When I was a psychotherapist, we had staff meeting discussions on several occasions over the years about the relative merits of time-limited therapy and open-ended therapy. This pertains to Lent, but some background is needed.

clockBecause the Counseling Center served a population of 40,000 students and the demand for our services was always high, we focused on providing time-limited therapy whenever possible. That allowed us to see more students without much of a wait time. We set rather arbitrary numbers on what that meant, sometimes 6 sessions, perhaps 8. It depended on a variety of things.

The discussions were fascinating as we talked and debated about the relative merits of setting time limits or not. Research and experience taught us that some psychological concerns clearly merited an open-ended relationship. In the Counseling Center and in my private practice, I saw a few people for several years. Session limits would have produced only futility and perhaps some occasional symptom relief.

With many people, however, a time-limited approach was very effective. The rationale was that a set number of sessions produced the motivation for doing what needed to be done. Those limits were addressed up front so that neither the client nor the therapist could operate with the illusion that there were no limits, and therefore no motivation to do the work needed. The time limit provided the parameters for setting goals and working toward those goals with whatever therapeutic strategies seemed appropriate.

calendarIt occurred to me during some of these discussions that all relationships are time-limited. Some relationships may last minutes, others for decades, but all are limited by time. At some point on the calendar, the relationship will end.

As I thought about relationships in that way, I experienced a mental shift. I find it so easy to take my relationships for granted. It’s not that I ignore the people I love (the long-term relationships) or that I’m mean and abusive to the people I meet for only a few minutes (my really short-term relationships), but I do get lazy. I forget that the people who have been in my life for decades will one day not be there. I forget that my friends who have been in my life for years will one day not be there. I forget that the people who wait on me in restaurants and who sack my groceries, those people I encounter only for a few minutes, deserve as much attention, respect, and compassion as anyone else in my life.

Recognizing the time limit somewhere out ahead helps me appreciate the moment and the person right in front of me. Without awareness of the time limit, individual moments disappear. As moments disappear, so does my awareness and appreciation.