We talk a lot about how couples “create” each other as a result of ongoing, intimate patterns in the course of a relationship.These patterns are mostly unconscious, meaning outside awareness. And it’s interesting how change happens in a marriage. Mostly it’s the result of some indirect shift in the undercurrents of the relationship, either in the course of life, or sometimes with the help of therapy. It can feel mysterious, and hard to grasp. Sometimes, when one person changes, it can make all the difference. Here is such a case:
Amy: We talk a lot about how couples “create” each other as a result of ongoing, intimate patterns in the course of a relationship.These patterns are mostly unconscious, meaning outside awareness. And it’s interesting how change happens in a marriage. Mostly it’s the result of some indirect shift in the undercurrents of the relationship, either in the course of life, or sometimes with the help of therapy. It can feel mysterious, and hard to grasp. Sometimes, when one person changes, it can make all the difference. Here is such a case:
June, a mid-forties woman, consulted me about her ongoing depression. June was a mostly stay-at-home mom with six kids ranging in age from three to fifteen. She was referred by another therapist who briefly worked with both June and her husband: That therapist felt that the husband was “impossible”, and referred them to me. Shortly into our session, June began crying as she talked about her husband Frank, and what she felt to be his “coldness” toward her. I, of course, asked her to invite him in for the next session.
Frank showed up under duress. He was not ” a therapy kind of guy”, and showed up only because “she insisted.”, pointing to June. Frank sounded skeptical about the whole therapy thing, especially since he had what sounded like a bitter experience with the previous therapist. Frank didn’t’ quite understand “what all the fuss was about”, since he loved his wife and kids and did his best to provide for them. He looked and sounded like a guy under the gun. He seemed bewildered by some of his wife’s complaints about him, which he felt were constant and harsh.
A bit of background: Both Frank and June were eldest kids from working-class Catholic families in the Northeast. Neither one went to college, and Frank owned a small printing business that didn’t make much money. He had to work long hours to make ends meet. June worked a few hours a week as a lunchroom monitor at her oldest daughter’s school. She didn’t love the work, found it to be a “chore”, but the extra income helped. As I got to know these people, I was impressed by their underlying commitment to each other, despite June’s distress and anger toward her husband.
I must admit, I liked Frank. Despite his rather Neanderthal approach to women and relationships, he was funny and very tender. I had them bring in their children for one session, and their kids respected and adored him. He was playful and parental, clearly enjoying the love they showed to him. And June liked the way Frank was with the kids; she enjoyed his connection to them. I believe she wanted to feel more of this playfulness toward her.
I worked with June and Frank intermittently for nearly six months. Frank came for perhaps half our sessions. During that time, we talked about June’s most painful experiences with Frank, especially the way he withdrew and wouldn’t talk when he was upset with her. This drove her to despair. Slowly, over the months, Frank did open up a little bit. He felt my respect, and this helped him to relax in the therapy office. But talking about his feelings was clearly foreign territory for him. June–and I–mights as well have been asking him to speak Latin. It was clear that he would never be the sophisticated, deeply communicative man of June’s dreams.
During our sessions, I observed that June could be rather severe with Frank. Sometimes it seemed like he couldn’t do anything that would please her. She was much more enthusiastic about what he was doing wrong than what he was doing right. June operated as an “improver”, and her main target was her husband. But there was an up-side; In the course of our conversations, I watched how June LOVED talking about relationships, emotions, interactions–and she was good at it. She enjoyed being the psychologist in the family. The problem was that she had just one patient–Frank.
Frank began to miss sessions–“too busy”, he claimed–and June and I continued to meet semi-regularly. I shared my impressions that she would be a great “Personal Coach”. An intelligent woman, she showed an acumen for the language of self-improvement, and she came alive whenever she had a chance to use this side of her. Slowly, over the period of about a year, she took me up on my ideas. She decided to enroll in an online program to become a Personal Coach, which included case group supervision by phone. June could barely contain her excitement.
Now it’s been nearly two years since her certification, and she’s got a growing coaching practice. She runs several women’s groups, and and has a small clientele of women who mostly have problems with husbands and kids. She’s developing a bit of a reputation in her neighborhood. And Frank is her best fan: He helped design her website and printed her business cards from his business. And June says the kids are proud of their mom’s new-found expertise. Their oldest daughter says she’s interested in studying psychology when she gets to college.
June now comes to see me every few months or so. Our sessions almost feel like supervision with a colleague; she wants to talk about the difficult cases in her coaching practice. And the marriage? When I ask June about Frank, it’s almost like, Frank who? Well, that may be a bit of an exaggeration, but whatever his flaws, they seem much smaller to her now. Before, partly because of her own undeveloped gifts, June felt an emptiness that she couldn’t pinpoint. She began putting Frank under the microscope. And we all know that everything looks weird under the microscope.
Now June’s passion is on display, and everyone in her family is getting something out of it. I remember how my grandmother, who enjoyed a solid and loving relationship my grandfather, used to say, “You make your own happiness.” I think that’s what happened for June. Now she talks about being scared that she won’t be “good enough” as a coach, or that she’ll fail her clients But this is an exciting, enlivening kind of fear. This is the fear we feel when we are using our gifts, testing our limits. When we care about what we do, and we know it matters.