Celeste wants Paul to be more effusive about the many ways she tries to please him. Others praise her sensitivity to their feelings. They envy her sense of style and ability to organize social events. And they tell her so. Friends express admiration for Celeste while Paul refrains from comment or sputters monosyllables. She says, “It would be easy for him to give me what I need. Why doesn’t he? I can’t understand it.” In our session, tears flow down Celeste’s cheeks and she reaches for the tissue box. Paul turns his head away from her and sighs audibly.
Unlike Celeste, Paul hails from a family in which compliments were as rare as snow in Miami, his hometown. His parents bickered constantly. Paul and his three sisters earned praise when they did as they were told with no back-talk and no questions asked, and only then. Deflated by the way his father responded to his eldest sister when she expressed her feelings openly, Paul muted himself to avoid becoming a target of his father’s temper and sarcasm. Often, in drunken fury, father retaliated against daughter by insulting her intelligence and mocking her appearance.
Partners often enter couples therapy with a pound of grievance per ounce of hope. And sometimes the main hope is for things to be other than how they are. This wish—that reality not be as it is—can lead partners to pursue dead ends and waste precious time and opportunities for healing.
Early on, Celeste categorized Paul’s verbal restraint as evidence that he was a strong, silent, type—John Wayne without the spurs or 10-gallon hat. However, she also harbored the notion that, after they were together a while, she could modify his closed-mouthed style and get him to give her what she needed. Only Paul was not easily changed. Celeste learned that his fierce resistance to revealing how he felt was fundamental to his emotional make-up. He clung to the defense as if his emotional life depended on it, because for much of his life, it had.
Still, Celeste persisted in believing that Paul could come through for her in the way she wanted. She held fast to the hope that he would disrupt the doldrums of her grey skies by hurling lightning streaks and thunderbolts—of praise, attention, and appreciation—like some 21st century Zeus. If only, he would allow himself to do what she believed he could, their relationship would be made whole. She would be lifted beyond the pale of disconnection.
Paul told me and Celeste that if he were to associate himself to anyone mythic, it would be Sisyphus—the legendary mortal condemned by Zeus to push a boulder up a hill for all eternity. Sisyphus, you may remember, rolls a gigantic stone to the top of a steep hill only to have it tumble back down, time after time. This obliged him to painstakingly force it back up only to witness the cycle repeat ad infinitum.
Asked to explain how this applied to himself, Paul said, “The boulder is like our relationship situation. I try to bring it to a higher ground and end up, time and again, feeling like a failure. Whatever I accomplish, rolls downhill immediately, my efforts come to nothing.”
Their separate references—to Zeus and Sisyphus—offered a portal into each partner’s view and feelings about the disconnection they experienced. The narratives illuminated what was going on inside of each. The stories connected each---by allowing them to see into the other—but also highlighted their differences. This allowed them to feel deeply known by one other, without feeling deeply criticized. They were able to get their messages across without arousing the other’s defensiveness.This was a breakthrough, a point of connection.
Getting inside each other’s viewpoint, by means of these story snippets, allowed for an appreciation of the pain each was experiencing. In place of reproach, regret that things had been so hard for each of them came forth Their anger softened into sadness as each, in their own way, began to grieve the part of their relationship that had not worked the way they had hoped it would. Perhaps, each sensed that they were turning a corner. There was talk of a new beginning. Grieving about what had ended seemed to mark possibility for a new start.
Could they tolerate each having different ideas about what had been going on? Could they commit to a conscious focus on learning from one another? Could they commit to making one another feel heard and let go of preoccupations with blame? “Taking on these challenges is essential to nurturing love, continuing to this new beginning,” I offered.
Acceptance and understanding of problems as they are—based on a mindful assessment—leads to possibilities for making things better. Hopes that substitute fantasy for reality create futility.
Paul took in the forlorn quality of Celeste’s wish to have him emerge as her hero. He did not criticize the idea, instead he engaged with and honored the feeling. He reassured her that he understood her yearning for connection. For himself, he wished to overcome the sense of futility he lived with.
As they talked, Celeste said, “You don’t deserve to live with a feeling of futility. You deserve to feel good about yourself.” Her eyes moistened. He closed his and I noticed a tear drip down the side of his face. At times, a simple statement expressing regret about the sorrow in a relationship can resonate deeply.
She continued, “I had no idea that you felt like such a failure in our relationship. I thought I was the only one who was suffering. I guess that makes sense in some way, Zeus and his kind never suffer, they always prevail. I now see how the aloneness that I felt was felt by you too in your own way.” Empathy began to develop within the new beginning.
The stories created a bridge that allowed the couple to span their differences. The bridge carried them over the rough waters of judgments and disappointments that had wrecked their communication process and led them to feel like they were always overwhelmed and on the verge of drowning emotionally.
From here, they began to work through differences that previously could not have been broached without causing rancor. They began to learn to listen for feelings underneath the words and sense when there was a discrepancy between the two levels. They were developing curiosity about what was going on under the surface with one another.
Create a safe space for self-acceptance and self-understanding to develop, that is the first order of business in couples therapy. An open-minded and accurate assessment of the way things are is crucial to formulating a mindful hope that can bring healing. As work progresses, partners can learn to see themselves and their partner more clearly. Sharing the inner story that captures the emotional tone of private experience can come about in unusual ways. Each told their inner story in their own idiosyncratic way and, with compassion thrown along with a touch of humility and a dash of patience, healing proceeded in unanticipated ways.
Create emotional intimacy in your communication, click here.
Having trouble dealing with explosive anger? Click here.