On the CNN network, there is an ongoing series called “This Is Life with Lisa Ling.” The season premiere of season four of that show aired in September 2017. It featured a surrogate partner based in San Francisco and two of her clients. I believe it’s the best and most accurate portrayal of Surrogate Partner Therapy (SPT) ever to come out of the mainstream media. The title of that particular episode was “Sexual Healing.” I recommend it highly, and it can be seen here.
In spite of the quality of this portrayal of Surrogate Partner Therapy, I don’t feel aligned with its title. As a surrogate partner, I would never call myself a “sexual healer.” I would never even call myself a “healer.”
When I hear the word “healer,” the image that comes to my mind is someone who does something to someone else that causes that other person to change in some way, hopefully for the better. There’s nothing wrong with that. I’ve benefited tremendously from healers throughout my life. In the past, I even identified as a healer myself.
But in my role as a surrogate partner, I do not see myself as a healer. Any transformation or healing experienced by a client does not happen as a result of my actions. Change does not happen because of something I am doing to the client. I do not want the client to follow my lead or to defer to me in any way. Instead, my intention as a surrogate partner is to create situations where a client can learn from their own experience, through their own choices.
I believe the goal of the Surrogate Partner Therapy process is to create situations that are, at the same time, both safe and realistic. These situations must be safe enough to allow the client to access choices that feel unavailable in other contexts. This safety is created in multiple ways. One way is by helping the client monitor the state of their own nervous system and know what safety feels like for them. Then, by customizing the activities and the pacing so that sense of embodied safety is never lost or exceeded. Finally, we also create this level of safety by all but eliminating the possibility of rejection, which is ever-present in “the real world.” How would you act if you knew you wouldn’t be criticized or rejected? How would you behave if you knew you were acceptable just as you are?
But it’s not enough for these situations to be safe. They also need to be realistic enough to give the client the opportunity to show up how they want in a real-life situation. When an issue shows up only in particular circumstances, we must move toward recreating those circumstances in order to resolve it. When we are wounded in relationship, as in the case of attachment rupture, neglect, or physical or sexual abuse, it’s often useful for relationship to be part of the context for healing.
Ultimately, the artistry of the Surrogate Partner Therapy process is to create a relationship that gradually increases the level of realism while always maintaining a foundation of embodied safety within the subjective experience of the client. When that is done, the healing happens naturally.
So, I am not a healer. Instead, my role is to, in partnership with the client and the therapist on the case, co-create a context wherein a client feels empowered to be all they can be. The healing comes not from me, but from that context.