|You Say Tomato... - Tomato 3|
"Could be he needs that structure," I'd said, as Toni narrowed her eyes in cynicism. But now Joe was reading the book, discovering himself on every other page. I started to see a new path for these two: Toni freed from the demoralizing idea that Joe has callously abandoned her to lonely worry, and Joe with the space and hard knowledge to practice the lost art of appreciation. We'll see.
Toni and Joe remind me how much being in a couple is a fundamental—fundamental—experience of otherness. No matter how much we love another person, differences in temperament provide each partner with the task of adjusting to someone who hears a different drummer, who moves at a different speed, who flexes or yields in reaction to stimuli, unfurls or contracts, gets interested or withdraws. These are all biologically based differences, and they require just as much understanding and compassion as the partner's difficult childhood. They're the differences that more than anything else provide the drumbeat to any relationship, an interplay of tempo and intensity, a two-person combo.
The couples therapist might not at first distinguish between the hard-wiring of temperament and its consequent effloresce, its blossoming into the idiosyncratic and personal features shaped by a specific life, family, culture, environment—a blossoming that we might label "personality." When you're a psychotherapist helping someone change, sometimes you're dealing with the software of personality, and sometimes you're coming up against the hardware of temperament.
With Dennis and Carla, we'd been exploring for several months the impact of their historical families on their current interactions—the way the persnickety wife stood in for the husband's hopelessly tempest-tossed mother, or the way the excitable husband replayed the wife's own anxious and helpless parents. These are all familiar moves to couples therapists, as many, many couples arrive in the therapy offices stuck in a hallucinated layer of coupling, in which the partner has mysteriously become . . . one's worst fear. One or both partners have become entrenched in old battles they might have fought years ago with an offending parent—battles in those early days not taken up, because of their youth, their powerlessness, their innocence. But now those battles spring to life as unmet needs—injustices!—in the daily life of a couple struggling to depend on each other.