The first installment from “The Mean Dad” is on 12/4/16
Amy: When we last left our family with “The Mean Dad” (see December 8th post), we saw how the main target of Dad’s anger, 17-year old Lila, was, in fact, a super-responsible kid who was suffering under the weight of Dad’s oppressive monitoring. The session seemed to challenge Dad’s narrow view of this daughter. Everyone seemed to feel lighter as they left.
Follow-Up Session With The Couple:
Dana and Jacob walked in looking their usual well-groomed selves. As they settled on the couch, and after few minutes of small talk, Dana commented on how the last session “seemed to make a difference between Jacob and Lila”. I asked what she meant.
She said “Jacob hasn’t been berating Lila about her weight. The other day she was eating a cheeseburger and usually he would have made a snide comment. I noticed that he didn’t say a word.” She smiled coyly at her husband. Jacob raised his eyebrows, but said nothing. I asked her what this was like for her. She said, “I felt relieved. I felt great. I didn’t have to be on edge. And Lila seemed more relaxed than I’d seen her for awhile.”
I smiled and nodded. I waited for Jacob to respond. I didn’t want to scare him off by any effusiveness. I waited. Jacob said, referring to our last meeting, “I know my daughter is a powerhouse. I know she can do and be whatever she wants. But she’s got some bad habits. I recognize them in her because I have the same tendencies in me. I don’t want to make the same mistakes I made.”
At this point Dana jumped in to correct Jacob, to reassure him that Lila was “learning from her mistakes” and she would undoubtedly be successful just like her dad. While I didn’t disagree with Dana’s assessment, I felt like Jacob needed some more room to openly worry about his kids, even if he was unconsciously projecting some of his own insecurities onto his eldest child. After all, that’s part of navigating that treacherous parenting landscape.
I said, “Jacob, it sounds to me like you’re trying to sing the Blues. That’s an important part of the music that families make. I like harmonious melodies as much as the next person –they’re pretty and pleasing–but sometimes we need to sing the lowdown, dirty Blues.” I knew I could mess with the couple in this way. I thought they’d “get” the musical metaphor. These smart folks had plenty of humor, and I hoped to free Dana up to listen to Jacob’s song without fearing it, or needing to “harmonize” it. I wanted to increase their comfort with interpersonal dissonance.
I asked to hear more of Jacob’s song. I said, “It sounds good.” Extending the musical metaphor, I noted, “Good, satisfying music needs both tension and release. That’s where the real vitality comes from.” I was indirectly inviting Dana to at least tolerate -and maybe enjoy- Jacob’s Blues. I speculated that some of his harshness came from feeling that his wife inadvertently dismissed or invalidated his worries. I wanted him to feel free to sing his song. I didn’t think it was dangerous. And I was pretty sure that experiencing more freedom with his wife would translate to a better relationship with his daughter.
Jacob somewhat cautiously accepted my invitation. His worries were, in fact, not too dramatic. Perhaps just a bit overblown. He especially worried about this daughter’s weight and exercise habits. His anxieties were indeed shaped by some of his past experience with his family. Jacob was especially close to his father. When his (always healthy) Dad had a stroke and passed away quite suddenly at age 74, it was like an earthquake hit the family. The father, a larger-than-life figure, had been the center of gravity in the family, especially since the death of Jacob’s mother ten years earlier. The father’s unexpected death ushered in a cascade of family turmoil, including the death of Jacob’s sister, and intense, ongoing conflict with Jacob’s only brother, with whom he’d previously been close.
Dana listened thoughtfully to Jacob’s tales of woe. Dana continued to draw me in by her evident compassion and sensitivity. Her comments indicated that she had been involved every step of the way with Jacob’s family tragedy. She clearly loved this big, somewhat awkward husband of hers. I said, “It sounds like he’s earned the right to sign the Blues”, Dana smiled and nodded.
I commented on what seemed like a lonely mood in Jacob. I wondered if some of his isolation came from feeling like his wife had joined the team with the kids. A wry smile crossed his face. “I’m a one-man team and I’m losing!” he said. I nodded. “One-man teams usually do. And it can be frustrating as hell.” Dana looked at her husband with affection. She said, “How can I let you know I’m on your team?”
They shot each other a sexy look. Dana said, “Maybe I can sit on your lap the next time you’re aggravated with Lila?” They laughed. The tone in the session had clearly shifted. Jacob’s pent-up aggravation had a chance to breathe, and Dana’s elegant response gave her husband a soft landing. I speculated that Lila would be an indirect beneficiary of this shift.
Follow-Up: The next session the following week extended the mood of the previous session. The couple came in looking well-oiled. Dana sported a fancy, sexy pair of boots. It was like we were having lunch at a great restaurant. Dana reported that the household climate was temperate and the mood relatively calm. She said, “It feels like we’re on the same team.” Etc., etc. Small talk, a bit of discussion around anticipating the visit of Dana’s family. This had been a fraught affair in the past. Jacob seemed relaxed. I thought to myself that I’m probably on the home stretch with this family. We agreed to meet in several weeks.
But–not so quick! Dana called to reschedule our next meeting. On the phone she said, “We definitely need to meet with you. We had a rough week between Jacob and Lila.”