspective, always acknowledging the people she works with as experts on themselves. She is honored and humbled on a daily basis to be able to partner with people at such critical points in their unique journeys.
  • Leave a Comment
  • Celia

    October 5th, 2013 at 8:02 AM

    I hope that there is some way that you can find to become more dependent on yourself and not always have that tendency to rely so heavily on others. I know that for many of us there is this need to want to be a part of someone else and we become to attached, too emtionally involved and that sounds like what goes on in your case. I encourage you to find someone who you can talk to but who also encourages you to step out on your own and find your true self too. I think that this would be so good for you.

  • maury

    October 5th, 2013 at 12:56 PM

    I didn’t know that a therapist would terminate a relationship like that. . . I would have always thought that this would be thought to be dangerous to the patient?

  • Landon

    October 7th, 2013 at 3:47 AM

    That’s a lot of loss in life for you to have to deal with, and especially hard because these are two people who obviously meant a great deal to you and held special places to you in your life.
    What I would like to say to you is that I hope that you know that there is life beyond this. I know that right now it probably doesn’t feel that way and you feel very lost without these two people playing their designated roles in your life.. But there will be a time when you will be able to see beyond them and when you get there that will feel good.
    I wish you all the ebst because getting there might be hard, as a matter of fact I am sure that there will be little speed bumps along the way. But you have taken such a huge first step even just writing in here and I think that speaks volumes about your willingness to do all of the hard work ahead.

  • Evan

    October 7th, 2013 at 7:16 AM

    It’s not surprising for me to hear of someone who is grieving even a year or two later. I am pretty much the same when it comes to attachment and relationships.

    This has caused immense pain to me whenever a romantic relationship has ended. I am so attached to the person even though we have not committed to each other or anything. That has me scared and I am afraid to even start a relationship now.

    Is there a way to get over this over-attachment if I may call it that?

  • melanie

    October 7th, 2013 at 10:33 AM

    Maybe this is a good thing for you, having the chance to work this out in a healthy way but not with the people who caused you the most hurt. This is safer, this is easier, and will hopefully give you some of the answers for which you have been searching.

  • Cecile

    October 8th, 2013 at 4:03 AM

    A complicated grief recovery process is something that could happen to anyone, especially if you have never been given the resources for how to really deal with these things in life.

    You are right, you lost two very meaningful people in your life in a short span of time and that had to make quite the negative impact on you, as we can see. This would be hard for any of us and I just commend you for being willing to start the recovery process now.

  • Attached

    October 25th, 2013 at 2:59 AM

    Dear Sarah, Thank you for your comprehensive reply. I suppose we could say what I am going through is a “triple whammy” if we also include my attachment style to this complex situation. I am certain my therapist didn’t think negatively or judgmentally to my reaction when terminating therapy. In fact, I know it was a difficult decision for her, and not one that was made lightly. I now accept that there was no choice, really, as our goal is to see me recover, and if the therapy continued I am certain my recovery would have become more protracted. At the time, I couldn’t see this as I was in so much emotional pain, and riding a tidal wave of anguish. I have been seeing my current therapist for just over twelve months, and I am making progress, albeit slowly. We are working through all the complexities that have arisen due to the loss of the love of my life, and I am now ploughing through the hard yards of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)

    I am determined to see this through (the therapy), and I am delighted to say that I have not become attached to my current therapist!

    In regard to my partner being married, it was the man I loved, and I would have married him in a heartbeat. I am blessed that I met him, knew him, loved him. It was never a case of my sense of self-worth, and what I did or didn’t deserve. I have explored this with my current therapist, and my attachment style indicates that this kind of partnership made me feel ‘safe’.

    I will seek out a copy of your Reference (the two studies.) Thank you again for your insightful input, and for taking the time to reply.

  • Attached

    October 25th, 2013 at 3:08 AM

    A BIG THANK YOU to Celia, Maury, Landon, Melanie, Evan and Cecile for your responses and reassuring words. Best wishes to you all.

  • Sarah Noel, MS, LMHC

    October 27th, 2013 at 6:15 PM

    Attached, it is such a treat to hear from you. I often wonder how my responses are received and if they are helpful to the writers. I’m glad you found it to useful and I’m glad you have a good working relationship with your new(ish) therapist. It sounds like you two are doing some great work and your healing continues. Best wishes as you continue your journey.

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