There’s an ancient saying that’s profoundly applicable to couples therapy: the laws of nature are like a miller’s wheel—they’ll grind you to powder, unless you learn to be the miller.
In our close relationships, the laws of nature that threaten to grind our love into powder are the multigenerational legacies that come to us, unbidden, in those moments when we’re least responsible and our actions are most automatic. The crux of the difficulties couples experience is the playing out, in ways large and small, of those unresolved feelings of childhood: pain, rawness, fright, anger.
“Jimmy, why don’t you tell Terry what really happened?” Julie says in a tight voice, twisting in her chair to confront her husband. With black hair and ice-blue eyes, 36-year-old Julie is as Boston Irish as a cold beer at Fenway Park, and about that frosty.
“You go ahead; you tell him,” Jimmy grumbles, trying to sound tough. At 41, six feet, five inches, and an easy 260 pounds, he looks like a linebacker gone to fat. In her stocking feet, Julie might clear five one or two, but beneath his bluster, Jimmy seems afraid of her. Watching her lean into conflict with a hard smile on her face, I’m a little afraid of her, too.
“No, Jimmy,” she insists, her voice hard, “you tell it. Just do it right.”
“I thought I was,” he says.
Julie had called me about two months earlier, complaining that their bickering was out of control. Now, in this, our fourth session, she and her husband are doing a great job of letting me see what she meant by that. They’re describing what should have been a fun water skiing afternoon with their 8-year-old daughter the previous weekend.
“Where was Chloe?” Julie demands, turning to face Jimmy full on.
“What? Why are you—? She was in the water,” Jimmy answers.
“What was she doing?”
“Jeezus!” Jimmy’s eyes dart around the room as if looking for an escape route. “Skiing, Julie,” he responds. “You were in the water with her. I was in the boat and you were in the water right next to her.”
“Was she crying, Jimmy? Was your daughter crying?”
Jimmy lets out a sigh befitting his size. Suddenly he looks like a Tibetan Hungry Ghost to me—a big blob of a creature with a tiny little mouth; all the air has gone out of him.
“What was she crying about?” Julie continues relentlessly. “What was Chloe crying about?”
“Me, no doubt,” Jimmy tries sarcasm. ”She was crying about her out-of-control father.”
“We were heading toward the propeller, Jimmy!” Julie yells, dropping her payload. “The propeller you wouldn’t turn off.”
“You were a good 30 feet away!” Jimmy yells right back.
“She was frightened,” Julie responds undeterred.
“You could have settled her down,” says Jimmy
“And you could have turned off the motor till I did, like I asked you to,” Julie concludes harshly, blame incontestably shooting from her eyes.
Jimmy frowns and sighs again. He has no reasonable comeback to this, though the scowl on his face indicates that he no longer considers this a reasonable conversation anyway.
Here’s the back story. Chloe was learning to water-ski. Mom was in the water with her; Dad was in the boat. Chloe had almost gotten up a couple of times, but she was nervous, scared of hitting the water, scared she wouldn’t get it right, and scared of the propeller. “Which wasn’t turning,” Jimmy insists.
So Chloe was afraid, but then again she has a lot of fears; she’s an anxious, slightly obsessive-compulsive kind of kid. Julie told Jimmy to turn off the motor. He ignored her. She said it again. He looked at his daughter. “Chloe, you have the rope, right? Just lean back and I’ll pull you up this time.”
“She’s not ready,” insisted Julie.
“She would be if you’d just shut up,” Jimmy called back, evoking a chorus from both mother and daughter simultaneously: “Dad!” “Jimmy!” And that was it for him for the rest of the afternoon.
Jimmy hauled his daughter into the boat. Julie followed along with a muttered string of invectives. Then no one spoke a word, while Dad drove his sullen, defeated family back to the pier. It could have been worse. Three months before, after such a challenge by this coalition of females, Jimmy would have headed back and popped open a beer, which would have led to a few more, and then a few more after that. Now he’s one month sober and a sporadic attendee of AA meetings. His newfound abstinence hasn’t pulled him back from the brink of divorce, however. Listening to them and watching them, I can see why.
At times like this, Jimmy and Julie have been completely taken over by what we at the Relational Life Institute call “Whoosh!”—being emotionally triggered, and completely losing it. We also call it “first consciousness”—the instantaneous knee-jerk reaction, the unconsidered, visceral response, to an emotional trigger. It’s the miller’s wheel. Whoosh comes up from the feet like a wave washing over you, creating a pit in your stomach, a tremor in your hands, a reddening in your face. It’s highly physical and totally convincing. When Jimmy and Julie are screaming at each other, whether on the water or in my office, they’re truly lost—lost to each other, and lost to themselves.
At first glance, they look like they’re fighters, but really their whoosh is a two-step pattern. First they fight, and then, once it becomes clear that neither of them is going to get anywhere, they withdraw in different ways: Julie turns to the kids, and, until recently, Jimmy turned to the bottle.
Most couples who come to see me are on the brink, like Jimmy and Julie. Luckily for them, we specialize in pulling couples back, working with intractable partners to produce quick, dramatic change in their marriages. Our model, Relational Life Therapy (RLT), does this by focusing on restoring connection.
All couples therapy welcomes increased connection between partners, but RLT tracks the patterns of connection and disconnection explicitly and single-mindedly. We see authentic connection as our natural state and birthright. Closeness is our therapy’s compass. When we watch a couple behave like Jimmy and Julie, we’re looking at what we call “relational deformities,” the characteristic ways each partner obstructs or pulls away from the satisfaction and vulnerabilities of that simple state of connection. All other considerations—the particular stressors, family dynamics, communication patterns—while important, are secondary. From an RLT perspective, the critical questions for each partner to consider are: What do I do that pulls me out of that state of connectedness? and, What do I need to do to return to it? But even asking those questions, let alone answering them, demands something beyond whoosh, something more than first consciousness. Couples have to see themselves in the moments of disconnection, and remind themselves that they want something different, something more.
“Look,” I tell Jimmy and Julie later in the session, laying out for them the particulars of their relational deformity and how they collide. “When you’re busy screaming at each other, it’s Self-righteous Indignation Meets Self-righteous Indignation. That goes on until you’ve had enough, and then it turns into Disgusted Withdrawal Meets Disgusted Withdrawal. Both halves of this pattern suck.”
“So, what are we supposed to do about it?” asks Jimmy.
I look at them both for a moment, he hulking and put-upon, she restive and sharp. “Wake up,” I tell them. “What you need to do is wake up.”
A central insight of RLT is that what matters in couples’ interactions isn’t primarily external circumstance—for example, whether the boat’s motor should or shouldn’t have been turned off. What matters isn’t even primarily the dance between the partners, like Self-Righteous Indignation Meets Self-Righteous Indignation, or Withdrawal Meets Withdrawal. What matters most occurs not between the partners at all, but within them. The question is: which part of the person is talking—the mature, present-based part (associated with the prefrontal cortex), which wants a solution, or the immature-child part (associated with the limbic system), which wants to be proven right, control his or her partner, or vent frustration, anger, contempt, and self righteousness?
Implicit in RLT’s focus on internal states is the belief that people can change those states, but changing them is a matter of choice and practice. This is different from most forms of therapy, which consider issues like shame, grandiosity, and triggering fairly intractable—structural parts of a person’s character. In RLT, we see character itself not as deeply wired-in structure, but as nothing more than one’s internalized repertoire of relationships. Common wisdom has it that the goal of couples work is behavioral or systemic change. If you want deep character change, you must do one-on-one therapy, often for months or years. By contrast, we work to change the system by transforming the consciousness of those within it, using relational mindfulness.
I’d argue that increased relationality—connectedness to self and others—is the very definition of character transformation. RLT uses the data from the actual relationship and the leverage of being in relationship as the crucible in which relationality is taught and practiced. This method makes no distinction between intrapsychic and interpersonal work; they’re flip sides of the same coin.
Following the work of my mentor, Pia Mellody, RLT personifies the refractory, immature part of us as the “adaptive child,” a conglomerate of all those inner parts that developed during childhood to help us adapt to our families as we grew up. The adaptive child is our first consciousness, our knee-jerk reaction: fight, or flight. It’s what Austrian American psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich (of Orgone Box fame) would have called our Character Armor, what psychiatrist James Masterson called our Character Defense. Our adaptive child has everything to do with our family role and our childhood experience. It’s first consciousness in action, the repository for all our trigger points and hot buttons.
One hears all the time about how marriage will “push your buttons,” but rarely is the nature of those buttons described. Let’s go back to the water skiing incident. Julie’s request that Jimmy turn off the motor was simply a fact, an occurrence. That’s the button’s first layer. Jimmy, like all of us, then gave meaning to that occurrence. He told himself a story in which he was (unfairly) mistrusted. The meaning Jimmy gave to the occurrence is the button’s second layer. Why is Jimmy prone to ascribe that particular meaning to the incident? It should come as no great surprise to learn that his mother was critical and controlling. She found fault with much of what he did; she was continually in his face about what he should have done or how he should have done it, whether homework, behavior at the dinner table, or who his friends were. Family-of-origin resonance is the third layer of his button. Jimmy adapted to his mother’s intrusion with anger and rebellion, treating her pretty much the way he now treats his wife, with sullen resistance or open defiance. Similarly, he flat out refuses to honor his wife’s request and turn off the motor because, in that moment, he’s back asserting his much-challenged autonomy against his controlling mother. In other words, he’s been completely taken over by his adaptive child.
Here’s the bitter pill: the adaptive child part of you has no interest in intimacy; it’s wary, doesn’t like feeling vulnerable, and is preoccupied, above all, with self-protection. None of these traits sustains a loving, trusting, relationship. I have a favorite question I use with volatile partners: “You can be right or you can be married, what’s more important to you?” Ask that of the adaptive child and the answer is instantaneous: “Being right isn’t the most important thing: it’s the only thing.”
In moments of whoosh, like the incident between Julie and Jimmy on the water, most couples don’t manage to find a solution because once their immature parts take over, they’re no longer interested in solution; other agendas have hijacked love. Through RLT, we teach couples to identify 5 of those self-protective, vulnerability-avoiding, relationship-ruining agendas:
RLT also teaches 5 winning strategies:
The winning strategies are all effective, but only if they’re used! How do we help clients get into a frame of mind that allows them to consider and then act on these strategies?
The critical first step, when one feels the pull of whoosh taking over, we call “remembering love”—reminding yourself that the person you’re speaking to is someone you love. Or, if that’s a step too far, then at least recalling that you must live with that person, and that you’re speaking to reduce the current impasse and make things better. Before blasting your partner, ask yourself this crucial question: Wait! Why am I talking? If you’re talking to prove that you’re right, control your partner, vent excessively, retaliate, or flee, then it’s better to shut up. By asking someone like Jimmy or Julie to take up the practice of mindfulness in heated moments of whoosh, we invite them literally to stop their old selves in their tracks—take a walk around the block, splash some water on their faces, breathe, have a little chat with themselves, and come back when they really want to work things out.
Remembering love is precisely what Julie and Jimmy aren’t doing when they yell at each other, nor when they stomp off in disgust. I’m not suggesting that all my clients learn to go from attacking each other to feeling all gushy inside every waking moment. But when a couple like Julie and Jimmy reach for second consciousness, when they practice relational mindfulness, they begin to commit to what we call “full-respect living,” neither dishing out nor passively tolerating disrespectful words or behaviors. Gushy love all the time? No. Respect in both directions? Twenty-four/seven. As we teach the practice of relational mindfulness, we help bring clients like Jimmy and Julie into nonviolent lives—nonviolent between them and others, and nonviolent between their ears—because you can’t simultaneously remember love and do violence to someone you care about. Mindfulness is a violence-dissolver.
Another difference between responses is that first consciousness is always linear: someone’s doing something to you, or you to them, and the natural logic is a straight line toward retaliation or escape. Second consciousness, by contrast, is ecological: you don’t see yourself or your partner as standing apart from the two-person system and controlling it. In all of our relationships, whether within a marriage, a family, a work environment, or a community, we’re parts of systems and living inside them. What we chose to do or not do in one place has consequences for us in another. Your release of emotionally toxic energy in the living room results in your partner’s coolness in the bedroom later on.
So, in the moment when Jimmy is arguing with Julie, he’s angry, quickly shedding his adult self, and reverting back to his negative, childhood-based, self-protective state of being. How does he rescue himself, reclaim his adult self, and shift the tenor of the exchange before it’s past all hope of repair? He does all this simply by being aware and bringing mindfulness—the exercise of meta-attention and self-reflection—into play in moments of whoosh.
Let’s go back to the session in which they describe the boating incident. Jimmy is trying to explain himself and getting into quite a state as he does so.
“Look,” he tells me, “I know I’m supposed to be big about it,” (Jimmy’s phrase for second consciousness), but I mean, give me a break. Her need for control drives me insane, OK?”
“Actually, Jim, it’s not OK,” I say. “You’re in two counts of boundary failure, but we’ll get back to that. First, I want you to do something for me.”
