Unexpected Therapy For A Guy Couple: What Jazz Musicians Had To Say

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Amy: (This is a continuation for my post from 10/2) 

Of all my Jazz Therapy cases,  several stand out. Sometimes the response was unexpected, and dramatic. This is such story:

Case: I had been seeing a couple, Steven, and his parter Charles, for about  a month. Steven originally approached me for therapy for his depression. He felt, as he called it, “alienated”; his work as a literary agent felt “lackluster”, and he was not his usual social, self-described extroverted self. It soon became clear that Steven felt unhappy in his partnership with his boyfriend of three years, Charles. He said he felt “disconnected” and unappreciated by Charles. He felt that Charles “didn’t know how to be in a relationship” and had withdrawn.  Of course, I suggested he come for the next session with Charles.

The Couple: The Charles that I saw in my office was very different than the “Charles” described by Steven. I had the impression that Charles was inept when it came to relationship, and clueless about intimacy. Nothing could be further from the truth.

This couple, both men in their early forties,  quickly revealed the nature of their relationship and its imbalances. Steven was clearly the “expert” of the couple: He had lived with a boyfriend before and felt he knew how it was done. And even though Steven described himself as depressed, Charles, in fact, DID seem unknowndepressed. Although highly accomplished in his field as an urban planner, with Steven he looked and acted tentative, worried, and appeared to adopt Steven’s view that he was clumsy in a relationship. In fact, Charles revealed himself as a highly intuitive, sensitive and thoughtful partner. But Steven failed to recognize this, apparently believing that his special relationship expertise was what the couple  needed.

As you would expect, the first couple of sessions I worked to subtly identify these patterns, hoping to create a shift. I decided to call on the expertise of my jazz musician consultants. We scheduled a “Jazz Therapy Consultation” for the following week.

The Jazz Therapy Consultation: My musician co-therapists for this session were two talented and accomplished instrumentalists, Peter  on tenor saxophone and Diego, multi-percussionist. Both men, friends of mine,  were in high demand as jazz musicians. This was the first Therapy Consultation for both of them.

The session began, with Peter and Diego watching on the other side of the one-way mirror. The couple showed their stuff: Steven, with his patronizing, superior attitude toward his partner, and Charles, needlessly trying to please his boyfriend and failing. After about twenty minutes of the session,  I invited the musicians in to musically comment:

images-7The music was dramatic, free, and powerful. Peter  and Diego  played for about five minutes, with Peter’s saxophone as a rather plaintive voice, and Diego almost shouting with his drums. Their music revealed a painful disconnection, which, for me, exposed the undercurrents of the couple.

After the musicians left, it was time for the couple–and me–to respond to this musical commentary. What happened then was stunning.

Steven adopted the same attitude toward these brilliant musician that he used with his boyfriend. He acted unimpressed: He felt he could have played just as well (he was a REALLY amateur musician), and basically, responded as if he had heard nothing new. He conveyed that these musicians didn’t have much show him, and if fact, if given a chance, he could show THEM a thing or two.

That was the first and only time anyone had (non) responded to a jazz consultation that way.

images-6Charles seemed upset by Steven’s reaction. From my therapy perch, it almost seemed like he was seeing Steven for the first time. Charles looked directly at Steven and asked Steven why he sounded “so arrogant”? I had never seen Charles confront Steven in this way. I was pleased; I thought this was health breaking through.   True to form, Charles, deep waters that he was, talked about how he resonated with the music, how he found it “disturbing”, especially in terms of what it might say about his relationship. Steven listened to Charles, but dug in: He repeated that he “could have played as well”, and didn’t really find the music enlightening in any way.

For the remainder  of the therapy session, I tried to use their responses to the music  to create a new dynamic for this couple. I highlighted the (human) artistry of Charles, and to let Steven’s smallness speak for itself. It’s not that I disliked Steven, by the way. I felt rather sorry for him; though a highly intelligent guy, Steven  seemed to be quite blind to his own limitations, and resisted learning about himself.

The session ended. The couple left and I returned to the other side of the mirror to de-brief with my musical consultants. I always enjoy hearing what the musicians were thinking, and what they experienced from the session that shaped their playing.

As it turned out, they both found this couple troubling.  While saxophonist Peter seemed sympathetic to both men, he said he felt worried that Charles was always “overshadowed” by Steven. He thought Charles should learn how to images-1fight back. Diego, on the other hand, felt little sympathy for Steven. He sounded annoyed at Steven’s arrogance. In fact, he said he found himself directing some of his percussive energy TOWARD Steven. (He mimed an aggressive drumming motion).  Diego said he wanted to “put this guys in his place”. He laughed when he said this, but I thought he may be (unconsciously) wanting to show Charles how to fight.

