“Since what you’ve been doing hasn’t been working, perhaps we should consider doing something that’s quite the opposite, don’t you think? What do you typically say to Marianne before you leave for work every morning?” he asked.
“I tell her that I love her, and I say I hope she feels better and has a better day,” replied Marc.
“What could you say that’d be the opposite of that?” Chouhy prompted.
“That I don’t love her.”
“That’s good, but what about something really strong, really awful?”
“I could say ‘Drop dead!” said Marc.
Marianne gasped in amused surprise.
“That’s good, very good,” Chouhy encouraged. “What about something even stronger?”
“Drop dead, witch! Once and for all, drop dead!”
“Very good. Anything else you could add?”
“Yes,” said Marc, turning to Marianne, “and if you die, I’m marrying again!”
“I don’t think this is very nice,” said Marianne, now not finding this amusing, “and I don’t see how anything like this could work.”
“Every morning before you go to work,” said Chouhy, “I want you to say to Marianne, ‘Drop dead, witch, and if you die, I’m marrying again!’ and you must say it with feeling. Can you do that?”
“Yes, I can,” said Marc, smiling mischievously at Marianne.
“This is rude and won’t help me,” Marianne insisted.
Turning to Marianne, Chouhy said in a kind voice, “You know it’s time for something different, so let’s just try this for a few weeks and see what happens.”
Chouhy ended the session after that. Timing is important, and some directives are more effective when they’re not discussed too much. Nonetheless, Chouhy’s thinking about this directive was simple. Marianne would have a panic attack every morning right after her husband expressed his love and concern. Psychiatrist Milton Erickson taught that when you make one small change in the context in which a symptom occurs, then everything changes. In this case, Chouhy wanted to make a small but utterly surprising change to see what other changes it would bring.
A few days later, Chouhy got an emergency phone call late at night from Marc. Marianne had become upset, screamed at her mother and mother-in-law, and carried on in such a way that the whole family had been scared. Chouhy invited everyone, including the two grandmothers, to come see him the next morning. By the time they’d arrived, Marianne was completely composed. She explained to Chouhy that Marc had told her to drop dead, called her a witch and so forth, and it had made her think about her situation.
Marianne had always wanted to study and work, but when she married, she was told by both her mother and mother-in-law that she was expected to take care of her husband, the home, and the children, and nothing else. She’d resented this deeply, but had said nothing throughout the course of her marriage. Turning to the two grandmothers, she said firmly, “It’s over now. I’m going back to school, and that’s it.”
When Marc was able to criticize her for the first time, and to do so in an exaggerated, intense way, he broke his own habitual pattern for dealing with her and so enabled her to break her habitual pattern of illness and misery. It turned out that Marianne had been punishing the two grandmothers, her husband, herself, and her children because of her resentment. When Marc stopped seeing her as a helpless victim, stopped trying to reassure her, and actually called her a witch, she was able to stop being a victim and asserted herself. After a short initial phase of being even more upset and miserable, Marianne herself realized what she had to do. Two years later, she was studying psychology in school, happy in her marriage, and living without panic attacks.