“You want me to breathe,” he says, the put-upon student.
“Close your eyes,” I answer. “Slow your breathing down a bit and deepen it a little.” He does so. We can all feel the immediate shift in the room’s emotional temperature. “Now—.”
“Let me say it. Take your breath and bring it into your heart. Imagine your healing breath bathing your heart. Got it?” He nods. “OK, Jimmy, now breathe yourself out of all that angry-victim stuff. Nobody drives anybody anything. Who’s responsible for your feelings?” I ask. This is, by now, an old question between us.
“I am,” he says.
“Keep your eyes closed. Now I want you to work on bringing yourself down; down from all that righteousness and contempt. Ya there?”
“Good,” I say. “Open your eyes.” He does, turning to look at his wife. “Now Jimmy,” I add, “from this place, talk to your wife.”
He turns on the couch to face Julie and reaches out his big hands so she can place her tiny hands in them, which she does.
“Honey, ”he begins (letting her know that he cherishes her).
“That’s better,” I mutter from the sideline.
“Julie, if you’re scared, just say so. Don’t boss me around or try to control me” (going for what he wants).
“But you’re so reckless,” Julie wails.
“Hey Julie,” I say, “How about a change in your tone?”
“But he is reckless,” she protests.
“I’m still on your tone,” I persist. She takes a deep breath.
“James,” she says more softly. “I’ll try to do that. And you can help by giving me less to be frightened of” (asking for what she wants).
“Well done,” I observe.
“Jules,” Jimmy says, talking as softly as she does, “I don’t want to scare you” (speaking for repair).
“Then just stop—.” Julie starts to crank it up, but catches herself (a moment of second consciousness). “Try to keep that in mind, Jim. OK? I appreciate it,” she says, more calmly and generously.
“Nice work.” I conclude. “Nice save there, Julie.”
She smiles, clearly pleased. “It was a hail-Mary pass,” she confesses.
In these sessions, both Julie and Jim use a host of skills not all that different from those taught in couples therapists offices everywhere: speaking from the “I,” letting go of objective reality, negotiating their needs. But the particular skills are less important than their willingness to use them in the first place, less important than their changed internal state. That’s why we pay so much attention to tone. Tone trumps content, because tone will tell you where the person is inside. The tone we look for in a session is simply a switch from their usual: you want the weak, one-down, shame-based client to sit straight and speak up; you want the strong, one-up, dominating client to become more open and soft. Sitting with these two fighters as they began waking up to second consciousness, I knew that this is a state of mind that rarely comes spontaneously; it must be sought out and cultivated through hard work. Here’s how Jimmy describes it in a later session.
“So I come home after being away on a business trip, OK? I’ve got a heavy bag on my shoulder; I’m tired. She meets me at the door in a state, you know: ‘I’ve been alone with the kids for three days! You barely called!’—the whole nine yards. Now, in a former life—,” he says, leaning forward.
“The old Jimmy—,” I respond, joining with him, and underscoring the change.
“Exactly, the old me,” he agrees. “It would have been, ‘Who the hell do you think you are!? I come home after bustin’ my tail putting food on our table—,” he grins. “You get it?”
“Self-Righteous Indignation Meets Self-Righteous Indignation,” I say.
“Exactly. But now,” he says, “another part of me chimes in. It’s literally—I don’t know how it is for other people, but for me it’s literally like a voice in my head.”
“Which says?” I prompt. His grin widens.
“‘Shut the eff up,’ is what it says—‘Jimmy, just shut up!’”
“That’s called containment,” I tell him.
“OK, yeah, anyway,” he says, “I breathe, like you told me. Exactly. I breathe into my heart. I bring myself down from all that—.”
“Contempt,” I suggest, “anger. Big angry victim.”
“All that stuff. I put up a boundary. Her shit’s her shit, not mine. But respectfully,” he’s quick to add.
“You hold her in warm regard,” I offer.
“And why not?” he agrees. “We all have our days, right? She was alone with the kids for three days. So, instead of my usual gettin’ all pissy, I—.”
“Ask yourself,” I add, unable to contain myself. “‘What could I say or do right now—’”
“‘—that would be constructive, i.e., pertinent to the current situation,’” he completes in his own words.
“And so you say,” I prompt.
“Honey, I’m sorry. Where are the kids now? What can I do to help?”
“What can I do to help?” I repeat, in a tone of awe, marveling.
“And she melts. Terry, I’m telling you. On the spot; she just melts.”
I regard him admiringly.“A-plus young man,” I tell him, nodding. “Who’da thunk it?”
Julie, quiet this whole time, raises her hand, a schoolgirl.
“I would have,” she exclaims, “I knew it!” Then she catches her own enthusiasm and grows sheepish. “Well, not for a while maybe, but once, once upon a time.”
The voice Jimmy heard, the one telling him to shut up, was the voice of second consciousness, his adult self, the best part of him—and the only part of him interested in using relational skills. That voice came to him because, under guidance, Jimmy had learned to pause for a second, contain his impulsive actions or words, and tune in to a part of himself that was healthier, smarter, more loving. The shift from first to second consciousness, from a knee-jerk response to a thoughtful one, is relational mindfulness. It’s the skill from which all other relational skills derive.
Mindfulness has been described as a state of meta-attention: attention to what we pay attention to, a state of self-awareness in which we watch our own thoughts and feelings without judgment or control. In RLT, we believe that this self-awareness is a prerequisite for all other shifts in thinking, feeling, or behavior. It’s implicit in all therapies that teach either cognitive or behavioral change; but in RLT, we not only make the implicit explicit, we teach people how to do it—how to pause, think, breathe, and choose. Relational mindfulness gives us the freedom of choice.
At first, Jimmy’s recitation might sound simple. He just paused for a second and responded better. But a closer look reveals that there’s actually quite a bit packed into his narrative. He stops to breathe. He uses both aspects of a psychological boundary: containing himself (“Shut the eff up”) and protecting himself from Julie’s emotional upset (“Her shit’s hers and not mine”). He can combine boundary work with healthy self-esteem, holding his wife in warm regard, even while protecting himself from her emotional energy. Finally, he keeps his eyes on the prize. Realizing that self-righteous indignation was going to lead to the same old same old between them, he gives up the momentary pleasure of being right for the greater pleasure of a decent evening together. All of his internal work culminates in his offer: “Where are the kids? Let me help out.” The behavioral shift is the punchline, but the critical change first occurs between his ears.
Let’s take another look at what we call full-respect living, a pledge to manifest in our actions the principle of healthy self-esteem, seeing ourselves as neither better nor worse than anyone else. The inner benefits of standing up to disrespectful treatment, like the benefits of coming up from shame, are obvious. But it took Jimmy a while to get clear about the psychological benefits of bringing himself down from the seductive one-up position of righteousness and grandiosity. Why is this good for the person doing it? Because, I explain to him, the emotional energy on both poles—up or down, shame or grandiosity—is toxic. In fact, it’s the same energy, the energy of contempt, in both its complementary forms. When contempt is directed inward toward ourselves, we call that shame; when it’s directed outward toward others, we call it grandiosity. Teaching Jimmy the practice of relational mindfulness—to stop, breathe, and reach for door B, for something better—invited him to step away from indulging contempt in either direction.
“Look,” I tell him in one of our early sessions, “here’s how it works in my own life. I’m driving and some SOB cuts in front of me and then slows down just to make me wait. Now, in a former day, I’d have thought nothing of pulling alongside him, rolling down my window, and letting him have it. But now, I breathe myself down from all that one-up stuff, all that righteous anger. And I say to myself, as I look at this driver’s annoying little head through my windshield, I say, ‘I’m not doing this for your sake. I’m not coming down from contempt because you deserve it, but because I deserve it. I’ve had enough contempt in my life. I grew up with it. I internalized it. It became my depression. I’ve ruined relationships by indulging it. No thanks,’ I breathe myself down, as I say to myself, ‘Hey, I can live without it.’”
For most of us, learning to live relationally—practicing relational mindfulness, living with boundaries, exhibiting healthy self-esteem, committing to full-respect living, trading in five losing strategies for five winning ones—takes a few years. I tell clients it’s on a par with learning any complex skill in adulthood, like how to ski or play the piano.That’s the bad news. But there are a couple of pieces of good news as well. First, you needn’t spend those three to five years in therapy. RLT therapy generally lasts a matter of weeks, not months or years. The practice of relational mindfulness occurs mostly outside the office, and after a time, the client begins to work through his or her own process. Second, the practice of stopping oneself, taking a breath, and changing course allows us to begin using all of the skills involved in learning to live relationally, and these skills, starting with relational mindfulness itself, are so effective and so wildly different from what happens in the culture at large that even doing them badly will transform our relationships.
And we can begin doing them badly right now. By focusing on changing consciousness, and, in particular, by teaching clients to bring themselves down from the one-up position of grandiosity, RLT therapists routinely see clients decide to change egregious behaviors they’ve engaged in their whole lives—like being verbally abusive—and stop the old behavior permanently. As Jimmy practices reaching for and listening to that new voice inside, rage is no longer the response but a response. Cleavage begins to appear between his sense of self, his “I,” and his first consciousness behavior.
The therapeutic work involves confronting each partner’s relational deformities, unearthing the fit between them, taking the current dance back into the family of origin, where each partner’s adaptive child was born, and teaching the partners about relational mindfulness and the components of living a relational life. Then it moves on to practicing mindfulness in the office with them, encouraging them to practice it outside in their lives,working with their resistance (their adaptive child selves), and amplifying progress (their functional adult selves), so that the “old Jimmy” begins to yield to the “new Jimmy,” the aware Jimmy—Jimmy the mindfulness practitioner.
“So,” I ask them both later. “You’re in the water. Chloe’s upset. You’re both upset, but you come to your senses. You’re not each other’s enemies; you’re a team. What do you do differently?”
Julie brightens up. “I explain to my husband—as I didn’t at the time—that Chloe is scared of the motor, and I ask him nicely—as I didn’t at the time—to turn it off for a sec.”
“And you?” I ask Jimmy. He doesn’t answer. Instead, he pauses dramatically and holds up the pointer finger of his right hand.
“See this finger?” he asks. “This finger,” he tells us, “can push a button that turns the motor off. And this very same finger can push the very same button to turn it back on again. That’s it. That’s all it takes. This finger. But first I have to pull it outa my—.”
“First consciousness?” I offer.
Jimmy grins. “Exactly.”
This article appeared in the November/December 2011 issue of Psychotherapy Networker.Rowing to Nowhere: When is Enough Enough?
Like most therapists, I love it when couples step into new beginnings. Watching a partner move into accountability for the first time, or become vulnerable as never before, or demonstrate empathy where there’d been none—such moments make my day. But what about couples who’ve run out of new beginnings? If beginnings bring me delight, do endings always evoke sorrow? Not necessarily.
How I feel about couples splitting up depends on the situation and the couple. Some endings have broken my heart, made me look hard at my technique, and wonder what I might have done differently. But when I believed the couple, the therapy, and even the children were better served by the partners’ letting go, I’ve breathed a sigh of relief. In other words, I don’t see my job as stitching every couple together no matter what. Sometimes, in fact, my job turns out not to be forestalling the dissolution of a family, but facilitating it.
Most often, both partners don’t pull the plug at the same time: one partner wants out, while the other, to whatever degree, is devastated. The question then becomes, where do we therapists stand? When and how do we know if it’s time to help the couple dissolve versus throwing our weight behind one last try? And how do we, as therapists, let go ourselves? Of course, the therapeutically correct attitude is that where we stand shouldn’t matter. It’s not our decision, and it’s presumptuous of us to wade into a question that rightly belongs to the couple. Yet while that stance may be great in principle, it usually doesn’t work out so cleanly in real life. Often one partner is asking, sometimes desperately, for our help in reeling his or her mate back in, while the other partner is teetering on the edge of whether to stay or go, asking for a kind of permission from us, or conversely, wanting us to offer some good reasons to stick it out.
In such situations, you can kiss the idea of therapeutic neutrality goodbye. If ever there were such a thing, it surely doesn’t exist here. The questions we choose to ask, the goals of the therapy we define, the amount of attention we give one issue over another, our tone, even our facial expressions, clearly convey our real convictions to our clients. No matter how neutral we strive to be, most of our clients know where we stand. They can feel it. Those exquisite mirror neurons we talk about so much not only enable us to read our clients, but them to read us. So by what criteria do we decide when it’s time to push the relationship on, and when it’s time to pull the plug?
Some situations seem clear. Most of us would agree, for example, that the relationship is untenable if one partner has a serious addiction to drugs, alcohol, or sex that they refuse to treat appropriately, or if there’s a major psychiatric disorder that the partner will do nothing about. Other examples are physical violence, chronic emotional sadism, continual lying and manipulation, a pattern of long standing gross irresponsibility—financial, marital, parental—not to mention flagrant untreated character disorders, like severe narcissism or sociopathy. Sometimes the partner who feels drawn to leave admits never having really loved the spouse to begin with, marrying to please parents, under pressure from a pregnancy, or because the person looked good on paper. It’s hard for us therapists to create love where there’s been none all along.
