Mary Smith walked into the office of the Marriage & Family Therapist resolved to maintain her dignity. She would not cry; she would not allow herself to be put on the defensive, and most of all, she did not want to point fingers.
She knew that being blaming never got anywhere. She just wanted some answers. Her husband, Simon, reluctantly came with her. He didn’t see the need for this and Mary had had a hard time explaining her reasoning to him. She had told him she was unhappy and she could see that he was stressed, too.
Simon had argued with her that neither of them was crazy and “What else do you go to a shrink for?”
Mary had tried to couch the reason for the appointment in terms of happiness: “Of course we’re not crazy,” she said, “I don’t think that’s why people go for help. They just go for help because they need it.” Mary exhaled a long sigh.
Their conversations were so exasperating. When would they ever be on the same page?
In spite of her bravery and her resolutions, Mary was nervous as she sat waiting for their turn to go into the therapist’s office. Here, they would be sharing their personal and private lives with a total stranger. Did the stranger know enough to help them?
Did the stranger have the wisdom and experience to read between the lines? Would the stranger make them feel guilty for the occasional mean remark that one or the other might have made? Would they really get the help they so badly needed?
The therapist greeted the Smiths with a warm smile and guided them into her office. Conveniently, she had had them fill out the necessary paperwork at home and now she was studying it.
“How much information could this therapist extract from a few simple questions?” Mary wondered. Mary was intrigued by the form that asked each of them to rate from 1 to 10 the severity of the issues that brought them into counseling.
She didn’t want to be overly dramatic by saying she felt the marriage to be at a zero or one. At the same time, she was not there to gloss over problems. She had indicated a “3.” She wondered what Simon had put down.
Still smiling, the therapist turned her attention to the Smiths. She asked them if it was okay to reveal to them what number each of them had put on the sheet. They agreed.
In her mind, the therapist was saying to herself, “This is going to be tough. This couple is definitely not on the same page and no matter what else is going on in their relationship, that one is big.
Mrs. Smith has put a ‘3’ down regarding her assessment of the problems that brought them there and Mr. Smith has put down an ‘8.’ How will I keep Mr. Smith engaged while I try to help him see that the marriage may require more of his focus? Alternatively, is it possible that things are really not as bad as Mrs. Smith sees them? What is good in their relationship that she is overlooking, I wonder?”
The therapist considered the description of what brought the Smiths to counseling.
Mr. Smith had written, “My wife is unhappy.” This was a good beginning; at least he was aware that she was unhappy. That was much better than writing, “Because my wife wanted me to come.”
Mrs. Smith had written, “I feel so alone in my marriage. When I try to explain this to my husband, he just doesn’t understand. It actually annoys him. He feels like he works hard to provide for us—and he does—so that should be enough. But it isn’t.”
Still smiling, the therapist gently asked the Smiths if things were always like this or were things better in the beginning. “Things were wonderful in the beginning,” Mrs. Smith said brightly. “We couldn’t stop talking to each other. We burned up the phone wires.”
“Yeah,” Mr. Smith said, picking up the memories. “I remember that.” He had a faraway look on his face.
“What are you thinking?” the therapist asked.
“Well,” he admitted, “I can see when I look back to a really good time how things have changed. I hadn’t thought of it that way, but your question brought up some very nice memories. Compared to the beginning, Mary is right; we’ve drifted apart.”
The therapist was delighted. What a good beginning. “So,” she asked him, “do you want to change the number on your sheet? Maybe a 9 or 10 would be accurate for the early days, so what is it now?”
“Yeah,” Simon said, “it can’t be more than a ‘5’ now.” They were still off, but closer. The therapist now shared with Simon that Mary had put down a ‘3.’ “Wow,” he said, “ouch.”
Mary sighed another one of her deep sighs. He managed to make her feel like the bad one for not sweeping the dust under the rug. This was so unfair! “You’re saying, ‘ouch’? What about my ‘ouch’ for the ‘3’? How do you think it feels to go around with a ‘3’?” she demanded.
Arguments in therapy are counterproductive.
When someone feels called on the carpet, he or she is unable to listen objectively to the other person. Each person remains hurt and unable to convey their feelings to the other. This usually causes the argument to escalate.
Luckily, therapists are allowed to interrupt.
“Okay, wait a minute, here,” the therapist interjected. “So what I’m getting is that you, Mary—may I call you Mary? (Mrs. Smith nods her head)—have been going around in pain. Essentially, ‘3’ is not a good place.
And, you, Simon—may I call you Simon? (again, the nod)—have somehow managed to avoid this pain. You’ve focused somewhere else, perhaps. But now it’s hitting you and you’re not comfortable.”
Turning to Mary and looking her directly in the eye, the therapist said, “This is actually good news. It means that Simon cares. He has been avoiding the hurt of your position precisely because he does care.
Sometimes people do that: They sweep the dust under the rug to avoid pain. Sure, it doesn’t help you any, but it’s a sign that he cares. It’s a start.”
Simon looked at Mary and she slowly turned to him. Something good had just happened. The Smiths didn’t quite know what it was or how it happened, but the feeling in the air was far better than when they came in.
The therapist capitalized on this turn of events. “So,” she said addressing both of them, “what could you do to start bringing that number up?”
Simon looked pained. “I don’t know!” he exclaimed. “I have to work. I have to concentrate on my work; it isn’t easy in this economy. When is there time for endless conversations like we used to have?”
The therapist knows that there are no pat answers. He raised a legitimate question. Rather than spoon-feed the Steins, she wanted to see what they could come up with on their own.
She looked at Mary. “What do you think?” she asked Mary.
“We absolutely don’t have to have endless conversations,” Mary said. “That’s ridiculous. I’m not asking for a lot of time; I’m asking that when I say something, anything, you actually hear me. That’s all I want.”
The therapist looked expectantly at Simon. “Well,” he said, “you have to know when to ask. When I’m running out the door in the morning is not a good time.”
“At night, after the kids are in bed, I’m just too tired to focus,” Mary said.
“Okay, how about this,” the therapist suggested to Mary. “Can you write down the things you’d like to discuss on a dry-erase board or on the fridge or something, so Simon has a heads up as to what’s on your mind?”
The Smiths thought this idea might work. Mary liked writing things down. It seemed to make her concerns more tangible. Simon liked the heads up; that way, he wouldn’t feel ambushed.
The Smiths left unsure as to how they would make the suggestion work, yet, they felt somehow connected, something they had not experienced in a long time.
Sometimes it can be that simple. Other times, not. But even when the “other times” are operating, it doesn’t hurt to use simple tools to re-connect.