For those of you new to “The Mean Dad” series, check out the post from 12/4/16 for the first installment.
Amy: Here’s a quick look at our next session. (Our last session post is 1/4). Lila was scheduled to come home from camp the following weekend and tensions escalated a bit in anticipation. She operated as a flash point in the relationship between her parents. Jacob’s primal worry about his kids was magnified through this child.
Jacob began talking about an incident that occurred right before she left for camp. He was clearly still thinking about it; the problem lingered because his feelings around the episode hadn’t been resolved. The issue revolved around a sleepover at their house with Lila and a group of her girlfriends. According to Jacob, they left the house a mess. An unbearable mess. Jacob said, “And I couldn’t say anything. If I say anything I’m an asshole.” He added, “I SHOULD be able to say something to my kids. But I’m always wrong.” He added, looking at Dana, “And they feel like you think I’m wrong too. You’re on their side!”
I felt my heart sinking. I guess nothing has changed in this arena.
(I thought to myself, I don’t want to proceed with the therapy without having a session with the kids. I’m getting tired of hearing about fights with their kids second-hand. I need to observe the fights in order to understand the dynamics involved. I need to listen and learn from the kids in order to be helpful.)
Dana tried to change the direction of the conversation; she brought up an example of Jacob’s being a “good dad” by trying to teach Lila about how to train for a local bike marathon. Jacob clearly wanted to feel useful to this child, but Lila never openly gave him this satisfaction of taking his advice.
It is true that Jacob could be somewhat overbearing toward his kids. He had difficulty letting his kids to fend for themselves when they needed to. I relate this to our previous session (see post from 1/2) and his undigested fear for their safety. But Jacob is a funny, intelligent and caring guy who, I think, would be grateful if his daughter showed him a little love.
Dana, as usual, offered advice to Jacob about how to talk to his kids. Every time she does this it’s turn off. She always makes it sound like her voice and style are the preferred one. I think it makes it hard for Jacob to learn from Dana, despite her intelligence and insight. And while I believe she has a strong intuitive ability with the kids, her “coaching” approach to Jacob always leaves him looking and feeling diminished. And it’s all aimed at removing tension from any interactions. That’s impossible–and not even desirable–with adolescents. It’s often reassuring to teenagers when their folks bring down the hammer; predictable parameters can act as an anxiety-reducer for teens.
I made a few comments here and there, but I felt at a bit of a loss. I always feel stymied when the session focuses on the kids. It’s not productive, they’re not there and it always smacks a bit of avoidance on the part of the couple. It always feels like therapy by proxy. I brought it back to them.
I remarked that Jacob’s frustration looked like an effort to connect to his wife. Jacob said, “I always get a stiff arm from her when I try to talk about the kids. She’s alway shushing me, or acting like I’m wrong.” Dana, as usual responded, “That’s not true.” She added quietly, “He always seems so aggressive when he’s upset. He seems so over-the-top. I’ve always felt like I couldn’t handle it.”
I turned to Jacob and said, “I bet when Dana shuts you off you chase your daughter even harder.” He said, “Right! “Then I have to go directly to the source to try to be heard!” He added, ” And I’m just trying to let off some steam. Teenagers can be a real pain!” In other words, he gave up trying to get Dana to hear him so he detoured to Lila. That’s a recipe for disaster.
Jacob stopped talking. He said “I hate when I talk.” I had to chuckle. “What do you mean?”, I asked. “I feel so vulnerable. So exposed.” Silence. He continued. “I’m lonely. I want a parter. I want someone I can talk to.” I nodded. I told him I understood the importance of being able to blow off steam with your partner. Jacob turned to Dana, “I let you blow off steam with me, don’t I? I don’t try to correct you?”
Dana nodded. It sounded to me like Dana reacted to Jacob’s upset as if it were dangerous. But Jacob is relatively healthy. He has access to humor, reason, and self-reflection. He can be teased. His internal emotional brakes work pretty well. I told Dana I thought that sometimes the best way to quiet our partner’s storms is by accepting them. Then the storm often dies down of its own accord.
Dana became tearful. She turned to Jacob and said, “I didn’t mean to shush you. I just realized something. (Pause.) I think I always felt than when you were upset I had to fix it. I had to manage it. It became my problem.” Yes. Jacob’s upset felt like a problem to be solved. A burden. Her burden.
Dana cried quietly. “I never intended to put a barrier between us. I never realized that you just needed me to listen.”
Silence. Jacob looked like he felt heard. Deeply. At last.
“Let’s go get pizza.” He smiled.
We agreed to have a meeting with the kids in a month. This time they kept their word.
Next session with the kids: 1/7/16