But these outliers aren’t the cases that keep us awake at night. The more bothersome cases are the ambiguous ones, the marriages in pretty bad straits that aren’t so obviously far gone that demise seems inevitable. These are marriages where, after months and months of trying every trick we know, the couples still stubbornly refuse to improve, or where the dissatisfied partner remains intractable, even while the other makes positive changes, or where couples make us think, Well, they could stay together, but if they do, will they be truly fulfilled?
I’ve worked with couples where I can honestly say the therapy moved the relationship from absolutely intolerable to adequately bearable: things got just better enough that both partners stayed. But could they sustain happiness? Often I believed they couldn’t, not by my standards, anyway. In these cases, was I of service to them, or would they’ve been better off if I’d facilitated their saying goodbye to one another?
Two months into our work together, I watch Henry puff out his cheeks and slowly exhale, trying to keep his composure. I can practically hear him counting to 10. Sometimes I wish he’d just let go and lose it, which I’ve never seen him do, though his wife, Jane, reported that once, after a tough therapy session, he’d suddenly pulled the car off to the side of the road, gotten out, and thrown up. Getting back in the car he’d told her, “We’re not going to discuss it.” And that was that.
Dark-haired, short, and handsome, Henry was getting a crash course in not being in control—a position he neither liked, nor was used to. His accustomed world shattered the night Jane had said she was considering leaving him. As Jane told him, he’d been pushing her out of their marriage for years. While remaining calm externally, inside Henry was shocked and devastated. Sure, he’d thought, there’s been fighting. Sometimes, we didn’t get along so well, but this? What about the kids? Was she really willing to break the family apart? And for what? Were things actually that bad? These were the questions Henry eventually spoke out loud to Jane in their first therapy session with me, a few weeks after Jane’s announcement. It was Henry who’d called, telling me that his wife was fed up and that I needed to pull her off the ledge.
“Yes, Henry,” Jane had said in that first meeting two months ago. “Things are that bad. They’ve been that bad. And I wouldn’t be where I am now if I didn’t believe that things will stay bad.” She then turned to me, saying, “I’ve given up hope.”
Blonde and muscular, Jane dominated her opponents on the tennis court. She allowed herself to be fierce with everyone but Henry, though she’d been plenty ferocious with him in her day. The old pattern was that Henry would withhold, and Jane would eventually go berserk—yelling, cursing, sometimes throwing things. This happened the night her oldest daughter, Priscilla, who was 11, walked in on her while she was in a frenzy. “I looked at that little girl’s face,” Jane told me, “and I knew in that instant—okay, this has to stop. Now!” So Jane had gotten herself into therapy, and she’d been fortunate enough to find the right therapist. In my language, Jane was love dependent, a woman struggling with an anxious insecure attachment style, someone who desperately needed her husband’s unwavering warm regard to bolster her own shaky sense of self-worth.
To a layman, walled-off Henry would seem a poor choice in partners for someone as pursuant as Jane, but we therapists are used to seeing such love dependent/love-avoidant (or pursuer/distancer) pairs. The more Henry withheld, the angrier Jane became, and the angrier Jane became, the more Henry withheld. But with two years of therapy under her belt, Jane was finally opting out. She no longer wanted to play the game. About a third of the way through our first session, I asked Jane to give me an example of what Henry did to “push her out of the marriage.”
“I’m going to tell Terry about the garbage,” she tells her husband, who doesn’t respond. Jane lingers a moment, scanning Henry’s impassive face for a reaction, then shrugs and goes on. “Last month, Henry came home after four tough days on the road. I think he’d been to three different cities in that time.”
“Maybe I should tell this part,” Henry interjects.
“Sure,” she says easily, backing off.
Henry takes over. “So I’m really looking forward to being home,” he says, smiling at something private, not looking at either of us. His smile feels jarring to me, condescending. I want to ask him what he’s thinking about that’s so darn funny, but I restrain myself. “I was really looking forward to seeing Jane, and I try to pull into my parking spot by the garage and there’s [here’s a small laugh] there’s garbage cans and spilled garbage in my spot. I have to get out of my car, clean up everything, and then get back in and park. Okay, hey, welcome home. The front door is locked. The hall is dark. My supper’s on the table, and Jane’s off with one of the kids.”
“I was doing homework with her,” Jane protests. “You might have joined us, come in, helped.”
“Not your idea of a happy homecoming, Henry?” I commiserate.
“But here’s the thing,” says Jane, who’s listened enough. “Does he say anything to me about it? Does he show any vulnerability, like ‘Hey, my feelings were hurt,’ which I could’ve handled. No, Henry basically doesn’t speak to me for the rest of the night. I have no idea why. I was looking forward to him coming home, too, you know? But he pretends he’s tired and just goes to bed. So what do I do? I take myself to bed along with him, to be with him. I’m not really tired, but I want to be there. When I get into bed he pretends he’s sleeping. Am I dealing with a child? ‘Henry, please,’ I say, ‘just tell me what’s wrong.’ Nothing. I get nothing. I get his back. Do you know how many times I’ve lived through some version of that night? In the past, I’d blame myself, but I’m not doing that anymore. I’m not doing any of it. I’m done.”
“Is this true?” I ask Henry.
“Essentially,” he allows.
I look at him. “You were hurt,” I say. “You were angry?” He doesn’t answer. “You punished her,” I inform him, still getting no response.“This is how it is?” I ask Jane.
“Always,” she tells me. Next to her, Henry frowns. “Well, often,” she amends.
I ask for a few more examples, trying to bring Henry’s point of view into the discussion as much as he lets me. It seems to boil down to Henry getting hurt: hurt that the parking spot is blocked, that the dishes haven’t been done, that the kids aren’t in bed, or that there are scuff marks on the floor.
“I ask only a few simple things of her,” Henry tells me. “She knows they’re important to me.” Henry likes order, and unfortunately, he often reads disorder as an assault, a symbol of her lack of love for him. Though ultimately he’s love avoidant, the pattern begins with his being as thin skinned and love dependent as Jane had been before her therapy. He reads the garbage in his parking spot, Jane’s absence, and the food left for him on the counter as Jane’s lack of concern for him. He brought to the marriage a great emotional sensitivity; they both did. But if you’re an unusually sensitive person, you need to balance that with unusually sophisticated relational skills, which neither of them had.
Instead of naming his feelings to Jane, giving her a chance to repair, Henry bottled them up—as he saw it—or acted them out—as Jane and I saw it. Henry was caught up in the losing strategy of passive-aggressive retaliation. By contrast, the old Jane wouldn’t have bottled up much of anything, and there’d be nothing passive about her aggression. The new Jane, however, is contained—but she’s less a wild card now because she’s grown largely indifferent to the state of the relationship.
The problem with Henry’s sensitivity is that it’s a one-way street. He’s enormously sensitive to what’s coming into him, but can be quite insensitive in his behavior toward others, especially Jane. He’ll say or do nothing overtly offensive, but sink into an unremitting withdrawal. He’s complicated, with the sensitivities of someone who doesn’t have boundaries, but whose stance in the relationship is one-up and walled off. “I turned my back to her,” he tells me of that night. “I just wanted to go to sleep.”
“Like she doesn’t deserve you,” I say to him. “That’s the mark of being one-up and walled off. It’s like I’m not in connection to you because you’re not good enough. You don’t deserve me.” Henry listens, neither agreeing nor disagreeing. “Henry,” I say, “death to you in this relationship is withdrawal, particularly angry withdrawal. You’ve got to tell her when you’re hurt or angry. Let her help you at those times. If you keep punishing her like this, you’re going to lose her.”
“I may have already,” Henry says, managing somehow to sulk and be haughty at the same time.
“Look,” I tell him, “this is the part where I say, ‘I can be nice to you or I can try to save your marriage, which would you prefer?’”
“The latter,” he says. “Obviously.”
“Nothing’s obvious to me,” I tell him.
“Fine,” he says, looking directly at me, tight lipped, a slight smile at the corner of his mouth.
“This is mean, Henry,” I tell him, “Your behavior is mean-spirited. Your withdrawal isn’t neutral—it’s hostile. And it’ll cost you your marriage if it doesn’t stop.”
At the end of that first session, I asked Jane if she’d give therapy three months. This is a contract I’ve successfully used before with highly ambivalent partners. “Three months,” I tell her, “not to commit to the marriage, but just to see what happens, to evaluate whether to stay or go. In fact, what you have to do to save the marriage is the same thing you have to do to determine whether it feels salvageable: put your issues on the table, and see where, if anywhere, our work goes. But in the end, if the marriage is going to work, two things need to happen. First, within those three months, Henry must change—dramatically change. If he does—as hard as that is for you to imagine—the second thing that needs to happen is that you, Jane, have to warm back up to him. Not that you’ll be saying, ‘Gee, this is great. I’m recommitting to the marriage.’ But just, ‘Okay, this is interesting. I never believed Henry would be like this. Let’s re-up for another three months and see what happens.’ That’s the best of what can occur.”
In that initial interview—because of their history, their children, and the fact that she’d once loved him—Jane agreed to this provisional three month contract. Then it was time for Henry and me, in Jane’s presence, to dig in and see to his dramatic change. You might be thinking by now that this is a pretty one-sided therapy. Let me be clear: it is! While I have compassion for Henry, I emphatically and explicitly take Jane’s side. One of the unusual characteristics of the work I do and teach is that I do take sides. Not all problems are 50–50. Some are 70–30. Some are 99–1.
Of course, Jane had had her part to play in this. If Henry has been one-up and walled off, Jane had been one-up and without boundaries. Throwing plates is not okay with me. But by both of their accounts, such behaviors from her had stopped. Now the issue was, having shaken herself free of the old pattern of complaint and rage, could she access any feelings of care and connection? And the best thing I could do, I felt, to help her in warming back up was to take her seriously and give her what she was asking for: a transformed Henry.
Generally speaking, I start by being an agent for the person who has one foot out the door. That person gets my undivided attention for the simple reason that if I lose them, the marriage is over. Do I do this to try to save the marriage? Yes, if that’s tenable. Am I convinced at this point in the process that the marriage will or even should be saved? No. It’s too early to tell. But this is a good way to find out.
And so Henry and I go to work. I call this doing deep character work in the presence of the other. Even though the focus is on Henry, Jane’s presence in the room reminds us why we’re doing what we’re doing, and as the sessions unfold, Jane gives us examples, stories, current reports. Additionally, it’s far more impactful for her to see Henry do deep work than hear about it from him after the fact.
With my help, Henry drills into his childhood. Not surprisingly, it turns out that angry withdrawal isn’t Henry’s invention; he grew up with it. Henry’s father gave next to nothing when he was sober and even less after a few drinks.
“It was clear that a good scotch and golf on TV meant way more to him than any of us did, and God help anyone who got in his way, including my mom,” Henry says. But if Dad was consistently preoccupied and mean, mom was just as selfish in her way. Henry remembers his mother locking him out of the house so he could “go play” and his wetting his pants when she wouldn’t let him back in. “My father was a tight ass,” Henry tells me, “but my mother could be an out and out bitch.” Wounded by both parents, Henry adopted his father’s distancing strategy to protect himself from his angry mother. “There were times,” he says, haltingly, “when neither of them would speak to me, like, for weeks. All I could think was, What did I do wrong? What did I do?” His eyes tear as he stares.
“Henry,” I say, “if those tears in your eyes could speak, what would they be saying right now?”
“They’d say, I guess,” he hesitates, “you don’t treat a child like that.”
“No,” I affirm, “no you don’t.” I can feel his sadness. “Henry,” I say, “Look at me.” He lifts his head. “You don’t treat anyone like that, understand?” He doesn’t answer. But after a moment in silence he turns to his wife. He reaches out, almost touching her hand, but draws short.
“I’m sorry,” he tells her. “I’m sorry I’ve been so mean to you.” His voice trembles with emotion, vulnerability.
“That’s good,” Jane answers, not unkindly, but from far away. “I accept your apology,” she says, but her eyes don’t soften as she looks at him. “I’m glad for you,” she continues. “For you,” she repeats. “I want you to get better for your sake, no matter what happens to us.’’ (In other words, I think, she’s saying, “Don’t count on me.”)
As our sessions progress, Henry does get better. He understands that he needs to be different to save his marriage, and that there isn’t a lot of time. We work intensively together on feelings, the world of emotions. With my coaching and encouragement, he begins to reach past his first response of anger and connect with the more vulnerable feelings, hurt and abandonment, underneath. He begins to realize that his chronic sense of being unloved might have more to do with his unloving childhood than with what he’d taken to be his unloving wife. Not meeting him at the door when he comes home because she’s busy, not having food on the table—these disappointments no longer signify that she doesn’t love him. For the most part, they stop being symbols and just stay disappointments. And then we work on cherishing, Henry’s coming out from behind all those walls of anger and thinking less about what he’s getting and more about what he needs to give.
