Amy: One of the most profound transformations for a couple occurs with the birth of the first child, that magic transition from a two-person to a three-person family. The unconscious contract of the relationship, that subtle “agreement” which binds the couple , undergoes one of the most important stress-tests in the life of the couple. Almost nothing challenges the elasticity, the creativity, and the commitment of a couple like the act of becoming parents.
Here is a case which shows how painful a test this can be:
Bill and Jimena had been referred to me by their family physician, ostensibly because of their disputes over breast-feeding. Jimena had been nursing their daughter for nearly two years, and Bill wanted her to quit. Within the first five minutes of the first session, however, I realized that “breast-feeding” had little to do with it: The energy they radiated was highly toxic, mostly from the husband. And it was relentless.
A little background: Bill and Jimena had been together for around ten years. They had a two year old daughter. Jimena moved here from Portugal , though, according to them, not “officially” to be with Bill, whom she had met when he traveled there on work. Shortly after she moved here, however, they re-connected and soon began living together. Their early relationship sounded passionate and rocky, with Bill as Big Daddy. He parted the waters for Jimena, showing her the tools needed for living in New York, helping her navigate language and culture. Its sounded to me like their relationship began as part marriage, part adoption.
Over time, however, the relationship balance shifted: Jimena had developed a successful career as a yoga/pilates instructor, sharing a busy office with several colleagues. And she became a mother, a transformation which profoundly shifted her sense of herself, and her own authority. Bill, on the other hand, had seen his formerly thriving architectural practice bite the dust. He now had little work, which he attributed both to the “economy” and changing trends in his architectural specialty. He stayed home with their daughter while Jimena worked.
This description of the contours of their relationship does not begin to do justice to the ugliness that emanated from Bill’s mouth. Every time Jimena spoke, which she did mostly thoughtfully and without venom, Bill snapped that she’s being “passive-aggressive”, “dishonest”, “infantile” and any other disqualification he could think of, rolling his eyes with frustration at his hopeless wife. Crazily enough, this guy showed zero self-awareness that he sounded and acted like a jerk.
The puzzle is that Bill was a smart guy, and a big-hearted person, in his own way. And he showed the capacity to “take it”–at least from me. Since the first session, he let me call him out on his bullying treatment of his wife. ( I didn’t use the term “bullying”, but I’d been relentless about letting him know that, for a guy who thinks he’s right, he’s wrong most of the time.)
Though I found his behavior with his wife extremely off-putting, I also took great pains to try to understand him, and to respond positively when he allowed a moment of self-doubt to creep in. I invited him to talk about how awful it must feel to deal with such professional adversity. I said, “You must feel like a shadow of your former self.” He agreed.
Maybe because I genuinely cared about Bill, he had been surprisingly willing to let me therapeutically push him. Occasionally he worried out loud that Jimena would “use it against him”–that she’d use my comments to score points, to build a case against him. For him, if he’s wrong, it means his wife gains power over him. It was all about control. She said she didn’t see it that way, and she promised not to use our sessions to hurt him. I believe she kept her promise.
I tried everything within my power with this couple. I had Bill’s parents come in for a session. I had been hearing about the father, who, for Bill, was a larger-than-life character. When they came in, the father showed a lot more tenderness than I expected. Both he and Bill’s mom were tremendously concerned about the strife in Bill’s marriage, especially because of their young granddaughter. And they seemed inclined to want to protect Jimena from Bill’s emotionally rough treatment. Bill’s parents criticized his behavior with love, but they didn’t sugar-coat his behavior, or their consternation. Bill mostly didn’t react to their comments, but at our next session he said he felt like he was at “an intervention.” I agreed. That’s what it felt like: A last-ditch effort to persuade this guy to save himself–and his marriage.
Meaningful dialogue was almost impossible with this couple. I realized that Bill was completely unwilling to learn anything from his wife. One session, I decided to go non-verbal. We began talking about music, especially bossa nova, one of Jimena’s favorite musical genres. She talked about how she loved to dance. I picked up my iPhone, and selected a popular bossa nova track; I looked at Jimena and said, “Show him how to bossa nova.”
She said, “Now?” I nodded: I pushed “play” and the music filled the room. She hesitated. Jimena slowly got up on her feet, but didn’t seem to know how to cross the invisible barrier to reach Bill. I nodded again encouragingly. She put her hand out and got him to his feet. They began to dance, awkwardly at first, then with a little more pizzazz. Bill didn’t know much about dancing, but his wife, a smile on her face, responded gracefully to his clumsiness.
When the tune ended they returned to their seats, slightly breathless. Bill said, “We haven’t had any fun like that in a long time.” Silence for a few minutes. Then Bill had to move to re-establish his authority with some critical, patronizing comment toward Jimena. I answered , “I think she’s a very good teacher. I watched how she danced with you. I think she needs to teach you how to bossa nova. You should let her.”
We all recognized this as a metaphor. Bill said something to the effect that she didn’t have the credentials to show him anything. I disagreed. I told him I’ve been repeatedly impressed by Jimena. Her skill as a patient teacher was just confirmed during their dance. I added, “Unless you let her teach you to bossa nova, I don’t think you’re going to have a marriage.” I repeated several variations on this theme, just to be sure he didn’t miss it. And it was true. Jimena would leave him unless she could feel like more of a person in their relationship. They had both made noises about separation during our meetings.
After about six months, we all recognized the limitations of the therapy. I certainly felt like I had exhausted whatever creative powers I possessed. I couldn’t get Bill to bend. He needed to be in charge, he needed to be the doctor in the relationship, at all costs. But he had lost his patient. Jimena had grown into a competent woman, a mother, a well-respected health instructor, a women who knew her way around. Bill couldn’t-or wouldn’t–marry this woman. He could only be the husband to the woman he first met, the immigrant who needed him to show her the way. Any other arrangement proved intolerable to him and his ego.
We mutually decided to end our sessions and they thanked me. I later got an email from Bill with an additional “thank you”, saying they had “made more progress” in our work than with previous therapies. I’m not sure what he meant, but I accepted his seemingly heartfelt thanks. Several months later I heard from their family doctor that they separated. I had no further word from them.
This intense case has its own particular flavors and style, but it’s similar to other cases, what Dave Keith calls “pseudo-adoption” cases, from my office. What I’ve seen most often is that, if the “adoptee” is a woman, becoming a mother drastically alters the fragile balance of power and threatens to become a deal-breaker. In this case Jimena grew up in front of her husband’s eyes. It’s certainly a profound test for the “adoptive” couple: How they handle this test may determine if the marriage lives or dies.