As we learned in The Sentence Completion, projective tests are designed to provide an X-ray of a client’s personality. By completing certain tasks and answering certain questions that are considered non-threatening, a client will theoretically “project” his or her own conflicts onto the tasks and questions, thus providing a window into their psychology. The client in the Sentence Completion story, while confirming his passive-aggressive tendencies via the projective, showed us that often those tests can be a time-wasting experience and outright insulting to some clients.
In all fairness, certain projective tests have withstood some tests of scrutiny. The Rorschach Test, also known as the Inkblot, is perhaps the most popular projective test, and has been subjected to thousands of research studies. These have suggested (although not without criticism) that the test has at least some ability to delineate aspects of a person’s personality. In my extremely limited experience with the Rorschach, when compared to the Sentence Completion, the sheer ambiguity of the shapes on the cards tend to make people more curious and serious about the task, possibly leading to more reliable results.
One of my professors in graduate school, a big fan of projectives, had us create our own test. Because I was working with a fair number of couples in my training at that time, I decided to create a simple form to theoretically help people identify areas of conflict in their romantic relationships. It was called the Robert Allen Dobrenski Relationship Analyzer Device (RAD-RAD). I considered adding an exclamation point at the end of each “RAD” to emphasize its awesomeness as the pinnacle of human achievement, but ultimately decided that the test should try to stand on its own merits. The RAD-RAD consisted of some simple questions about hypothetical people and their relationship difficulties. The questions were read aloud by the examiner, so that the people in the question could mirror the person being examined. For example:
1) You see a (younger/older, heterosexual/homosexual, white/black/etc.) couple arguing in the street. What do you suppose they are fighting about?
2) Do you think it’s important to one or both of these people to “win” the argument and, if so, to whom is it possibly more important?
3) How does the conflict end (if person states “I don’t know,” prompt accordingly: do you think they kiss and make up, does one person apologize, is this a recurring argument that never ends, etc.)?
It was a pretty stupid test. It was awfully transparent and I would have completely understood if a person said “Why are you asking me about hypothetical Indian couples who fight on street corners until the man begs for his wife’s forgiveness? If you want to know what’s wrong with my relationship, just say so.” When I administered the RAD-RAD to undergraduate students who were looking for extra credit in their psychology courses, it basically yielded a list of universally known problems that people experience when they are in the chaos of sexual relationships from ages 17-24:
-Respondent # 1: The girl is yelling at the guy because she caught him in bed with her sorority sister for the 4th time. She doesn’t need to “win” the argument because kicking him in the testicles, dumping his sorry ass and feeding her sorority sister laxatives disguised as bon bons is more than enough for her to feel redeemed. The guy cries every day for 3 weeks for her to take him back, which she has done in the past, but this time she simply spits on him in front of his idiot fratboy friends and tells him to drop dead.
-Respondent # 2: The dude is yelling at the chick because she doesn’t like to drink beer or play video games or hang out with the guy’s friends. She’s always nagging him to “make a commitment to her” and not do so many drugs. Finally he tells her to go fuck herself and although she promises that “she can be more chill in the future,” he is too smart to know better. So he leaves her there crying in the street, hoping that she develops an eating disorder or something bad.
Basically, the test was useless. Or was it?
Later that year, I began work at the school’s clinic with Ryan, a university staff member. Ryan was a man in his early 30’s who worked in the Economics Department. His baggy jeans, long hair and pince-nez belied his conservative political views that he was known for around campus. At his intake interview, he reported feeling sad and lonely, was socially isolating, and was constant arguing with his wife. I asked him if he wanted her to be a part of the sessions to help reduce the conflict between them, but he refused.
Over the first few sessions, Ryan had difficulty elaborating on what was causing his mood difficulties. I would gently but persistently push him to talk about his wife and their arguments, but he could not give any informative responses. “I don’t know,” “she doesn’t understand me,” “she’s mean,” etc. I asked him if talking about her made him uncomfortable and he said no, but he still could not or would not say much more. My supervisor at the time was the same professor who had me create the RAD-RAD, and she offered some advice during one of our supervision meetings.
