Elena Lesser Bruun, LMFT
I’m in the vortex, going down. I’m in the eddy, swirling around. I’m lost. I know this feeling. Panic. That’s it. I don’t know what’s happening – yet. Stick with it, I say to myself, you’ve been here before with other clients, other couples, other families. Caught in the web, their web, stuck. Going round and round. Getting dizzy. Got to get out of fear mode to help them. But I also must let myself fully experience the dilemma and come to empathize with them. I can’t give up. They’re counting on me. Don’t give up. If I stay with them, maybe I’ll get lucky, somehow get a grip, manage to pull a loose string from the knot, an interaction they repeat, a pattern. If not the pattern at first, find a way to go underneath it to the source(s). You can do it. Stay with it. Go with the flow.
I’ve known Susan & Pedro for years. They come episodically. Soon now, they are moving back to NM partly for her problematic health, and have decisions to make.
An unlikely looking couple, they met in college. Tall Swedish woman and short handsome honey colored man from Peru. Her family paid for school. Middle class or higher. His family was poor. Very poor. She grew up in a solidly middle-class family, but she’s the “black sheep.” She is his family. He left home at 11, wandered around, wound up in the U.S. Taken in by an elderly woman and then a male couple in Albuquerque who made sure he went to school, good schools, and then to UNM. Susan & Pedro met at a weekend conference on campus. She was coming out of the ladies room in tears; he was standing there and consoled her. After a while they moved in together. They loved each other, but over time fought too much. She “ghosted” him ten years ago, and moved to NY. Got a job and started therapy with me. No forwarding address for him. He found her somehow though, and came to NY a year later ostensibly against her wishes. They then started coming to therapy together.
It was a challenge especially because she was with me first, she already had a connection. Also, two white women in the room, both taller than Pedro is. Both of us white middle class. Why should he ever trust me? She describes him as scary, I find him anything but. A gentle giant of a man in a small body. He’s a Bachelor’s degree social worker who lands a great job as director of a large senior center in the Bronx. He wants to do geriatric social work in gratitude to the old woman who took him in. They love him there at the center. And quickly I love him too. I can reassure Susan about him and I do.
They fight about lifestyle issues mostly. He grew up in chaos and can sleep on the floor. She desperately needs order in their tiny apartment. She gets anxious, labile, fears his temper, and misinterprets what he says. He gets frustrated, drinks too much, especially because he gave up his job to enter a Master’s degree program only to discover that it will cost them much more than he realized. They are relying on her income for now. She hates NY; at least in part because she developed lung cancer, underwent treatment here, and still has complications. She also hates her job, but to her complete surprise, she got permission to work long distance from NM, and will keep it.
Enough background. Today’s decisions revolve around packing and buying a car. She wants to get organized in the apartment. Designate one area for things to discard, another place for things to pack. She can’t make these decisions on the fly, cannot take the pressure. He wants to get things they’ll discard out of the apartment faster and into the garbage. She wants to make a third pile of still useful things, put them outside close to the street with signs describing what they are, how to fix the broken ones, and how to operate them! He just wants to get going and takes things downstairs before she can stop him.
She asked Pedro to research the car market. He did, but wants her to give him a ballpark amount they can spend. She can’t do it without knowing what the options are. She needs a spread sheet with his findings to date and he won’t do it. He’ll tell her some information, but refuses to make a spreadsheet. OMG…are they ever STUCK! Why can’t Susan do it, he wants to know. It will make his job easier. She repeats that she can’t do it without knowing what all the options are…they get more and more annoyed at each other, till she starts to cry! He eye rolls and looks down in utter frustration.
I’m frustrated myself, by my inability to “get” what’s going on. But just in the nick of time, I get hold of a thread. Go for the emotion, start there I say to myself. I stop the arguing, ask Susan to explain the crying. She does. It’s that she’s frightened about being sole breadwinner until Pedro gets a job in NM; how hard that is for her. Pedro and I witness her pain about that, coupled with fear that she won’t have time to go through their belongings before the move, that he will discard things that are important to her before she can organize them.
Things are unimportant to him because he never had any. Things were all she had. Susan expresses her guilt at “making him” move for her health; Pedro says he feels bad that she has to support him. Finally they’re beginning to deal with the emotions behind the decision making problem. I suggest they pick a date together, a deadline by which she has to finish organizing, and after which he can bring things down to the street. The move is scheduled for a month from now. She bargains and gets ten days. They’re happy; I’m happy.
We move on to the car. By then I’ve noted their completely different decision-making styles. Susan gets organized in her head and on paper. Pedro uses his intellect, but in the end makes the actual decision using gut instinct. He can’t bring himself to hand her a spreadsheet because he says he will feel like her servant. She’s having trouble giving him a price range because she’s supporting them herself now, will probably have to use savings and is afraid of overspending on a car. This all makes sense in terms of their vastly different backgrounds. But I’m helping them understand their differences and empathize with each other.
Lastly, it seems that what they have in common is that they tend to withhold the information they could be contributing to propel their decision-making process forward. They work at cross-purposes instead of combining, pooling their knowledge as a couple. Shared knowledge is power! Now I’m on a roll! Pedro “can’t” tell Susan what he learned about the “pre-owned” car market until she gives him a price range……and she won’t give him a price range to narrow his search until he gives her a list of safe, reliable, large enough cars, by model number and year that would be appropriate for their needs. When I point this out, they are able to see the “craziness” of their approach and begin to make changes on their own! Simultaneously, they agree, he’ll send her an email with his information and she’ll give him a starting price range that they can adjust as they go out to test drive a few possibilities.
It’s a bit of a messy process. There’s no formula. But maybe there is a method to my madness. Maybe there’s a benefit in immersing myself in their problems. Maybe I have to get lost with them to help them dig out. Irwin Yalom, in Advice to New Therapists, recommends inventing a new therapy for each client. I love the challenge involved, so that’s what I try to do.
Looking back, I can retrace the steps with this couple as follows:
1. Immersing myself in their decision making process, experiencing their pain
2. Finding a way in – going for the emotion behind the knot
3. Identifying their stylistic differences in decision making
4. Locating background differences influencing their decision making
5. Pointing out couple-defeating decision making process (withholding information)
6. Helping the couple combine their knowledge and strengths to best advantage in decision making
As far as I know, Susan and Pedro are alive and well in Albuquerque. I do know for sure that they left town as planned.
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