The Dance of Connection

Rescuing women and men from the quicksand of difficult relationships.

The Cosmic Countermove: What Your Therapist Won't Tell You!

Dare you disturb the universe of family relationships?


Warning: The universe itself may give you a hard time if you make too bold a change!

For example, you buy a house and the week you move in the dishwasher stops working and your car breaks down. You say to yourself, "Oh, no! It's a message that I never should have left my old apartment!"

Well, I'm suggesting another way to look at it. It's merely the universe saying, yes, you are making a bold and courageous change! Here's my countermove! Prove your commitment to making this change!

I call this " the cosmic countermove."  To illustrate it's power, here's the cosmic countermove in action in my case:

I once visited my parents in Phoenix after learning that my father, who prided himself on reaching the age of 75 without even a sniffle, had suffered a mild heart attack. This unexpected and unwelcome reminder of my father's mortality heightened my awareness that my parents were old and would not be around forever.

During this visit I was inspired to engage in a bold and courageous act of change.

It was this: I asked my father if he would make me a gift of an old prized Chinese print. I told him that I would frame it and give it a place of honor in my home. This request may not strike you as particularly daring, or even noteworthy.

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Nonetheless, the request and granting of this particular gift, was a bold challenge to my family's long legacy of emotional distance between my father and I. The family rule was that I was in my mother's camp and my father was a distant outsider. Plus, my mother collected art, donated generously to her daughters, and hated my father's taste.

My father carefully rolled the print into a cardboard tube so that I could hand-carry it safely on the airplane back to Kansas. His anxiety about this exchange was revealed only by the number of times he reminded me to keep it clean and frame it quickly, so that no harm would befall it.

At the airport his final words were spoken with affection, "Now don't get chicken schmaltz on that print, Harriet!" I had to smile at this reminder of my growing up years in Brooklyn, and my father's chronic irritation at my habit of snacking while doing my homework, which sometimes led to "chicken schmaltz" finding its way onto my schoolwork.

I arrived home both pleased and anxious about this forbidden act of father-daughter closeness. Where could I keep the print until my schedule would permit a visit to the frame shop? I carefully removed it from the narrow cardboard tube and laid it flat on the carpeted floor of a remote attic room on the third floor of my large, old, Topeka home.  It was my private space and it had long been my custom to sort out my manuscripts and documents on the floor there.

Three weeks later, after receiving an inquiry from my father about the print, I proceeded to retrieve it to bring to the frame shop. As I lifted the print from its place, I could not register or make sense of what my eyes saw.

The face of the print was crinkled and stained. But this was not possible! I examined the papers on the floor surrounding it, and they were in perfect condition. I looked up at the ceiling directly above, half expecting to see a leak, but no leak was to be found. I stood staring at the print in stunned disbelief and recalled my father's final words to me at the airport: had the heavens dripped chicken schmaltz on his prized print?

I rushed downstairs, print in hand, where a friend was drinking tea in the dining room. She was almost thirty years my senior and wise in the ways of the world.

"What is this?" I demanded of her, as I thrust the stained print under her nose. My friend looked and sniffed-and then made her diagnostic pronouncement. "It's cat urine," she said blandly.

And so it was. My sons had left the front door open and one of the neighborhood cats that graced our front porch had made it way up two flights of stairs to find, and pee on, my father's beloved print. How can we understand such an action? Did he or she not have 4,500 square feet of floor on which to pee, to say nothing of the countless papers that were spread about the floor of our attic rooms?

How can we fathom such a choice? And how could I explain it to my father?

It was in contemplation of this event, that I published an article suggesting that the concept of the cosmic countermove should be added to the family systems literature. My colleagues thought the article was a hilarious piece of humor, but I was only partly kidding.

I do believe there is a moral to my story. Dare you disturb the universe?

Remember that changing an entrenched family pattern is only for the boldest among us. Do not begin the journey, unless you are prepared to answer to the gods themselves.

As for my father, he took the news with surprisingly good humor. Perhaps-although I might have been wrong-I detected a tad of relief in his voice.

Be it chicken schmaltz or cat pee-it is reassuring to know that some things never change.

Harriet Lerner, Ph.D., is best known for her work on marriage and family relationships and the psychology of women. Her book The Dance of Anger has recently been reissued.

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