Yet even as Henry begins to open up, Jane continues to maintain her distance. With a partner in Jane’s position—the dissatisfied, held-back one—I consider two levels of wounding: the marital wound and, possibly underneath that, a family-of origin wound. Here, the marital wound is straightforward: Jane’s been hurt. She doesn’t want to be vulnerable again. She’s been through the wash-and-wear cycle with Henry too many times. I emphatically normalize her reticence to get back in the ring. But, unless she’s ready to call a lawyer, she needs to conjure a little openness to give this three-month trial a real try. Hesitantly, she agrees to work on it.
She talks about her distant father and angry mother (no surprises in that dynamic). But her talking about them, even crying about them, does little to change her stance toward her husband. Finally, two months into our three-month trial, Jane tells us that she has an announcement. I watch as Henry, hearing this, puffs out his cheeks and slowly exhales.
“I want a trial separation,” Jane tells us. “I need some space.” Henry pales quietly. “I’m afraid I can’t make it for the whole three months. I’m sorry,” she says.
“Are you saying this is the end of the marriage?” I ask, at which point she turns to me, looking very vulnerable, stripped of defenses.
“You tell me,” she answers. “You tell me if you think I’m making the biggest mistake of my life or if you think I can be happy with this man.”
I know that Jane means it: she wants my opinion, and it matters to her. I could try to hide behind something like “Well, that’s really your decision,” but we’d all know I was dodging, and they both deserved better than that.
As one might imagine, I’d been thinking about this all along. How far would Henry really be able to go? Would a more open Henry be open enough to satisfy Jane? After all, even the new Henry was still somewhat constricted. Yes, he could name a feeling or two, but with the same monotone voice, impassive face. Over the years, I’ve worked with many shutdown, emotionally cut-off men, helping them open their hearts. My best guess was that Henry, if he continued working as hard as he was, would eventually be a different guy than the one who first walked in my door. But that eventually was a big word. It would take time—more time, perhaps, than Jane was willing to give. And would the finished product, improved as it was, be improved enough?
At this point, many therapists would lean toward helping Jane stay. To corral her back into a livable compromise, they might have reminded her of her marital contract, her promise to Henry. They might bring up the potential damage to their children. But would that really be fair to her? Or would it be throwing her under the bus? Where did my obligation lie? What was I to tell her?
There are two impulses, two voices if you will, in couples and family therapy these days. One speaks for the collective, the conservation of the family, and a kind of status quo; the other speaks for individual fulfillment, the right to have pleasure and freedom to express oneself—in short, the good of the family or the good of its individuals. This is where we therapists must take a hard look at the values we hold, our biases, our own family histories. I grew up, for example, with feuding parents in an emotionally violent household. Would I have been better off if my parents had given up and divorced? Was my own family history affecting where I stood in that moment with Jane? And what about the children? Would trying to cobble together a couple like Henry and Jane really be doing their kids such a favor?
No one, not even the most conservative researchers, argues that divorce is worse than staying for the sake of the children when marital hostility is acted out, when there’s open fighting and oppressive misery. Perhaps marital euthanasia would’ve been the best thing for me and my family growing up. But what about couples like Henry and Jane, men and women of quieter desperation?
I don’t want to minimize the ill effects of divorce on kids, but I believe that unhappily staying together most often bequeaths to the next generation a template for intimacy that’s neither satisfying nor functional. Both Henry and Jane came from parents who modeled the same pattern—of distance met with anger—that was eating up their own marriage. Is that what they wanted to hand down to the next generation? And even if we were to decide that divorce would indeed hurt the kids more than an extremely compromised coexistence, we therapists need to ask ourselves how much unhappiness we should ask our clients to bear in the name of avoiding damage to their kids. Where’s the line between selfishness and immoderate self-sacrifice?
To me, these are deep questions, only to be decided, with my help, by the clients themselves. In our heart-wrenching desire to spare the children, we can act as though years of marital misery, loneliness, bitterness, even despair count for little so long as the couple can remain reasonably civil for the sake of preserving the family. Of course, preserving the family is preferable if it can be made to work. But what if it can’t? Or what if the relationship’s transformation remains only partial?
I have a saying I teach my students: don’t ask your clients to do what you wouldn’t do. Where’s the fairness in that? Specifically, when one partner is teetering, don’t pull toward preserving a union if it’s not a relationship you’d stay in yourself. As therapists, we’ve all encountered relationships that we wouldn’t necessarily want but that seems to work for the people inside them. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m referring to that moment when a client says, “I don’t think I can stay and be treated like this,” or “There’s nothing horrible happening here, but I’m dying of loneliness,” and our honest response as we listen is “Yeah, I’d feel that way too.” If that’s our experience, we should indicate it somehow and stop trying to hide behind the mask of neutrality.
I look at Jane, her face turned toward me, waiting, sincere, vulnerable. “I honestly believe, Jane, that Henry is on the path,” I say. “He’s already a different guy than the one I first met, and I think that progress will continue. But,” I take a breath, “if you’re feeling, for whatever reason, that it’s just too little too late, that you don’t have it in you to stick around while Henry does this, or that no matter what he does, this just isn’t a match that will make you happy, I, for one, wouldn’t judge you for it.”
“Then it’s not a mistake to leave?” she presses.
“A mistake would mean to me that you were acting out some pattern of avoidance, some unfinished business from your childhood, rather than making a sober decision as an adult living in the present. If I thought that was the case,” I tell her, “I’d be saying so, and I’d be urging you to stay.”
“Which you’re not?” she asks, needing me to spell it out, to give her my permission to leave.
I look at them, my heart aching for them both and say, “Which I’m not.”
“Thank you,” she says, looking deep into my eyes. “Thank you for that.”
Here’s the bottom line. There are people in bad marriages, people married to difficult, unrepentant spouses, or spouses who don’t repent enough, or ones whose repentance comes too late. There are people who, I believe, have struggled to improve their marriages and—at a certain point of frustration, weariness, resentment, and loneliness—have earned the right to get out. I also believe it’s our birthright to be in intimate relationships that are essentially cherishing—and that to be in a fundamentally uncherishing relationship is bad for the uncherished partner, bad for the children, and even bad for the uncherishing partner as well.
I remember once talking to a friend who considered firing someone to be a positive experience. “How so?” I asked him.
“I tell the person what I believe,” he responded. “I say, ‘You’re a talented person, a good person, but that isn’t showing up as it should in this setting. The fact is that you don’t really belong here. I want to free you up to go find a place where you truly belong.’”
Could breaking up this couple be a similar experience? Jane had fought for connection with her husband for years. She was a loving, emotional, high-contact partner. Her marriage to Henry may not have been a relationship in which the best of her could flourish and thrive, and it wasn’t my job to press her into thinking otherwise. Again, as I told Jane, if I believe the client is primarily acting out some unresolved family wounding, I’ll be forceful in saying so. But if there’s been years of abuse or neglect, then really, who am I to insist that the impulse to leave is immature, selfish, or pathological?
What we therapists must manage in such instances as this one, along with the couple’s raw emotion, is our own. When a marriage is sinking before our eyes, whatever unsettled wounds and unfinished business resides within us will invariably get stimulated. We may feel overwhelmed with sadness. Or we may, in denial, compulsively pound on the chest and breathe in the mouth of the still, cold marriage. We may be swamped by feelings of inadequacy and shame, or helplessness—especially those of us who come from unhappy families we couldn’t help when we were 6 or 12. We might find ourselves struggling in the contradiction between our own closely held moral values (divorce between parents of young children is bad) and our deep empathy with one or two perfectly nice people stuck in a marriage that’s destructive for one or both of them. Or we might turn away, implicitly contemptuous, deserting couples who desperately need us to help them through their final transition.
For me, the locus of my feelings of worth as a therapist resides in how well I present what I know in a way that maximizes the possibility of being heard. I tell the truth of what I see to my clients, including what I see as their potential next step, or repair if they chose it, as well as my truth about potential negative consequences if they don’t choose to repair. But at the end of the day, while my voice matters, and while they deserve to know my true thoughts, the choice to stay or go is theirs. The failure of their marriage is not my failure as their therapist.
Also, just because a couple’s dilemma won’t yield to me doesn’t necessarily mean it won’t yield to anyone. “Not every therapy works well for every client,” I’ve told many clients before sending them for at least a consultation with someone who has a different orientation than mine.
From a family therapy point of view, both transformation and dissolution begin with crisis: they start off looking the same. As a couples therapist, I wish first for marital transformation, but dissolution provides opportunities for positive change too. We’ve all known couples who end their marriages because of intractable fights and negative relational patterns, only to continue the same chronic battle after their divorce, but now coparenting arrangements provide a whole new casus belli.
In contrast, some divorcing couples believe, from misguided optimism or denial, that once the marriage ends they’ll magically become best friends—having Sunday dinners and family outings together. Very doubtful, I tell them regretfully. They may become friends at some point, but only after a long and decent mourning period has passed.
In the meantime, they must be allowed the space and time to face their new reality. My job as their therapist is to help the couple release their old pattern, help them end their dance as they end their union. Even here, one might say, especially here, their job is to rise to the occasion: to put aside their hurt and anger, behave like rational adults for themselves and their children—if there are any—and put their grievances to rest so they can face their great loss and allow it to penetrate. My goal is to help them accept and grieve as cleanly, as heroically, as they can. Even in facing the relationship’s demise, there can be growth.
The session following Jane’s announcement turned out to be our last. Once we talked about the post-divorce arrangements they’d already begun to make, I reach into my therapist’s bag and pull out a format I learned years ago.
“Turn your chairs back to back,” I instruct them. “Now imagine that enough time has passed—weeks, months, years maybe—so that the first waves of grief, hurt, and anger have subsided. Each of you is firmly ensconced in your new life without the other. Now, from this reflective place, speak out loud a letter you write to your ex-partner.
Hesitantly, Henry begins, stopping for tears from time to time. Our efforts in therapy over the last two months, the books Henry’s read, and the heart opening crisis he’s faced have all made him more soft, open, and connected than he was when I first met him. In his letter, he tells Jane how much he misses her, how filled he is with regret, what a different man he’s become. “I know I’ve been mean to you,” he says, “even cruel in my way, all the while disowning it, blaming you for everything. I want you to know you didn’t deserve it. Not that you need me to tell you this, but you didn’t. It was me, honey. I wish I could take it all back.”
“If you would,” I tell him when he’s done, “add a PS. PS, what I wish for you is . . . .”
Henry squares his shoulders and looks deep into the distance confronting him. “What I wish for,” he tells Jane, “is that you find happiness. I really want you to be happy, sweetheart. I want you to find someone who will be with you in the ways you deserve, and in the ways you feel I couldn’t, and didn’t. I hope you find love.”
And now the stiffness and constraint that has held Jane throughout our sessions releases, and she collapses in tears.“That’s the most amazing thing I’ve heard you say in years,” she tells him in her letter of response.
Like a fog, the feeling of regret enwraps all three of us, fills the room. Looking at Jane’s pained face I imagine her thinking, If only Henry had been in the last 10 years what he’s been in the last 10 minutes. But sometimes the past is relentless, irrevocable. They’ll always share their children, and, in their own way, they’ll continue to love each other.
Having been through what they’ve experienced together, especially at the end, I believe Henry will be a better man and Jane a stronger woman in their next relationships. But now it was time for them—and for me—to let go.
This article appeared in the July/August 2015 issue of Psychotherapy Networker.Joining Through the Truth
Most of us were trained to believe that we needed to be extremely careful when helping clients face the really difficult truths in their lives—especially their own obnoxious, selfish, or self-defeating actions. Better to err on the side of going slow, creating safety, and remaining neutral than to come across as pushy or disrespectful. Nevertheless, my own experience as a couples therapist has taught me that we aren’t doing clients a favor by soft-pedaling difficult issues, despite what my early supervisors tried to instill in me. The approach I’ve developed, Relationship Life Therapy (RLT), is based on the premise that it’s disrespectful to clients not to let them in on the truth about what we witness regularly in our offices as they play out their relationships in front of us: the ways they deal with their partners are often self-centered, unfeeling, and counterproductive.
In some ways, the guiding principle of RLT is to be able to say to clients what we might otherwise say only to our colleagues in our supervision group or around the water cooler after a tough session. Instead of confiding, when they’re out of earshot, something like, “I can’t believe what a witch she is to him. He’s such a Caspar Milquetoast,” I believe that’s what you need to say—skillfully and respectfully—in the session with the couple.
Some would call this approach confrontational, but I think that term is misleadingly adversarial and addresses only half the process. I think the quality of directness I’m talking about is better described as joining through the truth. There are two parts to this approach: the first is to hold a mirror up to our clients to help them see themselves and their role in the dysfunctional dance of their relationship as accurately and fully as possible; the second, which is where the real nuance and clinical skill comes in, is to show them the difficult truths about themselves in a way that leaves them feeling not only that we’re on their side, but that we’re actually rooting for them.
