The first installment from “The Mean Dad” series in on 12/4/16
Amy: When we last posted on “The Mean Dad” (see 12/27 post) it seemed as if the couple might be getting somewhere. Dana and Jacob appeared to be breaking new ground in their relationship. Then Dana cancelled the next session, and we had a rather uneventful session nearly a month later. Meanwhile, I wondered about the tensions between Jacob and his oldest child, Lila. I doubted this issue had been fully addressed. I knew that Lila had her own individual therapist whom she’d been seeing for nearly two years. It was this therapist who referred the family to me. I also knew that often “individual” therapy for children and adolescents doesn’t offer much other than support. The pull and power of the dynamic of the family is too strong for a weekly individual session to produce much change in the experience of the child.
I saw the couple infrequently over the next several months. Dana cancelled quite a few appointments and I was traveling a bit. For the moment I stopped asking Dana to bring the kids in for a session, since she always had a reason why it was not possible–schedules, etc. The home atmosphere sounded less tense, and I felt like Dana and Jacob used our sessions to step out of the heat of battle of raising kids. But lately our work began to feel rather episodic and unsatisfying-–at least for me.
Then we had a session that was so unusual that it is worth recounting. Here’s what happened:
I hadn’t seen the couple in over month and Jacob began the session by complaining about Lila. At our session before this, Dana had begun to talk a bit about herself and her experience of the marriage, and I wanted to keep the focus on the couple. I observed that, slowly, Dana, was developing a slightly different voice with her husband. I didn’t want to lose whatever momentum we had. As I directed the conversation back to the duet in front of me, Jacob said,”What does our relationship have to do with Lila? We’re doing all right.”
I know this couple by now. We have started to develop a story which apparently they forget, but, fortunately, I remember. This is a couple who have become masters at burying the tensions between them. Their relationship algorithm goes something like this: Accumulation of tension +mutual avoidance/escape=daughter as scapegoat. I said something to Jacob along these lines, referring to our last session many weeks ago where Dana began to use a voice I hadn’t heard before. It was a more selfish (in a good way) voice: She seemed to want to be seen as more than a mother.
Dana seemed to welcome an opportunity to talk about her relationship with her husband. They obviously steer clear of any intimate conversation when they’re not in my office. As we began to talk, Jacob acknowledged that they “never speak” about their relationship when they’re alone. He says Dana tends to withdraw and he doesn’t try to reach her. He added, “She won’t listen to me anyway.”
A few more minutes into the session and I wondered about Dana’s withdrawal. She developed a pattern of avoidance with Jacob and I asked her, “When did you stop trying to change your husband?” Crazy as that question sounds, it’s an important one–-a central part of my repertoire. Part of understanding any intimate duet includes the understanding that partners create/control each other. To change one’s partner is an integral part of a healthy relational dynamic.
Dana’s looked at me and took a deep breath. “I know exactly when it was. She paused. It was nineteen years ago.” ??? That was not at all the answer I expected. I didn’t expect an answer at all, really. It was just a probe for exploring the relationship. “Please continue”, I said. Jacob, too, looked puzzled. Dana paused. She gathered herself. Jacob waited.
I don’t know where her next voice came from, but I can assure you, I’d never heard this voice or seen this person in my office. Dana began a poignant soliloquy where she described her “decision” to give up her career, to pass up her acceptance at a highly respected business school and to focus on her family. She told her story for the next half-hour, with Jacob occasionally interjecting with questions or comments. I don’t think he ever saw this woman either. He was intrigued.
Dana recounted how she had been “shocked” that she got into this prestigious business school and was both terrified and exhilarated at the prospect of studying there. But the steep tuition fees created an obstacle. Jacob had offered his encouragement and told her his (wealthy) father would gladly pay for it; but Dana, who came from a Midwestern, Irish-Catholic family of modest means, couldn’t allow herself to accept this offer. Meanwhile, Jacob had recently passed the bar exam and was struggling trying to develop his own business.
As they talked, it became clear that this story was emblematic of Dana’s putting her own life and needs on hold. In our earlier sessions I had challenged Dana for always needing to be the doctor for the family, the competent fixer of all problems. But here was the Dana underneath all that: A woman with powerful personal aspirations, with dreams of her own that she had never dared voice, and a strong undercurrent of resentment to go with it.
This was the first time Jacob knew any of this. He was stunned and slightly–only slightly–defensive. He told her, “My father could have helped you. It would have been nothing for him!” Jacob had no idea that his wife–this stranger– had been carrying this burden for so many years. Tears were now streaming down Dana’s face. She said, “All these years I had to cater to your career problems and your moods. All of your stresses became my problem. I’m so sick of it. It’s not your fault. You never knew about this.” These were cleansing tears, long overdue.
Dana and Jacob began to talk a bit about how they never talked about this, or other sensitive topic for that matter. Jacob said, “I got in the habit of not approaching you because you never listen to me.” Dana replied, “I couldn’t!” She appeared to be saying that her buried resentment interfered with her being able to listen to her husband with an open heart. Jacob worried out loud about the damage of Dana’s resentment. He called it “resent”. He clearly worried that the intensity of her hurt and anger would bring the relationship down.
I had only been making a few comment here and there, since I didn’t want to interfere with the therapeutic flow. Now I turned to Jacob and reassured him. What happened was health coming out. True, Dana’s story carried a great deal of intensity and upset, but now these feelings could breathe in the open air. Dana, still tearful, agreed. She said, “You don’t have to be afraid of what I’m saying. We probably just have to be afraid of what I’m not saying.”
Whew! Even I, as the therapist, felt the power of this catharsis. As they prepared to leave, we scheduled a follow-up session. I said it would be great to keep a bit of momentum going. We agreed to meet in two weeks. As they got up to leave I reminded them of my 24-hour “Don’t Discuss The Session” rule. Dana, still teary, laughed. “How about 24 years?”
This session felt like a turning point. But I had been there before with this family. Though we were scheduled to meet in two weeks, Dana called to cancel. Nearly six weeks later I got a call from Lila’s individual therapist saying that Jacob was “out of control” with Lila about her weight. Sigh. I called Dana to check in. We scheduled an appointment for the next week. I insisted they bring the kids. This time I didn’t take “no” for an answer.
Next Session Post….1/2/17