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A Risqué Intervention

The element of the unexpected and incongruous is important to both humor and therapy. But to make a good joke or a good paradoxical intervention, something about the payoff has to be appropriate and jarring at the same time. Take this joke, for example: a man is sitting at a drive-in movie theater and notices in the truck in front of him a dog that’s crying. The man thinks this is amazing because the dog is crying at an extremely sad movie. After the movie is over, the man goes to the owner of the dog and says, “I can’t believe how intelligent your dog is. It’s amazing that he’s crying at this really sad movie.” The owner of the dog says, “I know, I don’t understand it because he hated the book.”

The good directive, like an effective punch line, is perfectly fitted to the circumstances: it’s not just illogical nonsense, but invites a perspective on what’s happening that’s subtly, yet clearly, a bit skewed. It’s like placing clients in front of funhouse mirrors: they see themselves and their behavior in both familiar and strange and distorted ways. The experience gives them an instructive perspective on themselves and what they’re doing.

Take the case of Natalie and her husband, for instance, who came to my office and explained that they’d been happily married for 20 years, had no children, and enjoyed doing many things together, like hiking, traveling, cooking, socializing with friends, and building their dream house. They considered themselves best friends, as well as spouses. When I asked what the problem was that they would like to resolve, they looked at each other in silence, each expecting the other to say something.

“Is it something to do with sex?” I asked.

“Kind of,” said Natalie.

“Does it have to do with enjoying sex?” I asked the husband, Josh.

“Sort of,” he answered.

The conversation went on like this for quite a while. “What about infidelity?” I finally asked. “Are one or both of you having an affair?”

Natalie immediately said “yes” at the same time that Josh said “no.” Turning to Natalie, he said, “I never had an affair.”

“But you had sex,” said Natalie angrily.

“We never had intercourse, and I never spoke to the woman,” said Josh.

After some more confusing discussion, as Natalie began to cry, Josh finally explained that he’d paid a dominatrix to beat him and that the sessions had ended in masturbation. After a few sessions, Josh had told Natalie about his newfound sexual preference. They were, after all, best friends, and he didn’t want to hide anything from her. She was considerably upset, but once the initial shock had worn off, she tried to help him by playing the role of the dominatrix herself. Her heart, however, wasn’t in it, and Josh didn’t like her doing it.

To add to their problem, Josh had done something incredibly stupid. He’d decided that he shouldn’t have to pay someone to dominate him when he could surely find someone who’d do it for free, just for the pleasure of it, so he’d placed an ad on a website with a nude picture of himself. Natalie, in the meantime, had been gathering evidence against an employee in her company in the hopes of being able to transfer her to another department. After Natalie had succeeded in pushing the transfer through, the woman showed up at her farewell lunch at the office with Josh’s ad and his nude photo. Natalie was not only humiliated, but lost security clearance in the company, and she was now in danger of being fired. Clearly, Josh was not organizing his sexual activities in a way that was safe for Natalie or for him. As they told me this story, Josh looked remorseful and Natalie seemed deeply hurt.

“I have a solution,” I said to Natalie, “and it’s not for your husband to give up his sexual preferences.”

“What then?” asked Natalie. “I don’t want to lose my husband. We have so many good things together, and I still love him.”

“From now on, Natalie, you’re going to be in charge,” I said. “I want you to find Josh a dominatrix who’s both safe and legal. To be legal, I think you’re going to have to travel to Nevada to do this, but I know that money is no object for you. You’re going to research this extensively and find the right person, someone he could enjoy and yet someone you trust. Then I want you to be present at all times. You’re going to be the one to pay this person, and you’re going to remain in the room to make sure your husband remains safe.”

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