Amy: It’s part of the human condition that we may be unhappy, unfulfilled, or overly stressed without even knowing it. That kind of unconscious distress can spill over to the marriage. Without realizing it, we may look to a relationship to fix what’s wrong with our life. That’s a recipe for disaster. Here’s the case of a couple where the wife was so unhappy she had begun contemplating divorce. Then she made an unexpected discovery.
The case began when Rebecca, a mid-forties woman, consulted me about her ongoing depression. Rebecca was a mostly stay-at-home mom with five kids ranging in age from three to twelve. She was referred by another therapist who briefly worked with both Rebecca and her husband, and felt that the husband was “impossible”. Apparently this therapist was suggesting, not so subtly, that it might be wise for Rebecca to think about divorce. Shortly into our session, Rebecca began crying as she talked about her husband Ben, and what she felt to be his “coldness” toward her. I, of course, asked her to invite him in for the next session.
Ben showed up under duress. He was, he said out front, “not a therapy kind of guy”, and showed up only because “she insisted.”, pointing to Rebecca. He sounded skeptical about the whole therapy thing, especially since he had what sounded like a bitter experience with the previous therapist. Ben didn’t’ quite understand “what all the fuss was about”, since he loved his wife and kids and did his best to provide for them. He looked and sounded like a guy under the gun. He seemed bewildered by some of his wife’s complaints about him, which he felt were constant and harsh.
A bit of background: Both Ben and Rebecca were eldest kids, raised by working-class families in Brooklyn. Neither one went to college, and they struggled financially. Ben owned a small printing business that didn’t make much money. He had to work long hours to make ends meet. Rebecca worked a few hours a week as a lunchroom monitor at her oldest daughter’s school. She didn’t love the work, found it to be a “chore”, but the extra income helped. As I got to know these people, I was impressed by their underlying commitment to each other, despite Rebecca’s distress and anger toward her husband.
I must admit, I liked Ben. Despite his rather Neanderthal approach to women and relationships, he was funny and very tender. I had them bring in their children for one session, and their kids respected and adored him. He was playful and parental, clearly enjoying the love they showed to him. And Rebecca liked the way Ben was with the kids: She enjoyed his connection to them. I believe she wanted to feel more of this playfulness toward her.
I met with Rebecca and Ben intermittently for nearly six months. Ben showed up for perhaps half our sessions. In his presence we talked about Rebecca’s most painful experiences with her husband, especially the way he withdrew and wouldn’t talk when he was upset with her. This drove her to despair. Slowly, over the months, Ben began open up a little bit. But talking about his feelings was clearly foreign territory for him. Rebecca–and I–mights as well have been asking him to speak Latin. It was clear that he would never be the sophisticated, deeply communicative man of Rebecca’s dreams.
During our sessions, I observed that Rebecca could be rather severe with Ben. Sometimes it seemed like he couldn’t do anything that would please her. She was much more enthusiastic about what he was doing wrong than what he was doing right. Rebecca operated as an “improver”, and her main target was her husband. But there was an up-side: In the course of our conversations, I watched how Rebecca LOVED talking about relationships, emotions, interactions–and she was good at it. She enjoyed being the psychologist in the family. The problem was that she had just one patient–Ben.
Ben eventually began to miss sessions–“too busy”, he claimed–but Rebecca and I continued to meet semi-regularly. I shared my impressions that she would be a great personal coach. An intelligent woman, she showed an acumen for the language of self-improvement, and she came alive whenever she had a chance to use this side of her. Slowly, over the period of about a year, she took me up on my suggestions and underwent training as a personal coach.
Now it’s been nearly three years since her certification, and she’s got a growing coaching practice. She runs several women’s groups, and and has a small clientele of women who mostly have problems with husbands and kids. She’s developing a bit of a reputation in her neighborhood. Ben is her best fan: He helped design her website and printed her business cards from his business. Rebecca says the kids are proud of their mom’s new-found expertise. Their oldest daughter says she’s interested in studying psychology when she gets to college.
Rebecca now comes to see me or calls every six months or so. Our sessions almost feel like supervision with a colleague; she wants to talk about the difficult cases in her coaching practice. And the marriage? When I ask Rebecca about Ben, it’s almost like, Ben who? Well, that may be a bit of an exaggeration, but whatever his flaws, they seem much smaller to her now. Before, partly because of her own undeveloped gifts, Rebecca felt an emptiness that she couldn’t pinpoint. She began putting Ben under the microscope. And we all know that everything looks weird under the microscope.
Now Rebecca’s passion is on display, and everyone in her family is getting something out of it. Her love affair with her new career accidentally cured what she thought were solely husband problems. In fact, Rebecca needed to feel valued. She needed to feel important. Without realizing it, she was trying to get all this from Ben, a Herculean assignment for even the best husband. I remember how my grandmother, who enjoyed a loving relationship my grandfather, used to say, “You make your own happiness.” I think that’s what happened for Rebecca. Now all she talks about being scared that she won’t be “good enough” as a coach, or that she’ll fail her clients But this is an exciting, enlivening kind of fear. This is the fear we feel when we are using our gifts, testing our limits. When we care about what we do, and we know we matter.