Heather Mayone Kiely: One of the first things I noticed about how you approach couples therapy was your deep belief in love and in the relationship. You seem to really identify and connect quickly with a couple’s strengths, becoming a very powerful source for love and the relationship. It’s almost as if the relationship is a third entity that the couple has asked you to represent. Of course, all couples therapists should love love and should be on the side of the relationship, but there is something radical and specific to how you do this.
Where did your deep belief in love and the relationship come from? Have you always had it? How has it evolved over time?
Kelly Scott: I was born into a family that was pretty strongly oriented toward service. My mom is a teacher, and my dad has worked for Catholic/Christian churches as a musician and liturgist for his entire career. I learned at an early age that giving to others–even at your own expense–was the expectation. I remember serving meals at soup kitchens on Thanksgiving Day when I was a child, and how my parents modeled a deep respect for others, especially those who are marginalized, not acknowledged, or cast aside. That has become the core of who I am as an adult, and led me toward working with minority and underserved families in the justice system. There, I learned how to lean in toward suffering, sadness and struggle, rather than retreat from it.
Perhaps because of this, my default is to love people. I define love broadly and am really clear about loving my patients. Sometimes loving them looks like challenging or pushing them. Other times it’s about being explicit about how much they mean to me, or it might be about holding boundaries and frustrating them. And you’re right. With couples, I think of the relationship as the fourth entity in the room, and the one that deserves/needs love.
Heather: Initially I was so struck and inspired by your support of your couples therapy patients’ love for each other, but I’m realizing now that maybe what I’m most drawn to and curious about is your love. Our practice uses the word love often when we talk about our relationship with our patients. I find that many other therapists are reluctant to express love in that same way, citing “boundaries” and inferring that if they did not keep some emotional distance, it would somehow compromise the work. But, you can love your patients and the work, and boundaries can exist, as they must in any loving relationship. The two are not somehow at odds.
This makes me wonder: Do you think being a therapist, knowing how to love and have healthy love, is a privilege?
Kelly: My version of love in therapy isn’t holding hands and staring into each other’s eyes. It’s holding people accountable for their work in becoming healthy and happy, and being alongside them (often leading) as they work to untangle difficult relationships and figure out how to get their needs met in the world. Our patients allow us to get close, and I recognize that sometimes therapy is the only time they feel closeness. It feels like an honor when my patients allow themselves to be seen by me–not in a way that speaks to my own specialness, but because I’m able to take advantage of the opportunity they offer by using the skills I have.
I think it is a privilege to be able to think and feel on those deep levels that facilitate closeness with others. While it’s the result of the experiences we’ve had in our own lives, what we’ve been taught, and our innate openness and desire for connection, I also think it comes as a result of really hard work. And by work, I don’t just mean traditional training, but an unwavering commitment to push ourselves, check ourselves, and stay open to feedback from patients and colleagues. So I guess I do feel privilege to have the capacity to do this work, but also the traditional implication of privilege being unearned doesn’t fit perfectly for me.
Heather: This type of privilege isn’t necessarily something one is born into–we need to be active participants in creating healthy relationships and love. There is hard work in that! You can’t really be a “relationship expert,” because it takes two (or more) people to create a relationship together. I wrote quite recently about closeness being a moving target. It’s because we, as individuals, are always evolving and changing, so our relationships are too. As therapists, we need to have a commitment to evolve and change as well.
Kelly: I’m thinking about how we teach love as therapists. I work really hard to keep myself checked in and invested in the relationship I have with my patients, even in the first session. I think maybe we don’t really teach love so much as we do it. We are a practice that values action, activeness, and activity. We provide corrective experiences that are more than just modeling “the thing,” whether love, closeness or a healthy relationship, they are the thing.
Heather: Yes! We help people heal from and learn from relational trauma through our relationships with patients. We do the relationship. That’s something you can’t fake, and that experience is priceless. Our patients can feel it and benefit from it. Our hearts are truly on the line and in the work.
Kelly: This makes me wonder about the risk involved in love. Of course, there is a power differential that’s inherent in my relationship with patients. After all, they’re coming to me for help doing something I presumably already know how to do. But that doesn’t or shouldn’t protect me from the risk. I’m invested. I think that a huge part of what’s healing in therapy is mattering to another person regardless of what parts of yourself you reveal. I worry about my patients. I think about them. I feel connected to them when we’re not together. They exist for me outside the office. What do you think about the risks you take in loving your patients?
Heather: In this work, I think we really give consent to get our hearts broken. We put our hearts on the line with our patients. We care, and build deep and meaningful relationships. They become the fabric of our beings just as we hopefully become part of them.
Kelly: Yes, it’s what makes me want to do this work to begin with.