September 21, 2018
Dear Drama Observers,
I’ve seen lots of couples for marital counseling over the years and some come into my office more stuck than others.
One very subjective measure of their stuck-ness is how I feel when I see them on my schedule. If they’re growing, changing, and making progress, I look forward to their session with a certain amount of glee. But if they’re spinning their wheels week after week in the marital mud puddle, my colon twists into a knot because we’re about to sit in my office, rehearse the same old topics, and get nowhere. It’s a feeling of anticipatory dread.
I had that feeling not long ago. I’d been seeing a “mud puddle” couple for a while and honestly couldn’t tell that I had done them any good. Some quick background:
Her perception of him was that everyone else was more important to him than her. He’d be lively and engaging at social events but withdrawn and sullen at home. “There’s something in his past he’s never dealt with,” she dogmatically contended, “that makes him need to be loved by everyone else but distant with his wife. Until he deals with that, we’ll never make any progress.” As she covered this same ground week after week, he’d sit in silence with a look suggesting, “I’d rather be slathered with honey and staked to the ground on top of an ant bed than to be in this room.” Whenever I’d ask for his thoughts about what she was saying, he’d sarcastically retort, “Sure, whatever she says. I’m terrible.”
His perception of her was that she could never be pleased, and everything had to be her way. In his view, it served no purpose to voice an opinion because she’d wear him down until he gave up and give in. You know how a balloon looks just before it pops and you brace yourself for the noise? That’s how she looked whenever he was talking. When I’d “finally” give her a chance to respond, she’d vigorously retort, “There must be something in his childhood that makes it necessary for him to be loved by everyone else but hard to be close to his wife. Until that’s addressed…”
Yeah, that’s what we did week after week. Can you understand my feeling of anticipatory dread before they came in? I felt like I was trapped in some marital therapy version of the movie Groundhog Day.
To clarify, I wasn’t simply sitting in the room, nodding my head, and saying, “I see.” I was actively engaged in trying to break up what I considered to be their misperceptions. Neither seemed to accurately understand the other. I was increasingly convinced that their perceptions of each other were fundamentally wrong, but the way they interacted with each other unwittingly reinforced each other’s misperceptions.
For example, he reacted to her armchair psychoanalysis by withdrawing, which confirmed her perception of him as being withdrawn in the marriage. She reacted to his withdrawal with unending explanations for his distancing which reinforced his my-way-or-the-highway perception of her. They weren’t trapped in Groundhog Day but they were indeed stuck in a perception battle with no end in sight.
I was constantly turning to one of them and saying, “Correct me if I’m wrong, but this is what I understand to be your position.” After some elaboration, I’d ask for confirmation and he or she would agree. I’d then turn to the other and ask, “Now if that’s what he or she is actually meaning, what’s your response to that?” Helping them meant jumping into the middle of their relational intersection and becoming a traffic cop, signaling when it was time to talk and when it was time to listen. And not just listen but to actually understand.
This went on for several weeks but, frankly, it all seemed for naught. So, when I saw them on my schedule one day not long ago, I became gripped with anticipatory dread, privately hoping that they’d perhaps get caught in traffic and not show up.
Well, they did show up. But things were different somehow. When I asked how they were doing, they said, “It’s been a much better week.” Now, I’m always cautious when couples say that because it may simply mean that one of them was out of town for the week and they, therefore, had no arguments. But it wasn’t that. They had actually had conversations in which perceptions had been cleared up instead of reinforced and they could describe what happened in those conversations in detail. In short, they had gotten unstuck—at least, for now. Simply being heard and accurately understood was what did it. They were feeling good about that… and so was I.
When I see them on my schedule now, my feelings of anticipation have been replaced with feelings of encouragement. That’s not to say I do a happy dance and I wouldn’t admit it if I did. But it sure feels better watching a resolution drama than one that ends with nothing resolved.
We all hate being misunderstood and summed up inaccurately. But being heard and understood feels wonderful. If you’ve had that experience and would like to do a happy dance right now, your secret’s safe with me.
Till next week.
Sometimes the hardest thing in therapy is to be patient and wait. One has to sit on one’s own anxiety.