RLT is an approach that stands somewhere between traditional psychotherapy, with its emphasis on creating a nonjudgmental, accepting, holding environment to bring about change, and the more rough-and-tumble, challenging, psychoeducational discipline of life coaching. For want of a better term, I’d call the approach illustrated in the case I’m about to describe as a form of therapeutic coaching. It’s based on the idea that we can coach clients toward intimacy, teach them how to be more psychologically evolved, and mentor them into transforming their characters.
David takes a seat on the couch in my office, alongside his wife, Sarah. He fiddles with his yarmulke the way another man might fidget with his tie. At 42, he’s handsome and well-built. He radiates strength, self-confidence, trustworthiness. And yet . . . the yarmulke adjustment. As he glances sideways at Sarah, he seems nervous. A month into their therapy, it’s become apparent to me that, while it may not have always been true, at this juncture, David fears his wife—and not without reason.
Sarah is 40 and describes herself as “small but mighty.” Petite, blonde, with
ice-blue, fiercely intelligent eyes, she can be a force to be reckoned with. Looking at me square in the face, she declares, “We’ve been having a hard time this week.” Pausing to put her story
in context, she says, “This is the story of a small thing turning into a big thing, and then turning into a really big thing.”
“Tell me,” I say.
“A few weeks ago, we get an email from our daughter’s old school. There’s a dinner and they’d like us to come. Our daughter went there for many years; David was on their board. It was an important part of the family. So I tell him, ‘I think we should go.’ Then he gives me all the reasons why we shouldn’t: ‘It’s just a fundraiser. They just want money.’
“A week later, I bring it up again and say I think it’s really important to go— and, again, he launches into the same lecture. So now, I’m frustrated. Do I feel listened to? I do not.”
David shifts on the couch, about to say something, but one look from Sarah is enough to stop him. I decide to let that go and keep listening. “This repeats a few times,” Sarah continues. “Wife proposes; husband disposes.”
“You know, if you’d only said. . . .” David tries to interject, unable to help himself. Sarah looks pained at the interruption and David settles back down.
“You want to . . . ?” I ask him, but he shakes his head, equal parts gracious and disgusted. Things are heating up.
“OK, so at this point, I’m not happy,” Sarah continues. “But I’m not crazy unhappy,” she says, smiling. “Then I do get crazy unhappy when, two days before the dinner, David gets off the phone with our friend Rudi, turns to me and says, ‘Hey, Rudi and Joan are going to that dinner, could be fun. Wanna go?’ Wanna go?” she remembers the phrase, incredulous. “He spoke as
if I’d never brought it up. He never remembered talking to me about it.” Tears fill her eyes.
“A small thing, a small thing, maybe, but I felt invisible. And as far as I’m concerned, that’s why we’re here— because David hears what David hears, and David does what David does. He’s not mean; he doesn’t bully. He’s the world’s nicest guy; ask anyone. But if he woke up in the morning and found me sprawled on the stairs with my throat slit, he’d step over me and ask if I wanted some coffee. There are times when it feels like I don’t even exist,” she says, punctuating each word for emphasis.
“Got it,” I tell Sarah, turning to David. “How’d you like to respond?”
“If only she’d said to me ‘I,’—like you taught us, Terry,” David explains— “‘I want to go.’ But that wasn’t her phrasing. She said, ‘I think we should go.’” He turns to her, “‘Should go,’” he repeats, vindicated. “And I didn’t think so. So that’s all. That’s all there is to it.”
I squint at David for a minute as he sits back in his chair, looking satisfied, I think. Then I break the first of many rules I’d learned in my training—I take sides.
A cardinal principle of couples therapy as I learned it was: Thou Shalt Not Take Sides, and particularly, you’re not to side with a woman against a man. Even handedness is critical, I learned. If you lost your “therapeutic neutrality,” you had to go talk to your supervisor. But I’d heard enough, not just in this moment, but also in others from previous sessions, to convince me that Sarah’s complaint had the ring of truth to it. She was right—David didn’t listen.
“So,” I ask him, “the fact that she brought it up two, three. . . .”
“Five,” Sarah offers.
“Five times,” I say. “That doesn’t tell you something about how important it is to her?”
“But she didn’t say. . . .” David tries.
“That,” Sarah interjects, “just gets us from small to big. Really big comes when I try to talk to him about it and he just gets defensive and angry.”
“Damn it, Sarah! That’s ridiculous,” David objects, looking . . . well, defensive and angry.
“David, you didn’t talk to me for the next three days!” she exclaims.
“True?” I ask him.
“I was hurt,” he explains.
“Hurt?” I ask.
“And pissed, I suppose,” he admits, begrudgingly.
I look at them both. It’s time for me to speak.
“So,” I turn to David. “This is the part, my friend, where I say, ‘I can be nice to you right now, or I can work to save your marriage. What’s more important to you?’” David sighs, a big sigh. His hand stretches up to his yarmulke. “Bring it,” he says grimly.
“Thank you,” I answer. “So, take a breath; this might sting a little.”
“I’m good. Go ahead,” he assures me.
“She’s right, David.”
“Your behavior, which would drive most women crazy,” I tell him.
“As in rip her hair out.” He nods quietly, taking it in, not fighting me for the moment. Next to him, Sarah does what many women do at this juncture—she begins to cry, not from pain, as she later explains, but from relief. She’s dragged her husband to three therapists before me. Until this minute in this session, no one has ever taken him on.
Through the years, I’ve seen many frustrated wives like Sarah in my office—women who, often at no small cost and courage, manage to drag their difficult, even psychologically abusive, husbands to therapy, only to have the therapist throw them under the bus for the sake of even handedness and neutrality. “Our previous therapist never once confronted David,” Sarah complained to me in one session. “Over the course of a year, he built up enormous credit with my husband. The only problem was that he never spent one penny of it!”
The conventional wisdom of couples therapy aside, I don’t believe that partners share 50-50 responsibility for all their issues with each other. Some couples issues are 70-30, some 90-10. One partner can have an untreated bipolar disorder or be an alcoholic rager, while the spouse’s major “contribution” is simply being there. An RLT therapist has no problem saying something like, “OK, Mr. Jones, you’re a nut. And Mrs. Jones, you’re an even bigger nut. Here’s why. . . .”
Not always, but often, a couple presents as one “latent” and one “blatant.” There’s one who’s in an enabling position, albeit perhaps angrily so, and another who’s more clearly and egregiously anti-relational. If you’re sitting with a couple and thinking to yourself, “Yeah, I couldn’t be married to that person either!” you’re thinking about the blatant partner. The truth is that, many times, one partner (the fed-up latent) drags into therapy the other partner (the often clueless blatant) because the blatant is relationally insufferable—either withdrawn and giving too little, or abrasive and taking liberties. There’s a “dragger” and a “draggee.” Most therapists, unwilling to take on the draggee, like David, leave the dragger, like Sarah, to swing in the wind.
While Sarah isn’t an angel by any means, the bottom line is that David’s lack of relational skill has pushed her to the brink of divorce. She’s brought him to one last therapist in the desperate hope that I’ll take on the job of teaching him how to be more relational. And I will. As a therapeutic coach who doesn’t believe in neutrality in all cases and who does believe in the effectiveness of teaching people how to navigate a territory that many, especially men, find confusing and often terrifying, I think it’s important for me to fulfill Sarah’s expectation.
“David,” I begin. “You’re such a good guy.” He nods. “You so don’t mean any harm.”
“I know,” I assure him. “But this story with the school, it’s like the skis.”
“Oh.” He turns a shade paler. “The skis.” In a previous session, Sarah had recounted an incident in which she and their four kids, exhausted from a day of skiing, had laid all their skis on top of the car and then had stood aghast as David had driven off without them, with their equipment clattering to the ground. “I was listening to NPR,” he’d explained. “You know the show,
Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me?” Recalling the ski incident now, David seems sheepish. “You mean can be an absentminded professor?” he tries.
“That’s one way to put it,” I answer.
“Head in the clouds?” This from a razor-sharp businessman.
“How would you put it?” he asks.
“My diagnosis?” I hold up my hand, as if reading from a marquee. “I’d say, ‘David Sharpe, terminally obtuse.’”
“Ouch,” he says.
“I’m sorry,” I tell him. He looks at his wife, who’s still crying. He seems equal parts abashed and annoyed.
“Maybe I’m the one who should be sorry,” he says half-heartedly, clearly unconvinced.
“Maybe so,” I reply.
Calling David obtuse was just the start of getting his attention. It began to offer him a picture of his behavior that’s dramatically at odds with his preferred view of himself. But it was too broad a description to be really helpful. What was needed was much more precision. In therapeutic coaching, the more generic it is, the weaker your intervention; the more specific, the stronger.
David isn’t, in fact, an absent-minded professor. That’s minimizing. He can attend very well—when he wants to. Whether or not he listens, it turns out, has everything to do with whether or not he likes what he hears. If Sarah had said she didn’t want to go to the dinner, he admits, he’d have gotten that loud and clear the first time. But because her wishes contradicted his own, he somehow mysteriously tuned out. David, we come to agree, has a kind of selective listening, or in our preferred terminology, selective obtuseness. “I can’t say I agree with all this,” he tells me. “But I can see how you might see it this way.”
“From you, David,” I tell him, “that’s a ticker tape parade down Fifth Avenue.”
“I wouldn’t go overboard,” he replies.
Another way of saying that someone is blatant is that they stride through life feeling superior, looking down their nose at others, or ignoring the rules and feeling entitled. David’s selective obtuseness is a form of what my colleague Jeffrey Kerr has called privileged obliviousness—in other words, a form of entitlement that’s mild, in comparison to many other grandiose people, but enough to endanger his marriage. David’s inattention is the kind of quality-of-relationship issue that would have been written off a generation ago, but in today’s world, could steer a marriage toward divorce.
When faced with a difficult or grandiose client, even someone as mild as David, most therapists are intimidated. Grandiose clients bring to therapy the same privilege they bring into their living room and bedrooms—the privilege to blow up or flee. Encountering the threat of such volatility, we’re taught to go gingerly. Under the rubric of “forming an alliance,” or “gaining the client’s trust,” we learn, in essence, to replicate the traditional spousal role: we reason, we cajole, we seduce—we do everything except tell the truth and put our foot down.
As a result, most therapists get about as far with grandiose clients as traditional wives get with stubbornly entitled husbands. Therapists fear that if they push too hard, the client will explode or leave treatment—not unreasonable fears—so we play tough clients like fish, alternating between giving them enough line and reeling them in. Therapeutic coaching deals with this issue a little differently. It begins by removing the power of intimidation. Before I reach for an alliance with a difficult client, I know that I first must gather leverage if I’m to have any hope of bringing about positive change.
Leverage means that therapy must offer the grandiose client either the prospect of something he wants—a warmer, sexier wife, for example—or a buffer against negative consequences he distinctly doesn’t want—like losing his marriage or damaging his children in the ways he was damaged by his own parents. Gathering leverage isn’t coercive: it just spells out the negative consequences of the blatant client’s continued dysfunctional behavior. This is a necessary first step with entitled clients because grandiosity impairs one’s sensitivity to others and ability to assess negative consequences. Psychiatrist George Valiant once remarked that there are two kinds of people in the world: a guy who walks into an elevator, gets claustrophobic, and turns green, and a guy who walks into an elevator, lights up a big, fat stogie, and everyone else turns green. That’s the difference between shame and grandiosity.
For more than 50 years, the mental health field has focused on helping people come up from the one-down position of shame. But we’ve done a poor job equipping therapists to help entitled clients come down from their one-up perch in life. Many current forms of couples therapy invite therapists to listen empathically, reflecting back what we hear, to be nondirective, to serve as a secure attachment figure, a safe holding environment. Such a nurture-based, facilitative therapy can work with a shame-based person because lack of empathy to oneself is central to the disorder. But the guy with the stogie has no problems being empathic toward himself. His missing trait is empathy toward others—and an appreciation of consequences. In David’s case, Sarah had already supplied ample leverage with the consequence of a threatened separation—a risk David was taking seriously. Whatever “attitude” he may have had in the marriage, or in previous therapies, had dissipated in the face of impending loss. If I could convincingly portray myself as someone who could save his marriage, he’d be all ears. That’s leverage.
I don’t believe that our clients have stored within themselves such a rich treasure of inherent wisdom that our primary job is only to guide them gently into finding their own solutions to the difficulties in their lives. In fact, we live in a culture in which few of us learn what intimacy is as we’re growing up, or how to create and sustain intimacy in our adult relationships. In our society, intimacy is considered a feminine characteristic, and most men react to the prospect of intimacy with all the enthusiasm of sitting through a chick flick.
As a culture, we do to relationship what we often do to things deemed feminine: we idealize it in principle and devalue it in fact. Yet we’ve never wanted more from our long-term relationships. Gone is the tepidly emotional, companionable marriage of the previous century. Today, couples want long walks on the beach holding hands, heart-to-heart talks, and great sex into their fifties, sixties, and beyond. We yearn for a lifelong-lover kind of romance. However, our culture is built for production and consumption—not romance, and we simply don’t equip our sons and daughters with the skills needed to realize these historically new, psychologically ambitious desires. If you ask clients, “How do you think you should be intimate?” most would honestly say, “We haven’t a clue. Please tell us. That’s what we’re here to find out.”
