When the timing felt as good as it would get, I asked Tina to describe her reaction to the pornography. I wanted to know whether she was upset about the porn itself, about the fact that Richard looked at it in their home, or about the frequency of his use. Knowing I had to bring this up in a way Tina could hear, I felt as if I were about to walk through a minefield blindfolded and barefoot.
“Tina, I’d like to ask you a question,” I began. “It’s a question to understand how a part of you thinks. I know that the issue of porn upsets many people, but they often differ as to why. Can you say why it’s so charged for you?”
She looked at me for a long time, her lips pursed. “Of course you’d try to make it my problem,” she said, her voice dripping ice. “You’re a man.”
I’d just exploded a land mine. Four months of goodwill suddenly vaporized, and it never returned. We met twice more. The sessions lost their spontaneity and energy. Tina and Richard became excruciatingly polite to each other. I speculated on the consequences of avoiding difficult discussions. When these speculations went nowhere, I joined them in being polite. They ended therapy with Richard repeating his promise never to watch porn again.
After they left my office, I felt sadness and guilty relief at escaping a case with such an uncomfortably high level of tension: I no longer had to sit in the presence of so much unresolved pain, but I felt that I’d failed. Since then, I’ve worked with other couples dealing with the porn issue, who’ve managed to explore their attitudes without a blowup. Is that because I learned something from this failure, which helped me avoid a repeat? Maybe, but I doubt it. All therapists like to think they learn from experience, but the reality of couples work is that the responses to interventions are far more unpredictable than in the controlled atmosphere of individual work. One of the devilishly perplexing facts of life for a couples therapist is that, sometimes, no matter what you say or do and how skillful you become, there still will be troubled endings.
Fear of Confrontation: Ellyn’s Experience
Throughout my childhood, my parents carefully avoided open conflict and taught me to do the same. Whenever my sister and I began to raise our voices in disagreement, we were sent to our rooms with “When you’re ready to be nice, you can come out.”
To this day, I prefer to sidestep conflict whenever possible, but that’s not an option in couples therapy. Whether brought on by infidelity, passive-aggressive behavior, drug and alcohol problems, gambling, or partners’ being cruel to each other or making outrageous demands that can’t possibly be satisfied, we frequently need to confront our clients. However conflict-avoidant we may be, we must risk the possibility that one partner, or perhaps both, will become openly angry with us. That’s an experience that any couples therapist who wishes to move beyond being a perpetually warm and empathic listener can be sure is ahead.
When I first saw Jill and Joe, they’d been in a power struggle for 10 years. They’d seen several therapists and gotten nowhere. Their fights were escalating, most intensely about Jill’s weight. To my eyes, Jill seemed only slightly overweight, if at all. Furthermore, she hated Joe for nagging her to diet. By now, she was angry enough to consider having an affair, partly to demonstrate that she didn’t need to lose weight to be attractive to men, and partly to get revenge on Joe for attacking her self-image.
As soon as their struggle became apparent, my first thought was I’m the wrong therapist for this couple. How will I avoid imposing my own issues on them? Throughout my childhood and adolescence, I’d been fat. My mother had constantly pushed me to lose weight, and I’d despised the pressure she was putting on me. Over and over, I’d dieted, snuck food, and lost and gained weight. I’d wanted to be thin, but I wasn’t about to forego the ice cream and chocolate treats that soothed my pain when I sat at home on weekends while my friends went out on dates.
I knew untangling Joe and Jill’s struggle would take skillful confrontation, yet the prospect of confronting them directly on the issue of weight made me shudder, and I secretly hoped they’d shift their focus to something else. They didn’t.
I tried to delay the issue by offering to teach them some skills for talking about tough topics before they embarked on this problem. That worked for a little while, but early one Monday morning about three weeks into the therapy process, they sat down on the couch and angled their bodies sharply away from each other. I knew this was going to be the day of reckoning that none of us could avoid.
Joe said gruffly: “I just get angrier if I don’t say what I want. Is it OK to say it?”
“Go ahead,” Jill snapped. “What is it?”
“I want you to lose weight so we can stop fighting about it.”
Ellyn: “What do you do when you don’t talk about it?”
Joe: “Get sarcastic, take potshots, but if I try to talk about it, she tells me to fuck off and get lost.”
Oh, boy. I set about trying to structure their dialogue so that they could begin to discuss the issue in a more contained way, but Joe remained focused on Jill’s resistance and how selfish he thought she was. “She wants me to think she’s beautiful,” he said, “but I think she’s pretty self-centered if she won’t make any effort to be attractive to me.”
By now, Jill was crying. “Why can’t you love me as I am?” she wept into her facial tissue. I knew it was show time. I could no longer postpone confrontation, but how could I intervene without tangling them up in my own issues? I was deeply aware of my desire to rescue Jill.
Joe turned to me, hoping to gain an ally. “If I try to talk about her weight at home, she just tells me to shut up and that if I keep talking, our sex life will be dead forever.
“It’s always OK to speak up about what you desire,” I said carefully, and then took a baby step toward confrontation. “But when you speak up, is having Jill lose weight really the result you want?”
Joe ignored my question. “I guess in an ideal world, her body type wouldn’t matter to me,” he said, “but she’s gained weight since we got married, and it does matter!” I knew that giving him my honest response wouldn’t work right now, since it was on the order of “Slow down. Back off, Bud.” Instead, I decided first to try and enlist Jill in the process of confronting her husband.
“Jill, how about if you talk with Joe about your weight and let me feed you some questions?” When she nodded, I said: “Will you ask him what your weight symbolizes, and what he thinks should happen once he’s asked you to lose weight?”