Through the years, I've seen many frustrated wives like Sarah in my office--women who, often at no small cost and courage, manage to drag their difficult, even psychologically abusive, husbands to therapy, only to have the therapist throw them under the bus for the sake of evenhandedness and neutrality. "Our previous therapist never once confronted David," Sarah complained to me in one session. "Over the course of a year, he built up enormous credit with my husband. The only problem was that he never spent one penny of it!"
The conventional wisdom of couples therapy aside, I don't believe that partners share 50-50 responsibility for all their issues with each other. Some couples issues are 70-30, some 90-10. One partner can have an untreated bipolar disorder or be an alcoholic rager, while the spouse's major "contribution" is simply being there. An RLT therapist has no problem saying something like, "OK, Mr. Jones, you're a nut. And Mrs. Jones, you're an even bigger nut. Here's why. . . ."
Not always, but often, a couple presents as one "latent" and one "blatant." There's one who's in an enabling position, albeit perhaps angrily so, and another who's more clearly and egregiously antirelational. If you're sitting with a couple and thinking to yourself, "Yeah, I couldn't be married to that person either!" you're thinking about the blatant partner. The truth is that, many times, one partner (the fed-up latent) drags into therapy the other partner (the often clueless blatant) because the blatant is relationally insufferable--either withdrawn and giving too little, or abrasive and taking liberties. There's a "dragger" and a "draggee." Most therapists, unwilling to take on the draggee, like David, leave the dragger, like Sarah, to swing in the wind.
While Sarah isn't an angel by any means, the bottom line is that David's lack of relational skill has pushed her to the brink of divorce. She's brought him to one last therapist in the desperate hope that I'll take on the job of teaching him how to be more relational. And I will. As a therapeutic coach who doesn't believe in neutrality in all cases and who does believe in the effectiveness of teaching people how to navigate a territory that many, especially men, find confusing and often terrifying, I think it's important for me to fulfill Sarah's expectation.
"David," I begin. "You're such a good guy." He nods. "You so don't mean any harm."
"I know," I assure him. "But this story with the school, it's like the skis."
"Oh." He turns a shade paler. "The skis." In a previous session, Sarah had recounted an incident in which she and their four kids, exhausted from a day of skiing, had laid all their skis on top of the car and then had stood aghast as David had driven off without them, with their equipment clattering to the ground. "I was listening to NPR," he'd explained. "You know the show, Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me?" Recalling the ski incident now, David seems sheepish. "You mean I can be an absent-minded professor?" he tries.
"That's one way to put it," I answer.
"Head in the clouds?" This from a razor-sharp businessman.
"How would you put it?" he asks.
"My diagnosis?" I hold up my hand, as if reading from a marquee. "I'd say, 'David Sharpe, terminally obtuse.'"
"Ouch," he says.
"I'm sorry," I tell him. He looks at his wife, who's still crying. He seems equal parts abashed and annoyed. "Maybe I'm the one who should be sorry," he says half-heartedly, clearly unconvinced.
"Maybe so," I reply.
Calling David obtuse was just the start of getting his attention. It began to offer him a picture of his behavior that's dramatically at odds with his preferred view of himself. But it was too broad a description to be really helpful. What was needed was much more precision. In therapeutic coaching, the more generic it is, the weaker your intervention; the more specific, the stronger.
David isn't, in fact, an absent-minded professor. That's minimizing. He can attend very well-when he wants to. Whether or not he listens, it turns out, has everything to do with whether or not he likes what he hears. If Sarah had said she didn't want to go to the dinner, he admits, he'd have gotten that loud and clear the first time. But because her wishes contradicted his own, he somehow mysteriously tuned out. David, we come to agree, has a kind of selective listening, or in our preferred terminology, selective obtuseness. "I can't say I agree with all this," he tells me. "But I can see how you might see it this way."
"From you, David," I tell him, "that's a ticker tape parade down Fifth Avenue."
"I wouldn't go overboard," he replies.