Answering this request for guidance means that therapists must face a challenge of their own. If we’re going to help people develop the skill set of knowing how to sustain connection, we need to know that struggle inside out from our own lives. We need to have mastered in our own intimate lives the same skills we ask our clients to use, and we need to be transparent about it. On the days my wife, Belinda, and I don’t use our tools, I often tell the couples I see, “We look just as unhappy as you do.” My clients love hearing things like that. They love it when we therapists come out from behind our blank screens and are human with them. I believe in communicating to our clients that we’re in the mud with them—more like 12-Step sponsors than paragons of traditional therapeutic wisdom.
In traditional therapy, once we’ve secured an alliance with our difficult clients (which may take months or even years), we may then finally feel ready to tell them the difficult truths. In RLT, as soon as we’ve gained the leverage that sets the stage for therapeutic change, we form the therapeutic alliance by telling clients the difficult truths right out of the starting gate.
The organizing principle that drives David’s selective obtuseness is easy to see: selfishness. In fact, with this particular couple, the difficult truth isn’t something that’s hard to acknowledge. When I bring up David’s being, at times, selfish, they both warm to this description surprisingly easily. They speak animatedly about the ways he can “suck the air out of any room,” the ways he exaggerates and brags, overtalks others, brings the focus of conversation back to him and his interests. They’ve discussed all this for years, referring to a bad interaction as one of David’s “manic moments.”
“I can see myself doing it,” he complains, “but I can’t seem to stop.” Sometimes the struggle to confront difficult truths may not come in the present, but in the past, where a particular relationship stance was learned. Professional life coaches aren’t trained to pursue family-of-origin or early childhood issues, but therapeutic coaches are. In contrast to current therapies, which focus on the traumatic influence of childhood experience, we stress identification and social learning. For example, we don’t see grandiosity as always a defense against traumatic shame, but simply a legacy from childhood. We don’t see tending to the wounded little person underneath the child’s grandiose attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors as enough to make these personal characteristics simply fall away when such vulnerability surfaces. Grandiosity must be dealt with per se: as it was learned, so it must be unlearned.
When my father raged at me in childhood, two things occurred simultaneously. On the receiving end of his anger, I was traumatized and disempowered. But he was also modeling for me, giving me the message each time he raged that when I grew up, to become a man, if I got angry, I had the right to inflict my feelings on others. I was falsely empowered—a different form of trauma and abuse—as proposed by Pia Mellody in Facing Codependence and other writings. I went through years of “trauma” work, dealing with my disempowering abuse. But my grandiosity—criticism, selfishness, and control—cost me many relationships over time and came close to costing me my marriage. My couples therapist of many years dealt with neither Belinda’s nor my own grandiosity, and our marriage came close to rotting under the corrosive effects of our bad behaviors—despite our exquisite understanding and many moving therapeutic experiences. It took years of floundering on our own with these issues before we managed to convince our therapist to take us on. I didn’t want to make the same mistake with David.
“Some families tolerate children who act like they’re perfect,” David looks at me and smiles. “But in my family, to this day, it’s not as if—I am perfect.”
“That’s not so easy. . . .” I begin.
“No, listen. I really was perfect. I was a straight-A student. I was captain of the football team and the prom king. I graduated from a top-tier college magna cum laude. In fact,” David muses aloud, “it was murder that I missed being summa cum laude. No really,” he pursues, “I was depressed for weeks at that. I mean, I was vicious to myself.”
“Welcome to the joys of perfection,” I tell him. But he’s deep in thought, seeing things, learning things quickly. “You know,” he says, “I think that’s why I get so angry and defensive with Sarah.”
“Go on,” I say.
“I think I can’t stand it that she thinks I’m not perfect. I mean, I can’t stand it.”
“So, whatever she says must be wrong,” I offer.
“Whatever she says is nuts,” he affirms.
“What a burden,” I tell him.
“Your supposed perfection,” I respond. “What an incredible burden for you both!”
Before this session, David had never questioned his need to be perfect. He hadn’t thought about it one way or another; he’d just acted it out. For the first time in his life, he found himself holding this belief, this self-image, this stance at arm’s length. Something that had been perceived as him, as an essential aspect of who he was, was now seen at a distance—as a part of him. I call this process “disidentification.”
“Why a burden?” David asks.
“Look at what its effects have been.” Indeed, as we explore the matter, the bad combination of David’s selfishness, perfectionism, and dismissiveness has cost him friendships, business opportunities, his wife’s good feelings, and, perhaps most painfully for him, closeness with his own children. As his sadness enters the room, I see an opening and pursue it.
“Tell me what you’re feeling right now,” I ask.
“They love me,” he says. “Down deep and all, my kids respect me. But . . . I don’t know . . . the warmth factor is missing.”
“Yeah, the warmth factor,” I reflect. This is a moment in the therapy I’ve been waiting for. David’s sadness about his children is a heightened appreciation for the negative consequence of his selfishness, a break from his grandiose inattention. We are, for a moment, on the same page. This is the mature part of David I want to form an alliance with.
“You know David,” I say, “we have to stop this. If this were to go on, you’d be one of those guys who, you know, the kids call up and say, ‘Hi, Dad. Lemme talk to Mom.”
“You don’t get it,” he tells me, looking suddenly deflated, all the bellicosity knocked out of him. “I already am that guy. It’s already happened.” Tears fill his eyes.
David has entered a state I call “hyperlearning” For just this moment, he sees it all so clearly, like waking from a dark spell, a dream. His usual stance isn’t so much resolved as dissolved. He’s coming into connection, into relationality. People have argued that therapeutic coaching is merely cognitive, and that, for real change to occur, the client needs to have an emotional experience. But as David shows us, the kind of deep learning I’m shooting for is highly emotional.
Through the years, I’ve found that supplying clients with an emotional experience isn’t enough on its own. The emotion must lead to learning; there must be a paradigm shift. Others have argued that coaching is merely a band-aid—that while David may “whiteknuckle” some changes in his behavior through force of will, he must deal directly with his underlying trauma before any meaningful transformation can occur.
I see it the other way around. Because being relational is at the core of who we are as human beings, immersing someone like David in the sustained experience of increased relationality has the power to transform his old wounds and profoundly reshape his character.
With clients like David, I typically offer myself up as a mentor. As a therapist–coach, I believe it’s therapeutically negligent to call clients out on their dysfunction without then offering a vision of what functional looks like.
“David,” I say, “like a lot of men, you’ve been sold a bill of goods. I know this one well from my own life. We’re taught to think that only by being perfect are we worthy of love. But it’s a load of crap. In real life, we connect to each other through our vulnerabilities. It’s precisely our imperfections that draw people in through compassion and sharing—that’s what creates the bond you’ve been looking for.”
“That’s really hard to believe,” he tells me.
In their next session, two weeks later, the couple informs me that David has gone through a shocking transformation—and it isn’t for the good. David left my office at our last session full of pushback—this relationality stuff, yeah, maybe; then again, maybe not. But once he set foot outside, something got to him. He sank, day by day, more and more deeply into depression. He couldn’t sleep, had trouble eating, cried unexpectedly.
“Are we playing games here?” he sticks his head out toward me, furious. “This is my life.”
“What part got to you?” I ask him.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Come on, David,” I tell him, “you’re the one who said no games. What part of the last session got to you?”
“The thing is,” he says, “It’s like, OK, if I’m not perfect, then screw me, what am I?”
“Well, you’re. . . .”
“And screw you, too—no offense. What am I? Some middle-aged guy, who’s losing his hair, who’s got a little belly, who’s not as smart in business as he pretends? What the fuck am I?” And now Sarah cries.
“Why are you crying?” David asks her.
Turning to her husband, Sarah says, “You’re lovable, you stupid lunk. That’s what you are. You’ve never been so lovable!”
The work I was doing with David we call “reconnecting the blatant”—bringing the blatant in from the cold, out of grandiosity, and into connection. This process can be an almost spiritual experience, like watching someone being born.
“Great,” David muses, wiping his face with the back of his hand. “I’ve never felt like such shit and you two are throwing a party.” I hold out a tissue box for him.
“Welcome to the real world,” I say.
David’s depression announces that our work together has entered its next phase. Both empowering the latent and reconnecting the blatant usually entail intense affective shifts in the clients. If you’re used to leading with big, angry emotions, the shift usually involves opening your heart. If you’re used to leading with small, helpless, feelings, it typically means discovering your spine. The weak need to learn how to stand up, and the mighty how to melt. Like many of the men I see, David is belatedly and reluctantly beginning the work of identifying his feelings, particularly his painful, sad, frightened feelings, and sharing them with his wife. While he still functions in his day-to-day life, his depression feels oppressive and crippling to him.
“All the dreck I’ve run from my whole life is now in my face. I don’t know if I can take it,” he tells me in a later session.
“You’re in the dark night of the soul,” I tell him. “Everything you’ve ever known, ever lived for, has cracked open. And you’re not sure what to replace it with yet, but you will be. Trust me, David, it’ll come to you.”
“What will come to me?” his voice is full of despair. I glance at Sarah, who, without hesitation, turns to her husband. “For one thing,” she tells him, “I’ll come. I have come. I’ve never felt closer to you. I’m right here.”
It took David many weeks to let go of his need to be perfect, weeks to accept something he’d seldom allowed himself before: feeling the support from his wife. Along with our concern that clients like David will reject what we’re saying, either by blowing up or storming off, there’s a fear that, if they take in what we say, they’ll move from inflation to deflation and fall apart. And it’ll be our fault! But as a therapeutic coach, I’ve learned to like it when perfect or puffed-up difficult clients fall apart. It’s good for someone like David to come unglued; it’s been a long time coming, and he needs to. Although it’s painful, his collision with his own humanity won’t damage him. It’ll bring him back to his real, imperfect self. And back to Sarah.
“For over a month now, I’ve been a shit, but Sarah. . . .”
Sarah interrupts him. “You haven’t been a shit, David,” she says.
“Fine,” he dismisses her. “I’ve been a total pain in the. . . .”
“Stop it,” she exclaims. “I can’t stand it when you talk like that. You’ve been sad, David, that’s all, very sad.”
“I’m trying to give you a compliment,” he tells her. “So, for weeks I’ve been . . . vulnerable,” he grins. “That’s a word you both love—vulnerable, OK? And Sarah’s been great, really terrific.”
“I think she’s being terrific right now,” I tell him.
“I love how you are now,” she tells him. “I’m sorry it’s so painful, but, shoot me, I like this guy. I don’t need that other guy, the perfect one.”
“The new me,” David says wryly, “David 2.0.”
“Tell me about David 2.0,” I ask.
“Well, obviously, he’s sadder,” he says.
“For the moment,” I tell him.
“For a while now,” he pushes back.
“Fair enough, then. He’s sadder. Is that it?”
David looks at his wife. “No, that’s not it,” he says, and sighs a big sigh. “Look, I’m not gonna say he’s dancing on the furniture.”
“OK, that’s what you’re not gonna say.”
Sarah stretches out her arm to the back of the couch, her hand close to his face, but doesn’t touch him.
“I’m kinder,” he says looking at his wife. “Softer.”
“Sweeter,” she pipes in.
“Maybe,” he says. “Maybe a little.”
“David,” Sarah goes on. “Face it, admit it. You’re becoming a mensch, a true human being.”
“Who knew it would feel this good?” David deadpans.
“Don’t whine,” Sarah deadpans right back.
I look at the two of them as they look at each other. OK, I think, traction.They’re ready for the next phase of change that awaits them.
Although Sarah didn’t need much coaching in this case, that’s unusual. People ask me about when the latent client’s issues emerge, and my usual answer is the minute the blatant starts giving them what they’ve been asking for; then the latent’s issues come to the surface. Most partners don’t swoon into their spouse’s arms and say, “Thank you,” for the changes they’ve made. I routinely tell latent partners, “There’s a world of difference between complaining about not getting something and allowing yourself to open up and receive it.” We call this transmission/reception work. Once partner A starts transmitting, the coach often needs to work with partner B to receive it. This is now the time when A, the blatant, gets to address his concerns and wishes for B, the latent—which most often consists of a wish for either less distance and/or less fighting and, almost always, more warmth.
Once the couple’s dance shifts from a recursive loop that’s negative to one that’s positive, from a vicious cycle to a virtuous cycle, the therapeutic use of self shifts to one of amplification. “You were able to do what? Oh my word, how were you able to do that?” In this phase, we look not unlike a solution-focused or narrative therapist. One particularly useful amplification technique that underscores and feeds progress is demarcation: that was the old (antirelational) you; this is the new (relational) you, or in David’s words, “David 2.0.” I’ll often speak to clients about the “new empowered” or conversely “the new, softer and gentler” versions of themselves.
