August 21, 2020
Dear Drama Observers,
I saw a couple once who were tangled up in a marital knot. What follows is the short version of their longer tale.
Her complaint was: “He lies constantly. He tells me he’s going to do something but has no intention whatsoever of actually doing it. If he loved me, he’d follow through, but he doesn’t. I’m just so tired of all the lies, selfishness, and lack of love. He needs help.”
His complaint was: “I’m always in trouble with her and it seems like enough is never enough. She’s mad all the time and I can’t help but wonder if there’s something from her childhood she’s never dealt with—some kind of deep-seated anger. She needs help.”
As you can see, these two individuals had views of their marital problems that were entirely disparate, and they came to me hoping I could figure it out and fix what was wrong. But exactly what was I supposed to fix? His lying or her anger? There are moments in my career when I think I probably should’ve been a pastry chef. This was one of them.
So, I did what I always do in those situations—I collected some history. I say that like I was doing some sort of end run around my confusion, but I actually did think that gathering more information might shed some light on what was going on.
There were indeed some dysfunctional family elements from the past showing up in their current relationship, but that’s not what caught my attention. I learned that she had been diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and was on medication to help control the symptoms related to that condition. He had been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder and, likewise, was on medication for his condition. She had a higher-than-normal need for control. He had a lower-than-normal tendency to stay on track.
His workplace was very structured and tightly governed by specific deadlines and procedures. As long as he stayed on the tracks dictated by those work requirements, he did just fine. But when he walked into his house at night with no such tracks, he floundered.
His wife might say, “Would you take the garbage out when you leave in the morning?” in response to which he’d say, “Sure, I can do that.” And he absolutely meant it. But two nanoseconds after uttering those words, his intentions slipped through his consciousness like water through a colander. Predictably, he’d forget his about his commitment the next morning and she’d be furious about the latest example of him not doing what he said. And when he got home, he’d receive the full force of her wrath and would wonder what childhood rage she was now projecting onto him.
Similar scenarios had occurred countless times and, every time, their assumptions of the other were convincingly reinforced. In actuality, it wasn’t that he didn’t love her but rather that his A.D.D. brain would just forget. It wasn’t that she had unresolved anger issues but rather that she couldn’t ever rely on him to do what he said. And that made her mad.
So, I suggested an experiment that first impressed neither of them because it seemed so simplistic. What if she put the garbage bag in front the back door so that when he left in the morning, he’d have to move it to open the door, which might then trigger his memory about promising to take it out?
In short, that worked. That simple adjustment in their routine gave him the tracks he needed to follow through (similar to the ones he had at work) and gave her no current reason to be angry. They started doing similar things in other areas and that helped. His follow through made it harder for her to conclude he didn’t care about her and made it harder for him to conclude that she needed psychoanalysis for the lancing of some hidden anger boil. This didn’t always work perfectly but it did help them start to untangle their marital knot.
The moral of this story is that people are sometimes upset with each other after having drawn inaccurate conclusions. In short, they are fighting battles that don’t exist, and if they took the time to understand what’s actually happening, they could avoid some unnecessary battles.
But reaching accurate conclusions requires the five reason abilities we’ve discussed over the last couple of months:
Humility: Acknowledging that I could be wrong
Awareness: Acknowledging where I am wrong
Responsibility: Being bothered about being wrong
Empathy: Understanding things from your point of view
Responsibility: Making changes where changes are needed
Many relational knots can be untangled when these abilities are used.
Till next week.
That’s great, but it only involves her changing to help him focus. What about her OCD?
What if you assigned both the task of saying something positive about each other daily…without a “but” following.
Thanks for you comment, Glenn. I agree, there was certainly more to working with this couple than the one aspect I discussed. I was simply trying to illustrate the importance of drawing accurate conclusions. Her contributions to their problems had to be addressed as well. I appreciate your taking the time to write.