The first post from “The Mean Dad” series is on 12/4/16
AB: I naively imagined that things would be better with Dana and Jacob following our last session. I encouraged Dana to develop some invisibility with her kids, giving Dad a chance to exercise his voice with his son. (See post from 12/19)
So much for that. Apparently there was serious trouble in Paradise.
At first I couldn’t read the mood of Dana and Jacob when they came to see me this past week. But Dana quickly clued me in. She began, “I don’t think this is helping. While our sessions are intellectually stimulating, things seem to be getting worse.” Gulp. Not what I expected. I asked her to explain.
Brief recap: Dana and the younger kids were out of the house this past weekend when Dad and their oldest kid Lila “got into it”, a huge verbal blowout that left both parties emotionally wounded. Lila apparently withdrew to her room and Jacob ended up driving away, not returning home until late in the evening after everyone had gone to bed. Hmmm..
Since Dana heard a second-hand account of the blowup, I asked Jacob to talk about what happened. He said, “It doesn’t matter.” I said, “Oh yes it does.” Jacob: “No it doesn’t.” I asked him if he and Dana got a chance to talk about what happened. He replied, “No, she doesn’t want to hear what I have to say. She never wants to hear what I have to say. He added, “I’m thinking of getting an apartment.” Wow. I wanted to hear what he had to say. In fact I needed to hear it in order to understand this crazy destructive dance he routinely got into with his daughter.
Jacob then gave a brief account of the brawl. He wanted to make lunch for Lila and Josh, his two oldest kids, but they wanted to go to a nearby restaurant for take-out. One thing led to another and Jacob began shouting at Lila and then she, according to Jacob, “went off” on him. Jacob said, “I went up (motioning with his hand) but quickly came back down (gesturing a quick drop). But she stayed up.”
I asked a few more questions about what transpired, and Jacob said, “She accused me of ruining her life. She said I’m the cause of all her problems.” Jacob said she let him have it with both barrels. I asked him how it felt. He said, “I felt like opening my jugular.” I looked to see if he was kidding. He wasn’t. He was clearly reeling from this incident.
Did he and Lila have a chance to talk about what happened?, I asked. (This incident had happened five days before). “She won’t talk to me”, he said. I commented on how he seemed both hurt and sorry about what happened. I imagined (out loud) that it would be healing for Lila to hear what the old guy has to say. Jacob shook his head. “No. When she makes up her mind that she’s not going to talk to me she sticks to it. No way she’ll let me get near her”. Wow. This seventeen year old girl sounds powerful.
As we talked I was struck by how alone Jacob seemed. I heard an agony on Jacob’s part that was full of pain and hurt. While Dana listened to Jacob, her tone indicated that she sided with Lila in this mess. She seemed to be listening but not hearing. She clearly blamed Jacob for the blowout. I had a feeling this triangular dance–Mom and Lila (plus younger kids) playing against Dad had been going on for many years. We had touched on this theme in several sessions, but here it was in living color. I finally got an x-ray of the guts of this dysfunctional family dynamic. I needed to work this theme, albeit carefully.
I told Jacob that Dana needed to hear about what happens for him with Lila. I said that so far I felt moved by his experience and and was impressed by how thoughtful he was. Dana said she had a hard time understanding what Jacob when through “because the kids never do that to me.” I realized I had stepped into a Saint/Sinner drama that really needed some myth-busting.
Jacob began opening up. I must say here, as I said in the session, that I could not improve upon the way Jacob told his story. He painted a picture of a man without a voice. His choice of words were vivid, colorful, full of hurt and anger, but without attacking or blaming his wife or Lila.
This guy, so successful in the outside world, had zero confidence that he could get his daughter to listen to him. Jacob said, “This includes anything from asking her to turn off the lights to talking to her about her diet.” He remembered trying to show her how to ski when she was little and she refused to listen to his instruction, preferring to figure it out on her own. He sounded deflated as he described this memory.
I said, “It sounds like you’ve felt Lila was bigger than you for a long time. That sounds painful. Frustrating as hell.” Jacob nodded. Looking at Dana, he said “She always calls me abusive.” For the second time this session, Jacob turned to Dana and said, “I think I should get an apartment.” She didn’t blink. I said, “Don’t go anywhere yet. This is an important fight!”