Some clinicians resonate easily with this way of working—being themselves, telling the truth as they see it, sharing experiences they’ve had in their own lives, being direct. In fact, they may say that they’re already doing many of these things by the seat of their pants. For others, this way of working may make sense, but it requires an expressive style that’s too foreign to their temperament or clinical belief system. More than adopting any particular methodology of change, therapeutic coaching is founded on the belief that we can be far more direct and challenging to the clients who come to us than we’ve previously acknowledged. I operate with the assumption that, by and large, people are neither fragile nor stupid. If you show them how they’re getting in their own way and what behaving more skillfully looks like, they’ll be grateful. Rather than the expectation that telling tough truths will send clients out of the room screaming, I’ve seen over and over that, if done with love, grace, skill, and even an occasional dose of real wisdom, therapeutic coaching brings clients back for more.
To be sure, the approach I’m describing requires therapists to move beyond their comfort zone and step out from behind a veneer of calm neutrality. But I believe that in order to teach our clients how to be authentic and connected, we must be real with them ourselves. If our work with troubled couples is to move to a new level of effectiveness, we need to consider how well our traditional assumptions about relationship, change, and our own roles are serving us and our clients. I’ve found that the couples I see are ready to meet the challenge of examining themselves, of becoming explorers in what is, for them, uncharted territory. The question for the field of psychotherapy is whether we’re ready to meet that challenge ourselves.
This article first appeared in the November/December 2012 issue of Psychotherapy Networker.Working with Difficult Men: Where’s the Leverage for Change
“It used to be a man could tell what to do,” says George, who’s in his mid-50s, a Boston expat now living with his wife, Michele, in her home state of Texas. In jeans and a work shirt, he looks the part of an ordinary American Joe. “Go to work,” George ticks off. “Hold a steady job, provide for your family, protect your country if need be.” He sighs. “Now everything is different. Gay marriage, which is okay, I guess, but then transgendered soldiers? ‘Genderfluid’ [air quotes] children? One of Michele’s friends has a kid, 16, walks around with his hair down to here, makeup, nail polish, and a lovely girlfriend. Isn’t she a lovely girl, Michele?” he asks sarcastically.
Michele looks like she’s having none of it. I think to myself that it’s a bit of a challenge for George to pull off this working-man persona with his mile-wide patrician Boston accent, the drawn-out A’s smacking of private school and privilege. “Let me tell you something,” he leans into me, confiding, mano a mano, two guys: “Women like it when men act like men. You’re a father. You have a son, two sons, right? You want them to be men or a couple of snowflakes?”
I decide I’ve had enough and turn to Michele. “And how would you like to respond?” I ask her guilelessly.
“Respond?” she lifts her lip.
“What George is saying,” I try again gamely. “How’s it landing on you?”
“How’s it landing on me?” she says. “I want to throw up.”
“Oh,” I let out.
“Just pack up and leave. There’s no room for me here,” she adds, picking up steam.
“But Michele,” George begins, only to be silenced by her baleful stare.
“What do you give me?” she asks, talking faster, louder.
“We have a great life, Michele,” George pleads.
“We do, George, and thank you for that, but it’s not enough. You don’t talk to me. You show no interest in my life, zero curiosity,” she ticks her points off on her fingers. “You barely talk to me about yourself either. You’re a closed-off human being. You don’t take the initiative to do anything. I arrange everything in our lives. All you do is argue and criticize.”
“I’m not sure. . .” he interjects.
“And we haven’t had sex in over a year!” she almost shouts.
“Well, now that’s something we might want to . . .” I start.
“Oh, George.” She curls the name in contempt, ignoring me. “I want a partner, a real partner. Not some puffed-up child.”
I look at the expression on George’s face and feel bad for him. I’ve seen that look so often in men—hurt, angry, entitled, and bewildered. Like a person with each foot on a different side of a widening chasm, George is torn between two compelling versions of what it means to be a man: one version is traditional, older, unabashedly patriarchal, and centrally concerned with hierarchy and power; the other is modern, younger, ecological, and centrally concerned with mutuality and partnership. It’s difficult to imagine a contest with higher stakes.
On the prairies, no less than in our cities, the war over masculinity threatens to split apart marriages just like George and Michele’s. The things that Michele wants from her husband—less argumentativeness, greater emotional closeness, interest in her feelings, and a willingness to express his own—simply do not appear in traditional masculinity’s playbook, leaving Michelle feeling unheard and resentful, and George feeling unappreciated and helpless.
How many Micheles bring their Georges in to see us, so that we therapists can help render them more relational? The emotional intimacy modern women crave is inimical to traditional masculinity—period. Patriarchy was never built for intimacy, but for stability, clear lineage, production, and consumption. The idea of lasting romance in marriage is historically brand new. And if we’re honest, it’s an ideal that has been driven primarily and most emphatically by women.
Women’s dissatisfaction with their men is real, understandable, and—once the man is willing—fixable. That’s the great news. For 30 years, Relational Life Therapy (RLT) has helped us persuade, invite, and empower male clients like George into radically deeper levels of emotional connection. Men can cultivate increased empathy. Passive men can rise up and speak up. Bullying men can take a breath and come down. Charming boymen can learn that it’s not always about them. The damaged, the destructive, the dependent—through good therapy, immature men of all stripes can grow up. But we therapists must prove ourselves worthy of the challenge.
To better understand where we must go, we must first understand where we’re coming from. At its core, traditional masculinity rests on two pillars: the rejection of vulnerability and the delusion of dominance. Instead of trying to connect through vulnerable sharing, traditional masculinity dictates that we men win approval through our performance. The daring knight proves his mettle and wins the damsel. The captain of the football team walks off with the homecoming queen. Women are taught how to make connections: men are taught they must win connection through achievement. Being a loser means being cut off, abandoned.
These days, many men have learned to substitute performance-based esteem for healthy self-esteem. But in the traditional framework, this means ordinary acts routinely become tests of manhood, a sorting ritual declaring you worthy of inclusion or not. In the one-up, one-down world of men, there’s no place for “same as,” and hence no platform for real intimacy. You’re either a winner or loser: dominator or dominated, grandiose or shame-filled. And you can’t be truly intimate from either the one-down (shame-filled, “feminine”) or the one-up (grandiose, “masculine”) position. Marital intimacy requires democracy—a meeting of peers, each with his or her own needs, values, and mores.
Coming into relationality means coming out of the delusion of dominance. In your life, your relationship is your emotional biosphere. You breathe it. You live within it. Yes, you can indulge yourself and emotionally pollute over there with your anger, but you must realize you’re the one who will breathe in that pollution over here in the form of your partner’s resentment or withdrawal. Thinking relationally is synonymous with thinking ecologically. I don’t talk to men like George about altruism, but rather about their own enlightened self-interest: happy wife, happy life. It’s in your interest to keep your biosphere healthy and clear because you’re in it.
With jet-black hair over a craggy face, Matthew, in his late 60s, looked like he’d seen a few miles together with his wife, Ann, who sat ramrod straight in the chair beside him in my office. Married close to 30 years, their union was coming unglued.
“I don’t want to be here,” Ann announces right off the bat. “I don’t want to be in this room; I don’t want to be in this therapy; I don’t want to be in this marriage.” Medium height and dressed a little matronly, Ann wouldn’t necessarily stand out on the street, but I wouldn’t suggest getting in her way this morning.
“Okay,” I pick her up on it. “So why are you here? Why aren’t you talking to a lawyer?”
“Trust me,” Ann throws a cursory glance at her husband. “I have. I came today because Matt asked me to, and I want what’s best for him.”
Oh, I think to myself. This is bad. This feels like a drop-off. All couples therapists get drop-offs at some point: ostensibly, the couple is there for marital counseling, but it quickly becomes clear that partner A is delivering partner B to a willing professional so that B can get help and A can get going. I ask Matt what he wants, and he tells me he’d do anything to fix his broken marriage, so I turn back to Ann. “What’s he done?” I ask.
“Pardon?” she says.
“What’s he done to turn you off so?”
She laughs, incongruently, inside her cupped hands, awkward. “It isn’t just me,” she informs me after a beat. “Neither of our two daughters wants much to do with him.” Hearing Ann’s story, what becomes clear is that Matt, after 20 some years as a husband and a dozen plus as a father, is about to get fired by his entire family. And what did Matt do to deserve this treatment?
“Well,” Ann tells me, “he yells. He gets up inches from your face, barely inches, with his own face all screwed up and red. You feel like he’s going to deck you, though he never would, of course. Since the girls were tiny little things, babies, they’ve been afraid of him. That wasn’t all the time, by any means, and when he wasn’t in a rage, he was a lovely guy, a lovely dad. But this . . . this . . .” she trails off, unwilling to say more.
I look at Matt. His gaze on clasped hands, knees spread wide, he looks utterly dejected—but he’s not out of steam. As I watch, he does what many of the men who come to my office do: he argues. Sure, his temper is real, he admits, but it’s not all that bad or that often; he’s never ever laid a hand . . . and so on. Faced with such a typical situation, what do I do? Here are my first technical tips for working with men.
If the woman is about to walk, she gets my attention. Why? If my goal is to do what I can to save their marriage, then she’s my customer. If he was the one who wanted to walk, or if it was mutual, that would be different. But while there are symmetrical couples, where both partners are more or less alike in their unhappiness, and couples where the unhappy, passive man walks on eggshells around his volatile wife, there are a lot more women out there unhappy with their guys than the other way around.
I pay as much attention to issues of grandiosity in men as I do issues of shame. Why? It isn’t Matt’s shame that’s threatening to unglue this family; it’s his rage, his entitlement to control and attack. The couples I see have generally been to one, two—so far, the record is eight—therapists, and not one of them has confronted the man’s grandiosity. Trauma? Of course! Shame? Absolutely! But neither of these is what’s brought Ann to the edge. When faced with evidence of a man’s grandiosity, we therapists are trained to go under it, to the “underlying causes” of shame and trauma. We’re taught that, with enough therapeutic nurture, the grandiosity will somehow be healed and vanish. This is wishful thinking. RLT therapists don’t go under, around, or over a man’s grandiosity—we steer into it.
Grandiosity impairs judgment. It blunts empathy and leads us to underestimate negative consequences. Virtually all grandiose men minimize and rationalize their behavior. “It isn’t that bad” coupled with “Well, but you have to understand. . . .” To cut through these distortions and get through to these guys, an RLT therapist goes for details. In RLT, there’s a saying: “generic weak, specific strong.” We unearth specific examples, behaviors, and actual words, and use them like a can opener to confront the hard shell of denial. “Did you, or did you not, actually say that?”
After hearing more about Matt’s temper, I decide to return to the first specific example Ann offered. “He’s gotten up in your faces?” I ask her.
“Inches,” she answers. “Screaming full force.”
I look over at Matt, not all that warmly. “This happens episodically?” I ask Ann. She doesn’t understand. “From time to time?”
“It used to be a lot worse,” she says, and I can see Matt relax. “But it still happens.” He bristles. “Rarely,” she corrects. “But then again,” she leans toward him, not to be put off, “the girls don’t really talk to you much anymore, do they?” Matt returns his gaze to his hands.
“You earned that,” I tell Matt.
“Excuse me?” he says.
“Their distance,” I say. “Your kids. You’ve earned that. You made that happen.”
Now it’s his turn to sneer. “And their mother had nothing to do with it?” He looks at me, challenging, and I hold his gaze.
“I imagine not as much as you’d like to think,” I answer.
“Oh,” he smiles, condescending, “it’s quite a girl’s club at home.”
“Independent of all that, the impact of your own temper is on you,” I tell him. “You own this.” He looks at me like he doesn’t know what I’m talking about. My eyes still on him, I ask Ann, “How old were the girls when he started screaming at them?”
“How little?” she asks.
“Now listen, for Christ sake. Everyone yells at their kids from—.”
“That’s not what we’re talking about!” Ann forcefully cuts him off.
Good for you, I think. I’m glad to have Ann as an ally. As their therapist, in this first stage of the work—waking Matt up—one key is not to get out ahead of her. Having her with us in session, truthful and vocal, is a critical help to Matt’s healing.
I prefer to work with individual men in the context of their current relationships, using that relationship as the crucible in which the man can melt down and transform. What better place to experiment with increased relationality than in one’s actual relationship? I want the man’s partner—and sometimes the children—to give me the data and leverage I need. This is not primarily transference-based work. Although I want the man to have a corrective emotional experience with me, more important is setting him up to have ongoing corrective experiences with those he loves. But relational recovery, what some would now call the attainment of a secure attachment, can be daunting work, and many clients need convincing that it’s worth it.
Once I determine that I’m working with a difficult, grandiose man, my first concern is how to engage him in therapy, how to get buyin. The RLT approach of gathering leverage is just a technical way of saying we pay close attention to the man’s motivation or lack thereof. The more grandiose the man is, the more comfortable he’ll be with his difficult behavior, with blaming others, deflecting, denying, going tit for tat. RLT therapists engage men by skillfully shifting back and forth between the potential negative consequences of staying as he is versus the positive rewards of change.
