John first contacted me regarding his 5 yr marriage to Mary. He was an overworked Lawyer who practiced corporate law and she was in Family law doing mostly nasty divorces. They were both in their early 30’s and this was the first marriage for both. Their primary complaint was that their marriage had gone stale. What started in Law School with great passion had fizzled. Mary reported that they hadn’t had sex “since Moses crossed the Red Sea!”
Because they were both in demanding careers and needed to be in their offices by 9 AM, and usually worked until 10 PM, I offered to meet with them at 6:30 AM for a two-hour session. They agreed and we began what was to become six months of weekly meetings. The first several sessions were spent on data gathering and defining the problem; when it had started, how long had it lasted, how did the problem manifest itself, what did each of them perceive the causes to be. As is typical of most couples John and Mary perceived that the other person contributed more greatly to the problem than did either of them individually.
John thought that Mary had become angrier as time passed. He began to avoid her, coming home late and later. Mary thought that John had become insensitive. The issue they identified as the core issue was, that she was Jewish and he a modern atheist. She insisted that the children they were planning to have, as yet they had none, be raised in the Temple. John didn’t feel particularly positive about any religious influence on his children and he certainly didn’t want to participate in such. John did not want to confront this issue so he stopped having sex with Mary. Mary alternatively attacked and criticized John and sought connection with him. They had been unable to resolve this logjam.
As was the case with John and Mary, most couples identify a problem that has a sense of intractability and about which they are fighting, but is not the source of their difficulties. The key is that the source of intractability must be located in something unchangeable in the other person, while being able to exonerate oneself. This is known as the attribution paradox. This is a typical blind spot for couples. So we began the process of exploring what might be at the base of this log jam. A thorough exploration of their family histories and of their previous relationships yielded and clear picture of their attachment issues. John’s family history was rather straightforward. He was a model child with good grades, a great athlete and well-liked. John excelled in all the things that make insecure parents feel better about themselves. Mary’s family history was more complicated. There had been a divorce early on. Her mother went to work and Mary figured out that if she was going to get anything that she needed in life she had to do it for herself. She couldn’t depend on anyone to be there for her. She put herself through law school whereas John’s parents paid for him. These two attachment styles, John’s more secure but leading to a kind of Narcissism and Mary’s insecure-avoidant style were being played out in their marriage.
John was used to being the center, being adored, admired and followed. Everyone thought well of John. Mary wanted safety and security but simultaneously approached and avoided the deeper connections she both sought and feared. After several sessions we were able to first get John & Mary to recognize the deadly dance of attack-counterattack, and attack-withdrawal that was killing their marriage. We then spent a significant amount of time on identifying the hotspots, the deeper attachment desires and wounds that were lying under these attacks. John’s Narcissism made it difficult for him to see how he kept himself distant from Mary and how this contributed to the approach-avoidance cycle they played out endlessly. John had always been the good guy able to please everyone. It was not easy for him to see his part in this dance, but he did. Mary on the other hand more readily saw her part. She could see that her deep desire for love and intimacy coupled with her fear of such led to her unstableness. We spent many sessions processing the variations of these themes.
If I am doing my job well, a couple naturally moves toward a conclusion of therapy. The clues are subtle but profound. John began to be more present for Mary; she in turn was able to modulate her feelings of fear because he was now safe. At the bottom they both began to use the relationship and the other person to assist them on co-regulating affect which was the basis of their difficulties.
When they announced that were finished with therapy they both thanked me. In that last session Mary shared that she entered therapy with little hope. Divorce was immanent she figured. She didn’t think therapy would help, further she didn’t believe in it. She stated, based on what had happened here, that she was now a thorough believer. We each dried the tears from our eyes. We shook hands and I watched them leave for the last time knowing that for this couple, I had lived up to my calling.