As psychotherapists continue to recognise the importance of working with the whole body, that speech is only one aspect of a relationship, we seem to be developing more and more ways of having relationships that are un-physical.
If I talk to you and you’re not there, in front of me, I use something: a computer application similar to Skype which is secure but which I only use rarely, or the telephone. I talk to you about adjusting the length of the calls depending on how our relationship feels. If they are too short it can be like meeting someone at the doorway, saying some things while realising that little can happen. If they are too long we might feel something important give – which mustn’t. You might be left feeling bereft.
Screen-based conversations and telephone calls offer us different emotional experiences: the odd flatness and disrupted movement of an image of you, or of me, on a screen which somehow seems out of step with your voice that I might even hear more clearly on the telephone; and of course there’s the intensity of the telephone. The intimacy. On the phone I hold you up against me, right up close to my ear, and without the sight of your face I attend to your voice and your breath in a way I never normally would, or could.
The person I speak to on the telephone, or on a screen is never the same person I meet face to face, in the flesh. You meet me, and I meet you mediated by many things, not only what happens in us after we notice each other. On the telephone, on a screen, you and I meet something more of a ghost. Much of what I say is really you is lost. I meet you reassembled, digitally, at a distance.
When you were a child did you ever speak to someone down a plastic cup telephone, or one made out of cans, connected by string you and a friend pulled tight?
All of the time we engage in experiences of people that defy what we understand when someone says: I’m here. None of us ever really knows what’s ‘here’. There is only that I believe you are in front of me, with your undetectable memories, fantasies, and ghosts of dreams I shall never know; all of the thoughts and sensations you cannot put into words and which are lost to me other than in whatever I detect when you experience them: maybe the way that you breathe, or a pupil dilates.
And of course there’s all that happens when you out there becomes you in me: what happens when I perceive someone. I was recently reminded of this at a screening of a film I particularly loved, only to find the person who had watched it with me hated it: a film happens in me. It was as if we’d been watching different films.
There’s a strange conflict in psychotherapy. As psychotherapists continue to recognise the importance of working with the whole body, that speech is only one aspect of a relationship, we seem to be developing more and more ways of having relationships that are un-physical.
Are we making relationships possible for clients who would normally remain isolated and disconnected, or are we creating very particular forms of relationships, the particularities of which we fail to recognise; or even impossible relationships, where virtual contact keeps a client tied to us, umbilically? Don’t kid yourself that psychotherapy is about talking to someone any more than taking a boat across an ocean is a matter of turning a propeller.