Amy: Our readers seem to enjoy hearing about cases from our office. Sometimes getting an inside glimpse into the therapy process can be helpful, since we often recognize ourselves in these cases. In that spirit, here’s the opening story of a rather intense case from my office. We will follow this family through several sessions, including the most important turns in the therapy.
The Initial Consultation: I first heard Dana’s soothing voice when she called me requesting family therapy. “We’re not communicating very well”, she said. She wanted to come for the first visit with her husband alone to talk about how, as she put it, “incredibly stressful” family life had been lately. We arranged an appointment for the following week.
When I went out to the waiting room to greet Dana and her husband Jacob I could smell an odor of resentment coming from the husband. He looked like he expected me to find him guilty. Uh oh. This may be a rough first visit. The couple looked lovely on the outside; a well-heeled, good-looking, early-forties couple. Dana was casually but elegantly dressed, Jacob sported a gorgeous, well-tailored obviously expensive suit. The husband’s quiet surliness gave me (inward) pause.
In a nutshell: They came to see me because the husband was a pain to his kids. “Angry” and “harsh” was how Dana characterized Jacob’s parenting style. Everyone was unhappy about it, including the husband. They had four kids, six-year old twin girls, and two teenagers, a fifteen year old boy and a seventeen year old girl. Both Dana and Jacob described how Jacob was especially hard on Lila, the oldest. Dad was obsessed with the daughter’s weight and hounded her constantly about it. Jacob had the air of a strong guy going down to defeat. He created/endured the double-whammy of being both defeated AND misunderstood.
I noticed something early on in my conversation with these folks. Jacob was really funny. He had an off-beat, self-deprecating sense of humor, even though he found himself in a painful predicament, in part by his own making. His well-developed sense of irony was especially appealing. He referred to himself as a “bastard” more than a few times. Though he repeated several times that he “doesn’t know why I’m here”, he clearly was looking to remedy the suffering for him and his family. He recounted how one of their best friends recently called him and bluntly outlined all the ways he went wrong with his family. Jacob sounded like he meant it when he said “I appreciated her honesty.”
This guy was not scary. I wasn’t sure what was going on, but one of the ways my “scare-o-meter”operates is when it tells me I need to be cautious with someone. If I feel myself tip-toeing, I’m quite sure other people are doing the same. Emotional brittleness is pretty easy to detect if we pay attention. Dana didn’t seem cautious with her husband, but she clearly was part of the team–-I guessed she was captain of the team–-that believed Jacob was wrong with the kids. Wrong, wrong,wrong. Jacob listened to her without slowing the slightest defensiveness.
Maybe Jacob’s ability to listen has to do with Dana. She is the kind of person it’s easy to fall in love with. She’s got a softness, an intelligence and willingness to understand that makes her especially attractive. But I worried that this couple developed a kind of polarization–a good guy/bad guy setup that probably played itself out with the kids. Mom=Right. Dad=Wrong. I sensed that the husband had become isolated as a one-man team and this, perhaps, fueled his anger. I’ve seen versions of this dance many times before. The Marginalized Man.
The session ended with a very different feel than at the beginning. I clearly enjoyed the husband, his humor and his openness. The session had a playful quality. I think the “Mean Dad” felt relieved that I did’t rubber stamp his “guilt”, but treated him with respect. I wondered aloud about the relational operating system of the family. That’s part of what can make family therapy so powerful: We don’t accept the family script as they write it, but rather are curious about it, and ultimately want them to learn to improvise some new patterns.
I also showed my admiration for Dana which I think she felt. I did venture an idea that Dad might be isolated from the team, which he acknowledged he felt. I seeded the session with the well-known inter-personal slant, that this problem didn’t belong only to Dad. I think this took some pressure off him and Dana didn’t challenge me.
Since I needed to survey the landscape for myself, we agreed to meet next time with the kids.
Next Session With The Kids…