Earlier, I stated that grandiosity impairs judgment, and generally the more grandiose a man is, the more distorted his judgment will be. (Think of mania in bipolar disorder.) Just as a traditional therapist will heal a shame-based person by supplying what’s missing—in this case, empathy for oneself—an RLT therapist will supply what’s missing for a grandiose or narcissistic client, which is empathy for others. I also help the men I work with begin to face the thus far denied consequences of their behaviors, which most often include their spouse’s dissatisfaction, sometimes unto marital death. Amplifying a man’s appreciation of the cost of his grandiosity is what we call negative leverage.
The other common source of negative leverage is the threat of doing damage to the man’s children. With Matt, who got close to his kids and yelled in their faces, in about our third session, I ask him a series of questions. “So, Matt,” I begin, turning toward him, “Who was the angry one in your family growing up? Where did you learn to scream at someone like that?”
“Well, Mom was a screamer. But I have to tell you, none of us paid that much attention to her.”
“Okay,” I say. Matt glances at his wife, who waits impatiently for more.
“Yeah,” Matt says, suddenly appearing to develop enormous interest in straightening the crease of his pants. “Yeah, it was Dad you were afraid of.”
“Okay,” I try reassuring him. “Tell me more.” And he does: about his father’s thick belt and, with a lot of help and coaxing, what it felt like against his young skin.
“How young?” I ask.
“What’s the youngest you recall— ?”
“Hey,” Matt interjects. “I don’t do that! I have never and will never!”
“Your earliest memory of it, Matt,” I persist.
“Maybe four,” he shrugs, as if to say no big deal. “Five?”
“You’re not a small man,” I say. “How big was your dad?”
He bristles. “First of all, my father was a good man. I’m not gonna sit here and pay someone to disparage him!”
“I’m sure he was,” I say, “in many ways, but, Matt, let me ask you, here’s a check for a million dollars. It’s yours, no strings. All you have to do is go back in time to when your kids were that age and put a belt to them. Would you take it?”
Matt visibly recedes. “No,” he says flatly.
“Two million,” I press. “Ten million.”
“You can shove it up your ass,” he says, holding my gaze like he means it.
“Why wouldn’t you?” I ask.
“I just wouldn’t.”
“But why wouldn’t you?”
“I just wouldn’t,” he says, obstinately.
“Look,” I say, “You’re clearly a smart man, and a decent one.” Ann snorts under her breath, but Matt softens. “If you wouldn’t do something to a child for 10 million dollars, it’s because it’s abusive, Matt. Can you see that?” Matt shakes his head.
“He could fucking swing that thing,” he allows, almost speaking to himself.
“He taught you,” I tell him.
“He infected you with his rage, like a virus,” I tell him. “He taught you that when a grown man gets pissed off, this is what that looks like.”
“I never once—.”
“You might as well have,” Ann pipes in.
“Ann,” I say holding up my hand. “Please. I’ve got this.”
“Screaming into their faces is bad enough,” I say. “I can prove it to you.” For the first time since I met him, Matt looks at me with receptivity. “What kind of relationship do you have with your father?” I ask.
“You were close?” I ask, pretty certain of the answer.
“I admired him,” he says. Ann shifts in her chair.
“Close?” I repeat.
“What kind of relationship do you want with your kids?”
“Well, at the moment—.”
“Exactly,” I say. “And do you know why?” He says nothing. I lean forward and catch his eye. “Because you have a lot to make up for, my friend,” I tell him as gently as I can. He looks down at the floor, the fight knocked out of him. “You of all people,” I add, “know exactly what it’s like to grow up with a raging father. Is that what you want for your kids?”
“It’s too late,” he says, deflated.
“No, it isn’t, Matt. There’s still time for you to change. You can still set things right.”
After a long, fraught silence, Matt looks up from the floor. “How?” he asks me.
“That’s the most sensible thing I’ve heard so far,” I say, smiling at him; I can’t help myself. “Now, let’s get started.”
Framing current difficulties as occurring within a multigenerational legacy is useful at this juncture. What were you raised with? Of that, what do you wish to pass on to the next generation, and what do you want to put an end to here and now? Many men who wouldn’t do the hard work of recovery for themselves, or for their “controlling” wives, will pick up the mantle to spare their children. I tell Matt, as I do many men, “I have a name for someone who does the work needed to transform the legacy he hands to his children. I call these men heroes.”
In the same way that RLT therapists use leverage to shift back and forth between positive and negative consequences with clients, they also shift back and forth between inside and outside—feelings and behaviors. More precisely, they shift between internal material and a systemic understanding of the loop the couple is caught in, their repetitive dance. By the end of a long first session, good RLT therapists can feed back to the couple an articulation of their core dynamic—their choreography—framing it in the simple formula of “the more, the more.” For instance, the more A pursues, the more B distances, and the more B distances, the more A pursues.
It helps men to understand where the relationship may be stuck in this way, no matter if you’re seeing him with his partner or coaching him on the side in individual therapy. When treating a man alone, I have little interest in listening endlessly to complaints about his partner. Forgive me, but I’ve seen that kind of handholding go on for years and produce . . . not a whole lot of change. So I believe it’s critical in our work with men that we offer more than empathic holding and nurture.
Men need—and most want—guidance, examples, mentors to show them the role they play in their choreography and what’s needed to change it. I want male therapists to be strong, loving figures for our clients, and I want no less from women therapists. We male therapists can use the man-to-man card. But I’ve seen my wife, a gifted therapist, do a great job playing the woman card, as in, “Hey, speaking as a woman, what you just did was gross. A real turnoff. Listen, it’d go better, I swear, if you’d change that tone.”
The more precise and richer I can be in my description of the man’s repeating dysfunctional stance, the greater the odds the man will buy in with me. It isn’t niceness that draws men back into therapy with us for subsequent sessions: it’s accuracy.
“You nailed me,” says 37-year-old Steven, a sparkling gay man, who was as charming as he was elusive. “I feel splayed and filleted.”
It’s one thing to tell Steve simply that he’s a distancer. It’s another to offer him something like this: “Steve, you’re what we call a love avoidant. You ride in a one-up, walled-off position. Intimacy is frightening for everyone, but it’s particularly scary to you. You were the achiever, a hero child: your father’s star and your mother’s confidant. Whether you know it or not, both of these jobs were a burden to you, which gets activated when someone gets close. Like now, for example. What are you feeling right now as we speak together?”
This is the kind of loving confrontation I call joining through the truth. You’re teaching the man, showing him how he blows his own foot off relationally. “Steven,” I tell him later. “You can’t just storm out of the room when Harry’s talking to you.”
“Even though,” he pushes back, “he’s either repeating himself or talking gibberish?”
I smile at him, shaking my head. “And you can’t keep putting him down and disqualifying everything he says like that! It’s entitlement in action. You’re going to lose him if you keep it up. And don’t act like you don’t care. That’s more one-up, walled-off nonsense. You’d be heartbroken and you know it.”
It’s at this juncture of loving confrontation that the man can wake up, often abruptly, and understand the spell he’s been under, which is often the spell of patriarchy itself. A lot of straight therapists would assume that because he’s gay, Steven would’ve freed himself from the biases of patriarchy. Wishful thinking! Members of the LGBTQ community are not immune to the influences of the code. Steve felt he had to be perfect, or he was useless. He lived on performance-based esteem. He was vicious with himself when he failed. Even dating and sex were a performance determining the measure of his worth and well-being.
Understand that the tortured gay man is a stock cliché of decade’s standing, so when I work with LGBTQ clients, I remember that, while things are indeed better, I’m still dealing with members of an oppressed minority. And as the father of a gay son, I have a personal relationship with the coming-out process, so varied from one person to the next. I always want to hear how the man knew that he was gay and his process of coming to terms with the challenges and gifts of it. A man’s coming-out story is the narrative of his relationship to what it means for him to be a gay man. It’s also the narrative of his relationship to masculinity. For Steve to come down from his grandiose perch, he needed to step into real vulnerability—no less because he’s gay.
Like Steve, most of my clients aren’t malevolent. They’re good-hearted and bewildered. They’d love to be a better partner, if only they knew how. That’s where we come in, not just to teach the man how—although that’s a part of it—but to awaken him to the fact that his unhappy partner has been trying to teach him all along. As a therapist, the trick is to cut through the man’s minimalization and denial, all the while taking as much care as possible to invite him into a new way of being, to empower him while he faces—perhaps for the first time—real remorse, rather than unhelpful shame.
The art involves telling a hard truth—“Steve, you live behind a wall of seduction and contempt. You’ve been more concerned with the gratification of your own sexual prowess than finding someone to actually stay close to”—with such profound respect for the best part of the man, his true self, his adult self, that he comes to trust you more as his therapist, not less. Of course, any fool can clobber a client with the truth of what she sees, but it takes skill to present the difficult behaviors or traits in a way that clearly demonstrates you’re on the man’s side, rooting for that best part of him.
We’re all imperfect humans, and RLT therapists make a point of being in the mud with our clients. To borrow from the poet W. H. Auden, we love our crooked clients with our own crooked hearts. I find it imperative when working with men to step out beyond the stiff professional boundaries of neutrality and, within good judgment, to be an actual person with them. I tell them things like, “My family calls me a narcissist in recovery,” or “Connection is my second language; selfishness is my first.” I share my own journey.
More than 30 years of working with men has convinced me that most appreciate straight talk. Show a man how he’s sinking himself relationally, help him see it, and then offer him a rope, a way out—the vast majority will grab hold, no matter if the person throwing them the lifeline is male or female. Competence trumps gender.
James is brought to me for one last gasp by a wife who’s already filed for divorce after decades of his chronic philandering. Here’s the thing: James loves his family.
“You know, James,” I tell him, “You’re a decent guy.” He shakes his head. “No, I mean it,” I say. “I’ve worked with men who are indecent to the bone; we call them sociopaths, and let me tell you, brother, they’re cold. But you’re not, James. You’re warm to sit with. You nod, take in what I say. You’re appreciative, connected.” He smiles, happy to hear all this from me. “You know what’s so sad?” I ask. “I’m talking to a decent man who’s behaved indecently for the last 20 years. Will you let me help extricate the real you, the decent you, from all this crap?”
At some point in virtually every first session, I make this distinction: good man, terrible behavior. Key here is the internal condition of the therapist. You must be in a state of healthy self-esteem yourself, or this kind of loving confrontation will fall on its face. If you’re one-down, ashamed or afraid, the client will blow right through you. If you judge him, what one of my mentors, Pia Mellody, calls going one-up on the one-up, your client will smell it and protect himself. I cast a cool eye on James’s destructive behaviors, all the while holding him in warm regard as a flawed person, just as I am.
Once we’ve articulated the present difficulty—the man’s part of the stuck choreography—we move that stance back a generation. Where did you learn this relational stance? We do deep trauma work, inner child work, in the presence of the man’s partner. The final phase of RLT is straightforward education. Many therapists believe that trauma work alone will do the trick—that once the old wounds are healed, clients will instinctively know how to be intimate. I think that’s wishful thinking. In our narcissistic, patriarchal culture, few of us are taught relational skills sophisticated enough to deliver on the promise of our new romantic aspirations.
James is a love avoidant; he operates behind walls. It isn’t that he turned his back on intimacy, but that, like many men, he never really learned what intimacy feels like. He needs to learn how to identify his wants and needs and negotiate them in his marriage, rather than gratify them in the back alley. My job is to teach him the difference between short-term gratification and the deeper pleasures of attachment itself—true connection, or relational joy.
Many of the men I treat have to learn what relational joy even is. But once they get a taste of it, it reinforces our work together, and because we’re born to be relational, because it’s the source of all happiness and satisfaction, once a man starts to, as James put it, “get the hang of this intimacy stuff,” it’s so pleasurable that it self-reinforces. I believe this is one reason why RLT tends to produce deep change so quickly: once we help the man step into the jet stream of relationality, it sweeps him along. In a later session, James describes spending a whole Sunday with his wife and kids, all snuggled on the couch together, binge-watching old movies. He told me it was one of the best days of his life.
“Better than chasing after 20-year olds?” I ask.
“No contest,” he says, looking at his wife, who turns slightly away, tears in her eyes. His gaze is soft, loving, rueful. “I literally had no idea,” he confesses. “I just didn’t know.”
Finally, once the man moves into his newfound state of connection, RLT therapists emphatically support it, amplifying and celebrating. Witnessing a man like James come into connection, I say to him, feels like watching someone get born. “Welcome to the planet Earth,” I tell him. “Congratulations. You made it through. Welcome to love.”
This article first appeared in the July/August 2019 issue of Psychotherapy Networker.GOOP PODCAST: Why We Need to Take Our Partners On with Terry Real
“Pay attention to your vulnerable feelings, and lead with those,” says therapist Terry Real, who comes back on The goop Podcast to help us navigate sheltering in place with significant others. Real guides us on how to step up for our partners (and ourselves) in crisis. He dissuades us from falling back on losing strategies that make us feel disconnected and instead outlines a path toward a healthier, more pleasurable dynamic (while reassuring us that a little “marital hatred” is still normal). Real believes in what he calls fierce intimacy. It’s not always pretty, but it allows us to repair our relationships and build trust—and it brings us closer together.
Listen to the podcast here.