Amy: It had been a little over a month since our last meeting, (see post from 1/7) which included Dana and Jacob with their two oldest kids. That session had felt quite meaningful, but, as I have learned from these people, a great session does not always mean change. In the past, our apparent progress sometimes seemed to dissolve between meetings. But maybe change was just invisible. This time, things indeed did seem better. Here’s a brief recap this recent meeting:
Dana and Jacob entered my office and we greeted each other warmly. I had no idea what to expect. The atmosphere in the room felt light. Maybe this came partly from me, since I was refreshed from a recent vacation. At any rate, as we began talking, I realized there was nothing to talk about. No crisis. No drama. Not much palpable tension. Hmmm….
They began talking a bit about this ‘n that. Jacob described his enjoyment of the previous weekend where he spent a lot of time with his two youngest kids. I remarked that “I almost forgot” that they had two other kids. (I enjoyed this moment of light chop-busting about the over-focus on their oldest kid, Lila.) The rhythms between Dana and Jacob seemed calm and flowing. Not much for me to do here at the moment but take it in.
Then Dana began lauding her triumphs related to her recent bike mini-marathon. This was a biking family, a sport they enjoyed–and took rather seriously–together. Apparently Jacob, Lila and Dana had been preparing to participate in this upcoming race, and Dana remained the only one fully committed to seeing it through. She talked about her biking in almost transformative terms–the beauty of the scenery, the unexpected power in her speed and lungs, her surprising endurance. She said with a smile toward Jacob, “And I love being the last man standing.”
I loved hearing Dana crow about her personal achievements, having nothing to do with her family. She wasn’t busy trying to monitor Jacob’s moods, or worrying about the kids. She was basking in the glow of her unexpected strength and the enjoyment of establishing her own pace. I nodded appreciatively. I said to her, “Watch out! Next time you come in here you’ll be talking about starting your own company!” “I know!”, she said.
This was new; Dana openly selfish, enjoying her autonomy and purely personal pursuits. In a moment of regression, unnecessarily making nice, she turned to Jacob and said, “Thank you”, I guess because he got her started in biking. He answered, “I didn’t do anything. This is all yours.” He got an “amen” from me.
We then meandered a bit, and Jacob referred to the current state of relative peace in the home. He said, “I learned I’m not an asshole. If I really was the kind of asshole they painted me as, I would have killed myself!” Jacob’s colorful commentary alluded to what had been healing for him in our discussions. “I realized I can be myself. That’s all I can be anyway, but it’s a relief to be able to do it.”
We continued to talk, and I realized I didn’t want to blow the groove by a straight-laced inquiry into why things were better. I know that most of what’s valuable in any therapeutic relationship happens underground, and a too-direct inquiry into the reasons for improvement can spoil it. I didn’t want to break the spell.
As I reflect on our work over that year, I think a couple of things may have helped move this family to a different place. A lot had to do with my being a friend to Jacob. He had no friends when they first came. He was, indeed, the “asshole”. A team of one. But my appreciation of his humor, his self-reflection, his commitment to his family and his emotional intelligence shifted his wife’s perception of him. And, in the “trickle-down theory”of family life, this helped with the kids.
And the kids’ participation helped Dana and Jacob to see themselves from a new perspective. It allowed Jacob to see Lila’s fighting with him as an attempt to help her mother, rather than as stubborn, selfish behavior. For parents to see themselves through the eyes of their children can be quite a powerful experience. Speaking as a parent, we just have to have the courage to allow it.
I think Dana may have gotten more freedom not to be so protective of her kids. She realized that she wasn’t responsible for every single thing that went on in the house. Having a somewhat lighter sense of her responsibilities, I think this allowed her to listen to Jacob more as a buddy, without having to “fix” whatever he was upset about. In this session Dana remarked that their daughter Lila complains about her parents “being a team” all the time, but, although she claims to be irked, everyone seems to be having more fun.
As we wound down our time, we segued a bit to music, with Jacob day-dreaming about learning to play the blues on the piano. I told them about our new house-guest, a legendary jazz pianist/vocalist who plays regularly at a club in New York. They were intrigued by this, and Dana suggested they go hear him this weekend.
We decided to meet again as needed. Jacob , especially, seemed to want the reassurance that it was okay to call whenever he wanted to, to check in at any time. I think our sessions helped affirm the value of his voice, something that was missing when I first met them.
It’s been more than a year since I’ve heard from them. Except for one phone call. Dana phoned to tell me Lila had been accepted at the college of her choice, a small Midwestern liberal arts university, located not too far from Dana’s parents. Both Jacob and Dana were excited about this new adventure for their daughter.
This turned out to be a satisfying case for me. These people, Dana and Jacob, had many years of turmoil and strife, mostly–unintentionally–self-inflicted. But they now seemed to be on a better path. I’m not worried about them at this point. These people have done some very good work: They showed courage in looking at some aspects of themselves that they’d avoided–and preferred not to see– and persevered when the going got tough. This husband and wife allowed themselves to be taught by the other. And they made good use of some essentials in family life: Caring , commitment, humor, honesty. They are reaping the rewards.