In an earlier newsletter, I gave the following example of the kind of intimate conversation that I try to help partners have.
Brad: I’m embarrassed to say this but sometimes—maybe more than sometimes—I worry that you’re more important to me than I am to you.
Lisa (genuinely surprised): That’s amazing to me. You wouldn’t believe how often I’m scared you don’t need me at all—that you’d rather be with somebody else.
In this brief exchange, both partners confide what they had been struggling with alone—which turns out to be the same feeling: concern about being less important to the other than the other is to them. It’s an intimate moment.
That’s good, wrote Judith commenting on my newsletter, but suppose Lisa is not surprised, suppose she agrees with Brad that she’s more important to him than he is to her. How can they get an intimate conversation out of that—even with a therapist’s help?
They can if Lisa’s response to Brad’s admission is one of compassion—in which case, she might put her arms around him and say quietly, “Maybe so, but I still love you and I have no intention of letting you get away.” She’d be trying to reassure him. Or she might say, “That’s sweet. I feel so cherished.” She’d be taking his comment as an expression of affection.
But let’s say that Lisa’s response isn’t compassion but, instead, impatience. She sees Brad as too needy—as probing for reassurance in a way that she’s tired of. She blurts out, “Well, do me a favor and get over it.” Or “I’ve really had it with the injured puppy bit,” Or “Why don’t you man up.”
My task, were I their therapist, would be to recast Lisa’s statement.
Dan: Okay Lisa, I’m wondering if you’re feeling something like—Here, I’ll be you talking to Brad. And as you, I’d say: “Brad, I’m pissed, as you can see. I know you’re one of those sensitive males—that’s what attracted me to you in the first place. But there are times, like now, when I wish you were more the self-confident bad boy. I know that’s probably unfair.” (To Lisa:) Tell me if any part of what I just made up for you captures what you feel.”
I’d be translating Lisa’s angry statement into a confiding one. I’d be showing what she might say were she to look at her reactions from a dispassionate and compassionate vantage point—a platform. I’d be creating this platform by (1) substituting a friendly tone of voice for her angry one, (2) replacing her accusations with acknowledgements, and (3) reporting her anger rather than unloading it.
How do I know that my guess about what Lisa feels is accurate? I don’t know, but it might be accurate, since I’d be basing it on what she about herself earlier in the therapy. And it doesn’t matter if I’m inaccurate. She can correct me. In fact, I hope she does correct me, since she’d then be putting her stamp on my intervention. I’m using an example of something she might feel as a way to suggest a whole genre—the genre of compassionate meta-level statements. I’m saying in effect, “If my guess is inaccurate, is there another statement of the same general sort that does capture what you feel?”
Let’s say Lisa’s response is: “No, he just needs to get a life.” Let’s say, furthermore, she’s operating from what Terry Real calls a grandiose position. She enjoys dominating and bullying. That doesn’t feel bad to her. It feels good, because it gives her the sense of control she wants. Were we to put a microphone to her mind, however, we might hear that she’s not fully behind what she’s doing.
I hate when Brad gets clingy like this.
But I am overreacting.
No, I’m not. He needs to be called on his behavior.
But—oh god!—I sound like my father.
No, this is different. My father went ballistic with no reason. I have reason.
But enough reason? “Man up” is pretty harsh.
It’s for his own good. He needs to man up.
But I knew what I was getting when I married him. It’s my own fault.
I used to love how he adored me; now it just feels smothering.
It doesn’t matter. I should be able to accept him for what he is.
Oh, “shoulda-woulda” All that fawning is just too hard to take.
But he looks so crushed. I feel bad.
Of course I do. That’s what he wants me to feel.
This inner debate might occur right there in the moment or later when Lisa was taking a shower or driving to work. In this debate, she toggles between justifying her reaction and criticizing it. My task as therapist is to bring this debate into the open.
Dan: Lisa, I wonder if you’re thinking—here I’ll be you, talking to Brad. “Brad, I go back and forth between telling myself that I should accept you the way you are and telling myself that I don’t want to put up with the way you are. It’s no secret that I’m presently in the second state big time.”
It’s amazing how many people who seem one hundred percent committed to their condemnation of their partner will acknowledge being of two minds about it. Of course, many others don’t acknowledge their ambivalence, either because they are not of two minds—I guessed wrong—or fear that if they do so, they will weaken their case.
Let’s say that Lisa denies having such an inner struggle; she feels totally justified in her criticism of Brad. I would then look for an outer struggle, where the problem exists between Brad and her.
Dan: Okay Lisa, I got that wrong. It’s what you said: that you’re upset with Brad and need him to change.
Lisa: He’s not going to change.
Lisa: When I tell him what I want, he gets defensive, so I’ve stopped telling him—except times like this when my frustration builds up.
Dan: Well then, Lisa, are you saying to Brad, “I don’t have a way to tell you what I want that doesn’t just start an argument, so I hold my tongue. But my resentment builds up and eventually I burst out in a way that starts an argument anyway. So I feel stuck. And, Brad, I suppose you feel stuck, too, having this wife who goes back and forth between quiet resentment and active anger.”
I’m demonstrating what Lisa might say were she to report her struggle and at the same time acknowledge his. Everyone is recurrently in a struggle of some sort, if not an inner one then an outer one, and confiding this struggle is the intimacy available in the moment—even if, as in this case, it means talking intimately about being at an impasse.
Let’s take it a big step further and imagine that Lisa is operating from “a really ugly place,” as Judith puts it. She seeks to hurt Brad—“to exploit, deceive, intimidate, dominate, undermine, humiliate, manipulate, or gaslight.”
There’s a general question here and a specific one. The general question is: aren’t there couples for whom I can’t create intimate moments? My answer is: yes, many more than I’d like. My goal is to help partners have conversations that make a difference and I don’t always succeed. The specific question is: isn’t a major reason for such failure that one of the partners is exploitative? My answer: I think of such a person as deprived. For whatever reason—whether its roots are in character, culture, or experience—they are unable to avail themselves of the pleasures that a two-sided (collaborative) relationship can provide—the attachment pleasures of responsivity and give and take—and must make do with the lonelier one-sided pleasures of dominating, deceiving, and exploiting.