“Rob, perhaps he can’t say what is happening with his wife because it’s too threatening at some level. Maybe he’s afraid to speak poorly of her, or maybe it feels too real to say it aloud.”
“I get that, sure. But therapy is based on talking. If he doesn’t tell me what’s wrong, I can’t help him.”
“Right, but you need to help him to talk. If talking about himself is too much, maybe he can talk about someone else. Hey…why don’t you give him that test that you made? You know, the Rob Dobrenski Relationship Thing or whatever.”
“The Robert Allen Dobrenski Relationship Analyzer Device? That instrument is only in the experimental phase. It’s clearly not ready for use in an actual clinical setting.”
“Experimental? Will he spontaneously combust or something if you ask him the three or four stupid questions?”
“Well no, it’s just that…”
“Rob, just go back next time and give him the test.”
Back in session, I made one final and futile attempt to ask about his wife, which of course got me nowhere. So, obeying orders, I turned to the RAD-RAD. His initial response was less than fruitful:
“What? I don’t know. How would I know what the couple is fighting about or if it’s a recurring thing. That happens to couples all the time.”
“C’mom Ryan,” I said. “Use your imagination.”
“Just make something up, whatever comes to mind,” I said, pushing a bit. “Just tell a story.”
“Jesus Ryan, even a child can do this. Just try!”
Growing red, he breathed in and exhaled deeply. “Fine Rob,” he said, his anger tenuously controlled. “The man is yelling at the woman because she doesn’t work, never cooks, doesn’t clean the house, and treats their children like hell. He works his ass off and never gets any credit, and she just spends every cent he has like the bitch she is. She drinks almost every night, doesn’t exercise or take care of herself in any way, has no interest in sex with her husband, and is solely focused on making him feel like a loser because he isn’t a millionaire. They have had this fight virtually every night for the past 9 years. He knows that he can’t win, and won’t leave his kids behind, so he simply tolerates her acting like a total shrew all the time, secretly hoping that she’ll die. And he’s gay.”
“Alright, good job. That was…wait, what?”
“Did you say the man is gay?”
“Why is the man gay?”
“How should I know? You just said to make up a story.”
“Ryan, are you gay?”
“Me, gay? No, why would you think I’m gay?”
“Because you went through a fairly elaborate scenario about a very unhappy man. I’m guessing that this man is you in at least some ways.”
“Right, I suppose he is in a lot of ways. But I’m not gay. I just wanted to make the story more interesting. You know, more ‘Days of our Lives’ or something. You said to use my imagination. I wanted to be a writer when I was younger. My wife always says that I have no creative ability, so I thought I would give the story some flare.”
While Freud would have questioned this, I bought it.
“Nice job,” my supervisor said a few days later. “So where does it go from here?”
“Actually, I think he’s going to get a divorce. We talked about it, and he’s pretty sure he can get custody of the kids due to his wife drinking all the time.”
“I blame all of this on the RAD-RAD,” I said.
“All of what?”
“This debacle. The guy is getting divorced, may or may not lose his kids and, although a stretch, may have been outted by his therapist.”
“You need to redefine how you define success in the therapy setting, Rob,” she said. “If the man is miserable, maybe you helped him take a step he needed to take. And if by some strange twist he’s gay, then there’s no point in keeping that a secret.”
That helped me to feel better about the situation. As predicted, Ryan didn’t stay in therapy very long, choosing in fact to get divorced, which he said made him feel very relieved.
That experience brings up a few important issues. How do you define “success” in therapy? Is getting divorced potentially a positive outcome? Should a therapist in a similar situation ask more questions about the possibility of homosexuality? These are all questions for another time, however. For now, the RAD-RAD is collecting dust somewhere in my office, but if you know someone who is having trouble talking about their relationship problems, you might want to send them my way.
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