I expected to see the couple the following week. A few days before our scheduled visit, I got a call from Steven. He said they wouldn’t be coming in. Charles had decided to leave the relationship.  He had plans to move out the following week. I was shocked. Steven didn’t sound too upset about it, though. He said he thought it was, perhaps, “long overdue”. He thanked me for my help.

I decided to call Charles to check in. We spoke briefly on the phone. Charles said the Jazz Therapy session opened his eyes. He said he was deeply “embarrassed” by Steven’s arrogance.  He  said it changed how he felt about him: He said, “I realized I didn’t really like him very much.”

I felt bad, and a bit guilty. I always do when a couple breaks up. I always feel a little bit of “If only I could have…would have…). In this case, however,  I didn’t really have those feelings that I “missed” something; it’s just that it’s my tendency to vote in favor of the couple.

In retrospect, I think health broke through, and the couple didn’t survive. Their relationship was based on a flawed, static agreement, and  good therapy will challenge those patterns. In this case,  a couple of amazing  musicians became a catalyst for that change. Like good jazz, the results can be both  unpredictable and, hopefully,  life-affirming.





  1. Wow, what a beautiful and insightful story, Amy!! It made me wonder how I could include some music and some dance in my therapy sessions.

    When I arrived at the passage where Charles confronted Steven about arrogance, at first I had misread “health broke, THOUGH” (instead of “broke through”) and I was curious what you do as a therapist when you face such “breaking of health”. I have a long rehearsed reflex created in my family of origin to “do something” when health of the family gets “broken”. Some of that “arousal” came back for a second.

    But later I saw it was in fact “health broke THROUGH”, and then I figured, oh – an honest confrontation is a form of health of the individual, Anca, so sit back and relax. It’s working and it doesn’t have to necessarily be pleasant! If the relationship is based on nothing but a layer of “thin ice”, it can easily break when they move or merely relax or even simply stand on it a bit too long.

    I recall a couple I’ve worked with for a year till they reached a level of care for each other that worked like a nice anesthetic when honesty came in. Health did not break through at that point, it came in slowly and gently and with drawbacks. The partners were used to more painful separations and this softer approach almost felt like love (so I guess I missed some possible false hopes happening in there). But it was just care. Not love. The “I care for you but I don’t love you”, came from one of them after two years and they are treating the whole thing with maturity: intense feelings but responsibly contained and managed. I’ve been wondering if to celebrate that they are separating in such friendly terms, or to regret their long time invested in something that could have just finished in a couple of sessions if I could’ve, would’ve, should’ve…

    I don’t regret it. They don’t either. Their child flourished at school, in his relationships (in which he had been mostly bullied before) and in his school results. I think he was genuinely looking for answers to difficult existential questions. And that the slow and gentle separation of his parents was in many ways impactful to him. I don’t know exactly how. The couple is divorcing yet they still have a pleasurable sex life and an enduring friendship. I am perplexed how that is possible. They are too. They say that they just want another kind of togetherness and they have been great partners in a dishonest aspiration. She now wants an energetic and fun partner that she’s always wanted in fact but always had chosen partners who were the opposite (withdrawn, demanding, hard to please), so that she could work hard like usually to change them. She doesn’t want to change him anymore and she’s tired of him being “the same old story”. He, on the other hand has always wanted a ‘mom-like’ type of woman who is crazy and gives him a hard time, so that he can preserve his position of balanced, strong and hardworking guy. Now this lady is too healthy and mature for his taste. She has fun and she’s responsible at the same time. He can’t be the kid nor the parent in this relationship, except as an occasional make-believe. So he wants out. Drama makes him feel alive. And he just can’t stand a balanced couple life. It’s boring for him. The whole story grows the ambiguity around the concept of health. What is a healthy couple? Who defines that? By which criteria? What about individual health? The more free will is available to the individuals within couples, the more perpetually re-define-able health and craziness are.

    Thank you for sparking my reflections, Amy!

  2. I also really loved this passage: “Although a highly intelligent guy, Steven seemed to be quite blind to his own limitations, and resisted learning about himself”. There is some Steven in me and in many people I know. That is some long cultivated fear of being limited and of helplessness. It’s a persisting loyalty of the child-I-was toward the family-I-was-within at the time. This is a territory for individual therapy. But a person like that can go years resisting therapy, afraid that it could reveal such things. In a sense, such Stevens would probably “rather not know” and that arises in the therapist (me) the feeling of being limited and helpless with respect to him. Steven faces failure in his couple relationship and he can either go unaffected by that or (hopefully) affected enough by it. Fifty percent chance of the break-up being unintentionally therapeutic for him.

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