I turned to Dana. I told her that the idea of Jacob as “the bad guy” was hurtful to the family, and wrong. How do I know? I said that I found Jacob’s recounting of his experience very impressive. Intelligent. Authentic. Non-defensive. I added, “In all of our meeting I’ve never felt I needed to be cautious with Jacob. He’s not thin-skinned. I can tease him. I can pull his chain. His son even called him a douche and he took it. This is not a brittle guy.” Dana nodded in agreement. It’s common for me to use my experience of the family and its members to guide me in diagnosis. It’s a hugely valuable tool. And I felt strongly that Jacob was not the one-dimensional character he was portrayed to be.
By now Dana was crying. Pretty hard. Jacob said, “She’s mad at me for talking like this. She doesn’t want to hear my side of the story. She never has.” I looked questioningly as Dana. She nodded, meaning “I am mad at you.” Jacob responded, “You shouldn’t be mad at me…you should be mad at you!” He was right. Absolutely right. Jacob added, “This is what happened with your father in your family.” He described how Dana’s Dad was always “wrong”, and ended up separating from his wife. Dana denied this, and I decided not to pursue this theme at the moment. We had our hands full.
Dana’s defensiveness shone through her tears. “I don’t feel like I’m always there with the kids. I go out, I do things. I’m not always on the scene.” Jacob answered, “We’re talking about the dynamic of our family, not your actual physical presence!” Jacob was turning out to be a good family therapist. I needed to support him. I knew Dana might not like me for it, but it was the only way I was going to bring a new, healthier balance to this family.
I realized that I had picked up on an invisible unwholesome family pact and up until now I had unwittingly cooperated with it. NEVER CHALLENGE MOM. It’s very difficult to take on a saint. I was treading on treacherous ground. That’s what Jacob was saying. But I knew I needed to challenge this script if I wanted to help these people change.
I needed to contexualize Jacob’s anger. I began talking to Dana. I commented that Jacob’s story reminded me of our last meeting with the kids. Every comment the kids made had to pass through Mom first. I said it was like they didn’t trust Dad’s voice until it had her stamp of approval. That patterns keeps Jacob “small” in the eyes of his daughter. If I were in Jacob’s shoes I would find that to be a really upsetting experience. I commented to Dana that I now understood Jacob’s harping on Lila’s weight. In this small, though rather primitive, symbolic effort, he was trying (in vain) to gain some authority with her.
Dana’s tear were flowing pretty hard. She said, “I don’t know what to do.” I said I thought Jacob could help her to change. “Why should I change?”, she asked. Ahhhh….No one said anything. But this rhetorical question reverberated through the room. THAT was the problem. The family had unconsciously conspired to see this as a one-man show. Mom huddled with the kids, gossiping about–-but not fearing–- the town bully. Maybe the town clown was more like it.
They were getting ready to leave. Dana said, “I’m a fixer. I want to do something about this.” She was still crying pretty hard. I had to resist the urge to soothe her too much, since her tears may help with a much-needed cleansing process in this family. I gave a nod to Jacob, meaning that he could be her doctor for this healing process. Her crying didn’t let up. “Are you okay?” I asked.
We were all standing now She said, “They’re all I have”, meaning the kids. I think she was saying that they were her “job” and she didn’t want to screw it up. I felt bad for her, but not so bad that I wanted to smooth it over. I knew that she needed to feel the pain and discomfort of this moment. Her version of herself and her family was being tested, big time. Her self-identity as unassailable, the perfect wife and mother, had to go. She had to make room for a different, more complex and life-giving story where she played a more human, flawed character. Both she and her family will benefit greatly by this expanded role.
We all lingered a bit more. As the tears flowed, I asked again,”Ok?” She didn’t answer. Then as they started for the door, she said to Jacob, “Just try to tone it down, alright?”
We scheduled a meeting with the kids in two weeks. I wasn’t at all sure they’d show up.
Next Installment of “The Mean Dad” on Monday December 26th.