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When a couple first sits down in my office, they issue me an invitation. It’s an invitation to join them in their assessment of the problem, their determination of who’s at fault. It can be very tempting to accept that invitation — but if I do, therapy will be a spectacular failure.
John and Melinda
The couple sat down at opposite ends of my sofa, and I asked them what made them decide to seek therapy. “The issue”, announced Melinda, shooting a withering look at her spouse seated at the opposite end of the sofa, “is that my husband is a sociopath. He doesn’t care about anyone except himself.” I turned to John and asked him for his side of the story. “That’s about right,” he said calmly, “I don’t see any purpose in considering the feelings of other people. If I don’t put myself first, no one else will.”
And there was the invitation: The problem in our marriage is caused by John being selfish and uncaring even to the extent of being a sociopath. Since John agreed with the diagnosis, what else was there to talk about? Time to move on to figuring out whether he can stop being a sociopath. Or perhaps to advise Melinda to divorce him.
But I’ve been around for 60 years, and while I’ve met some people who’ve done things society condemns, I’ve never met anyone who — once I got to really know them — could be called a sociopath. It was hard to cast John in the role of Hannibal Lecter.
And so I declined their invitation. I decided to look deeper into their relationship, to learn about how things were when they first met, and what was happening in their lives when things started to go wrong. It turned out that John was anything but a sociopath at the start of their relationship: the couple couldn’t have been happier. But when children came along, Melinda quit her job and devoted herself to raising three rambunctious boys, investing much of her emotional energy into them. John’s long hours at his high powered finance job left him feeling somewhat left out, and so he took an emotional step back. Melinda felt abandoned and unsupported and became angry at John, who reacted by taking more steps back. The more he retreated, the more angry she became. And the more angry she became, the more he retreated, eventually to the point where he cooly denied caring about her or the family at all.
You’ll be pleased to know that John and Melinda are doing fine. When both of them felt their stories had been heard and understood, each was able to understand the other person better. John became more engaged and warm, and Melinda became more accepting and less angry. Their marriage was based on strong foundations and clearing away years of hurt and misunderstanding brought them close together again.
This was an extreme example of an invitation, one that was easy to reject because it was so clearly wrong — even though both partners believed it. At times, the invitation is much more tempting to buy into. But whether the invitation is tempting or not, it’s almost always a worthless explanation of what’s gone wrong: If it was helpful, the couple wouldn’t be in my office.
Sandra and Robert
Sandra and Robert fought constantly. He would complain about something in their lives — the tiny apartment which was the most they could afford, the little time they would have for each other due to their stressful jobs, and the constant pressure of money. She would try to calm him down without success — he would simply become more emotional until finally she would lose patience and attack him. The bad feelings would simmer for days before subsiding.
Their invitation to me was “Robert is too emotional; for him, everything is either perfect or a disaster.” Very plausible. But there was much more to the story: Whenever Robert complained, Sandra felt it was her job to fix things, to make him feel better. She would point out the good things in their lives, or the fact that the tough times wouldn’t last forever. Robert experienced this as her not understanding him, so to help her understand his feelings, he raised the volume and intensity of his upset. She reacted by becoming even more placating which made him feel even more misunderstood. Both sides were locked in their pattern which inevitably resulted in an emotional blowup.
Having figured out the problem, changing the way they interacted was simple, and the fights disappeared.
This may all sound easy, but there’s a catch: We therapists are human. We’re in, or have been in relationships that have challenges, and our emotions get hooked by what we see playing out in front of us. Sometimes that means we buy into the invitation the couple offers us. Other times we come up with our own narrative of what went wrong influenced by what we’ve experienced in our own relationships. Most of all, we forget to ask what is driving the behavior of our clients, and retreat to the comfort of moral judgements. We tell one partner to be less critical, or the other to help more with the kids. We command apologies for affairs, an end to electronic snooping, more interest in sex and so on.
But the role of a couples therapist is not to act as moral arbiter. When we do that, we’re simply telling couples what they already know. (Worse, we’re telling the couple who is right and who is wrong in the relationship.) It’s not news to either partner that their behavior isn’t helping the situation. The problem is not a lack of desire to change: it’s the inability to change. We must look deeply into the relationship, pushing aside the invitations from the couple, pushing aside our own biases, hurts and temptations toward moralizing. We must approach each member of the couple with the assumption that they are doing the very best they can, and that there are good reasons for whatever they’re doing that’s not helpful.