The first installment from “The Mean Dad” series is on 12/4/16
Amy: When we last left our couple, wife Dana was not a happy camper. Her pedestal was crumbling from underneath her. (See post from 12/26)
I approached this session with some trepidation. I wasn’t sure Dana could tolerate her fall from grace. I was prepared for them to discontinue the therapy.
After they settled themselves on the couch, Jacob began by saying, “It’s been a bad week.” I waited. He then launched into something that I didn’t really understand, but it sounded like he wanted to talk about his individual pathology. He talked about his “mood swings”, depressions, but it sounded like a mask for something else going on. I had already seen how relatively healthy this guy was, and it wouldn’t be useful to retreat to the old stories about Jacob and his flaws. Jacob the Patient. This was familiar ground for them. I wasn’t interested.
I didn’t say much. I looked at Dana. She said, “We did more talking this week than we’ve ever done.” I waited for her to continue. She said, “But the last couple of sessions were so, so hard. So painful.” I asked, “Good painful or bad painful?” She responded, “Bad painful.” She said, “I almost felt sick. Right here.” She made a twisting motion with her hand on her gut. (Since I knew that this kind of pain can be a harbinger of important change, I thought to myself….”Not bad, I Maybe we’re getting somewhere.”)
I was confused as to why Jacob felt so bad. I shared my confusion. Jacob said, “It was bad.” When I asked him to elaborate, he described how his wife’s emotional pain was very very difficult for him. He saw her hurting. He felt responsible for her pain. She was withdrawn and tearful for a couple of days. This scared him. I asked, “What were you worried about? Did you worry that she would fall apart? That she’s fragile?” He said, “I’m not so worried about her. I’m worried about US. I don’t think we can take this. I don’t think we’ll make it.” I raised my eyebrows. He continued, “I think she feels ganged up against. I don’t think she agrees that I’m right about some of the things I’ve been saying.”
I got it. His upset revealed the underpinnings of their relationship. Jacob worried that Dana could not tolerate the rewriting of their script. Up until now their story required that Patient and Long-Suffering Dana admonish, correct and control the Bad Guy she lives with. He worried that their marriage didn’t have the resilience to accommodate a new story.
I looked at Dana. “Is he right to worry?” I asked. “Absolutely not!” she exclaimed. I waited. She continued, “Look, I admit I was not happy with our last couple of sessions. It caused me a lot of pain. I literally felt sick a lot of the week. I was very, very upset.” Pause. “But I’m not stupid. I thought about it a lot. I know I may have contributed to the suffering in our family. I didn’t realize it. This last week I thought a lot about how I am and how I learned to be in my own family. I just never put 2 + 2 together.”
Jacob was listening. He suddenly looked less miserable. I was impressed by Dana. I knew I needed to show her admiration I felt. She was trying. That’s all I cared about. That meant that change was possible. I said, “I thought you said you had bad pain. That sound like good pain. You seem like you came away with something important from our last two visits. It sounds to me like you really worked it.”
Dana needed to feel my approval. She took a risk and needed to be recognized for it. This is a critical part of the therapeutic process. We are coaxing patients out of their comfort zone and they need to feel cared about as they experience the pain of meaningful change. They need to know we’re rooting for them.
She said,”I did. I told you I was a fixer. And I want to fix this. Even if it means fixing me.” She smiled. Jacob sat up. “Why didn’t you tell me this?” All he saw was her pain and suffering. He didn’t see the healing going on underneath. She protested. “I did tell you !” But after a few minutes of back-and-forth, I realized her pride didn’t allow her to let Jacob in on the secret–that she knew she needed to change. But she had clearly, internally, decided to take this project on.
Jacob looked at her like he was seeing her for the first time. Like he didn’t know the woman who sat next to him. Dana said, “Lila certainly saw me differently. She felt it. I didn’t let her manipulate me this week and she was furious with me!” She went on to recount a run-in with Lila where Lila started to trash her Dad. Dana looked at Jacob as she described her response: “I told her that YOU are the one who knows how to be a partner with me. That YOU are the one who knows how to take me out of my comfort zone. That YOU are the one who understands what I need.” She added, “Lila didn’t like that one bit.”
Bravo! What a gorgeous vignette. I think Dana felt both Jacob and I applauding as she told her story. Jacob looked like a light had been turned on inside him. I held my hand up. I wanted Dana and Jacob to bask in the glow of what happened. Or, as I said, “Let’s let Dana’s story ring in the room for a few minutes.” We all smiled. We remained silent.
That’s when I feel like an orchestra conductor, creating the dramatic pause when something important has happened. An interpersonal punctuation. They then continued to talk for a few minutes, Jacob still digesting what happened. Then he proposed that they talk with Lila about some of of their new discoveries about their duet, i.e., the demise of the Saint/Sinner myth. He said, “Otherwise she’ll just think you crossed over to the Dark Side.” Intuitive. Correct. Pushing to deepen the change. The guy’s a good therapist.
Dana agreed. They wondered about bringing her in that week before she leaves on a school trip to Europe. I said I thought we should bring the kids in again , but I felt confident that they could begin this new conversation on their own. We would invite the kids in when Lila returns from her trip.
As they got up to leave I felt a lightness in the room. Dana said, “At least I didn’t cry.” As he stood, Jacob said, almost under his breath, “That was good.” As he walked past, he looked at me and said for the first time, “Thanks”. He meant it and I felt it. It felt good.
Sounds like we might have turned the corner in the therapy, right? Not so fast! Turbulence ahead….