The first installment from “The Mean Dad” series is on 12/4/16
Amy: When we last left our fearless couple, (See post from 12/22)) I wasn’t sure I would see them again. Dana didn’t like the direction the therapy was going. She wasn’t in the driver’s seat. She was angry. But they came back…
In our previous session “Saint Dana” was feeling the heat, and she didn’t like it. I wasn’t at all sure she would allow herself to join the rest of us flawed human beings in our bumbling attempts at living. I was curious–and a bit anxious–to see how they would respond. I asked them to bring their kids in for the next session.
The couple came in alone. Apparently Dana had a bone to pick with me. She wasted no time in getting to the upset of the previous session. Dana talked about how upset she was all week. She felt unfairly maligned, and felt I “didn’t see the whole picture.” (For the record, people always say this when I’m challenging a preciously- held position. I’ve learned to be empathetic, but don’t take it personally.) What she meant was that Jacob was REALLY the bastard and I just didn’t realize it. I knew this was an attempt to restore the previous homeostasis. I wasn’t going to go for it.
Dana spoke at length, attempting to make her case for the many dastardly deeds of her husband. Her voice simmered with quiet rage. I listened, giving her the space she wanted and felt she needed to tell “her side” of the story. Then I invited Jacob to comment. He haltingly began talking about his feelings in the marriage. He said, “I’ve never, every been able to tell you when I think you’re wrong. As soon as I get upset you withdraw, you leave me, and then I feel like a schmuck. An angry schmuck, I guess, but still a schmuck.” He went on to talk about how he has always been “wrong” in the marriage, and mostly “wrong” in the eyes of his kids.
He talked about how all the kids “worship” Dana, and how his ideas are always sidelined or diminished. He talked movingly about the pain this has caused him and his feelings of impotence with Dana. “I am never ever right. And I can’t get you to understand me” . He paused. He added,”We never, ever talk like this. Actually, we never talk. Period.”
Too bad. This guy is a born family therapist. His description of their interactions as a couple and a family jibe completely with what I also observed. “Saint Dana” has held on to her position with quiet ferocity, her superiority in all things unquestioned . As I watched, I was impressed by the way Jacob approached his wife–with caring, with pain, with some heat, but not too much heat.
Tears were streaming down Dana’s cheeks. (She looked like she was on the verge of crying since they walked in.) I asked her what she thought about what Jacob was saying. She said, “I always feel like you’re throwing hot water at me.”
“Is that your experience now?” I asked. I couldn’t believe she would perceive Jacob as aggressive or wounding in his comments toward her. He was incredibly insightful, thoughtful, caring. Just not reading off HER script. She said, “Not really now, no.” I told her I thought they were real amateurs when it came to talking about the stresses in their relationship. I laid it on fairly thick about how helpful Jacob’s perspective was in terms of expanding the lens on their relationship. I said to Dana, “I was lead to believe that YOU were the psychologist in the family. You didn’t tell me about your husband’s skill!”
Something was missing. I needed to know a bit about where Dana’s need to be “right” came from. This seemed like a well-honed pattern that probably pre-dated her marriage. At my invitation, Dana began describing the stresses in her upbringing, particularly in her parent’s marriage and some turbulence with her younger sister. As the eldest, Dana had been enlisted early on as the Family Doctor, the fixer of all things. She became the “go-to” person for all problems related to family distress. She obviously got some status and ego-boosting from this job, but it became a prison for her in other respects.
I chose to focus on the latter. I commented quietly, “You never had the luxury to get it wrong.” I added that it sounded like she had been carrying her family on her shoulders for many years. That she never had the freedom to show weakness or confusion. Her hand needed to be on the wheel at all times. She seemed to be taking it in. She nodded. Jacob chimed in, “Even now, if she misses the exit to Newark Airport and ends up in Connecticut, she can’t admit she made the wrong turn.” His voice was full of humor and tenderness. She didn’t laugh.
Jacob turned to his wife. He looked directly at her, his arm resting on the back of the couch. He went right to the heart of the matter. He asked her, “Just say that it might be possible that I have some psychological ability. That I might be right some of the time about what I see in terms of us? How do you feel about that?” Dana demurred. She knew where this was going and wanted to dodge the question.
Jacob persisted. “Do you feel threatened if it should turn out that I am right some of the time? That I may see things about us and our kids that you don’t see?” BINGO! Of course the REAL answer to that question is “Of course I feel threatened.” But Dana, pride intact, said, “Of course I don’t feel threatened.” It didn’t matter what she said. The question was rhetorical. The issue was out in the open for everyone to see.
Dana continued to cry through most of the session. I wasn’t sure why, but maybe she was grieving the death of her self-image which she had clung to tightly all these years. That self-image, and by extension, her image of the marriage was suffocating the couple. I knew I couldn’t back away from causing her pain. That’s what Jacob did, and why they continued to suffer. I knew the pain she was experiencing was, potentially, a birth pang. I wanted to help deliver this child, a new, healthier “self” of the couple.
Dana was still crying as the session ended. I felt we had touched on something important. Dana’s “perfection” had been recast as a prison rather than as something real. Her much-touted “expertise” took on a different hue. “Saint Dana” now had the chance to become more real, more open. The relationship could come more alive. But whether or not she allowed her therapist-husband to change her remains to be seen.
Next installment of “The Mean Dad” on Wednesday 12/28…
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