The murky waters of asymmetric relationships
Lately there has been, in our global trainers’ community, a conversation about how to deal with instances of trainers having sex with participants, at the trainings or immediately after. And many questions started to be presented into the field, some of them made me shook my head in puzzlement. One of the most typical questions I hear is: “Why singling out sex as something dirty, wrong, almost like some religious organisations do? Isn’t sex something beautiful, manifestation of love and magic and flow between people, an embodiment of a spiritual meeting of two souls that occurs in a certain moment?” And the other one that often follows: “Aren’t we all adults, making our own choices and being responsible for them? Who can judge these choices apart from people making them?”
The thing is that in my twenties I had been an active member of two spiritual cult systems with strong hierarchy and sexual abuse, and I have observed the particular dynamics that got created. Later I started to work as a psychotherapist and continued so for 12 years. Somehow I became rather popular among cult and abuse survivors and I spent my share of time listening to wounds and scars and pain that spiritual teachers, trainers and therapists left on people that came to them for help. And this is what I have learned so far…
The concern here is not so much about sex, but about power dynamics in asymmetric relationships. On the one side there is a person who needs help, support, wishes to outgrow certain patterns, for instance core-beliefs that they are not good enough, that they don’t deserve love, that they have to be in a specific way in order to get acceptance, belonging, connection. This person comes for support to a retreat, training, therapy and keeps revealing themselves, digging up painful and vulnerable content, exposing it again and again, continuously re-experiencing the pain and shame and fears that caused these wounds to be suppressed so deeply.
And on the other hand we have a trainer, coach, therapist, who is always warm, welcoming, asking powerful questions, giving guidance and answers. Compassionate, patient, well…, just perfect. And this trainer has power, guides the process, and does not reveal much about themselves. Unless they want to which than makes them even more impressive: “Oh, he is so humble and honest.”
You know, there is an asymmetric relationship even between my dentist and me, though on a very superficial level. I always come there in pain and with concerns, while she is always happy, shining, professional and so, so very all-knowing. She keeps digging into me, while I lay helplessly surrendered. She knows everything about my teeth and cavities and stuff, while I know nothing about her. I just keep revealing my wounds to this perfect professional.
OK, this might sound funny, but imagine a setting when it is not about teeth, but emotions, fears, patterns of thinking, traumas, core beliefs…
And then the projections and transference kick in.
The client, participant will tend to subconsciously project feelings towards the therapist, trainer, perhaps experiencing how suddenly needs that were so painfully unmet in their childhood, are all getting fulfilled: “This trainer sees me in my very essence and inner beauty like nobody ever did. I feel so deeply understood. And appreciated for who I am. And loved. And safe. There is so much connection here, and beauty, and trust… And he is looking at me so deeply, I feel like I am really special, chosen…” And these feelings may guide the client, participant into moving in a way they would perhaps not move outside this asymmetric relationship.
While I was working as a psychotherapist, I had experiences that often left me shocked. I had a gorgeous woman coming to weekly sessions wearing most provocative dresses, with extremely high red heels, shortest skirts ever…etc, insisting on describing again and again to me, within the therapy, how amazing she was in bed. After several sessions she finally admitted that all she had really wanted was to seduce me. Another young lady asked, after a very emotional session was complete, for a hug, only to then whisper into my ear that she was eager to go all the way. Yet another came with her boyfriend for a mediation, called me up after the session to tell me she decided to break up with him and wanted to switch to individual sessions, in which she was then behaving in a very seductive way. For a couple of sessions at least, while she was still holding some hope, I guess. I had ladies approaching me during the retreats I was leading, inviting me into intimate relationships while my then-wife was being at the event too, as an assistant. And so on…
Needless to say, these kinds of situations almost never happened in my “regular” life, yet quite regularly in these asymmetric situations.
And of course, we, the trainers, therapists, will not be immune to these projections and will experience our own counter-transference: “Oh boy, look how much appreciation I am getting, look how they laugh at my jokes, look how they really see me, I really finally shine…” As a trainer, therapist you may quickly become seduced by this all, as you are finally experiencing appreciation, respect, acknowledgement that you were longing for from your childhood.
So now, when the trainer invites the participant into intimacy, or vice versa, is it really two adults making adult choices, or is it wounded children being guided by their un-healed pain? We cannot know really, I believe, and this is why many organisations and schools have certain ethical guidelines, to, for instance, not enter intimate relationships at least 6 months, or 12 months, or two years… after the professional, asymmetric relationship is complete. And the magic spell hopefully disperses at least to a certain extent.
For the sake of transparency; I met my life companion on a large training on which I was one of the five trainers. Feeling attracted, I was very cautious and reserved and we only had a couple of conversations. For about a year we practically had no contact at all, just a friendly line every few months over FB messenger. We entered a friendship about a year and a half after we had met at that training, and became intimate almost two years after. So, though it all seems pretty safe and contained, I still wish we had met someplace else.
To conclude, I can only wish that all of us who are working in helping professions would get all the help and support that we need, all the therapy and healing, so that we would not be giving therapies and leading retreats in order to meet our own needs for appreciation and acceptance and closeness and intimacy, but to primarily support our clients and participants to grow in the directions they want to grow, to find healing and spread their wings.