“You’ll lose weight,” Joe cut in. “Probably exercise more, and maybe go to Weight Watchers. You know, buckle down and get it done. And it symbolizes your selfishness.”
I’d suspected that Joe would take an “it’s-your-problem, dear” approach and that confronting this would be part of our work together. Many partners make incessant angry demands without realizing their own part in what’s going on. Joe kept suggesting that Jill was lazy and selfish for not doing what he wanted, as if it had no connection to his own attitudes and behavior. As a slightly overweight female therapist, I wasn’t sure I could handle this situation without his concluding that I was simply siding with Jill.
I decided to start by eliciting more of Jill’s side of the story.
“How do you respond to all this?” I asked Jill. “What happens inside when Joe talks about your being overweight?”
She began to cry again. “I am overweight; even my doctor says that I’m about 10 pounds too heavy.” Now, I could feel the buzz of my own early history, my feminist sensibilities, and my disdain for the American glorification of stick-thin women.
“This must mean more to each of you than just going on a diet,” I suggested to Jill. Turning toward Joe, I said, “Will you ask Jill why this is such a struggle for her?”
When he dutifully asked her, Jill responded: “I’ve always had weight issues, and I’d like you to keep that in mind, Joe. It bothered my parents, and it’s not so easy to lose weight.” She dropped her eyes to her lap. “And you’re so rejecting: you say critical and demeaning things about my body.”
Joe said, “It’s pretty simple: I’d just like you to lose the weight, and I don’t want to be responsible for how your parents treated you.”
The session was heating up. Clearly, resolving this struggle was going to involve more accountability from each of them. Although I wanted Joe to take more responsibility, this tug-of-war couldn’t really all be about his wife’s perceived refusal to lose weight; I knew he’d ditched other therapists over how they’d handled this issue. At the same time, I’d need to light a fire under Jill to get her to acknowledge her own part in what was going on.
“I’d like you to back up again and stay with Joe for a minute here,” I told Jill. “Will you ask him about his role in working on this problem?”
Jill, still tearful but a bit more composed, turned to Joe. “So, what would you do to help me?”
Joe all but rolled his eyes. “It seems like this one is in your court,” he said. “I can’t exercise or lose weight for you.”
“It’s not that easy,” I interjected. “When you bring up a desire like this one, you can’t just sit back and wait for her to comply,”
“Because you’re the one experiencing some discomfort here,” I said bringing to bear the full weight of my experience with couples handling struggles like this. “This is a complex issue that has as much to say about you as about her. Are you able to tell Jill what her weight really means to you? How it affects your own self-esteem? How your own aging might play into this?”
“Why won’t you support me?” said Jill, sensing an opening to score some points.
“Because I think you want to withhold from me,” replied Joe, eager to switch topics to return to an old argument.
“So you withhold support from her,” I said, quickly bringing the session back on track. “You ask for a significant change and then won’t support her in creating it. You could cook, pack lunches, give positive words of encouragement, stay with the kids while she exercises,” introducing some possibilities he hadn’t previously considered.
Joe looked startled. I was definitely starting to get his attention.
I turned to Jill again. “Ask Joe if he’d try to change your son’s behavior by doing nothing, or by rejecting him.”
“Would you?” she asked. For a long moment, there was silence in the room. Then Joe said grudgingly, “No, I wouldn’t.”
Heartened by this small opening, I decided to push a little harder. “You’re asking Jill to do something for you,” I said. “The two of you can solve this together. It’s gone on for so long, it won’t work anymore for you to do nothing.”
Joe was quiet for a moment, shaking his head, his whole demeanor softening. “I’ve never talked, or even thought, about any of this.”
“Why won’t you support me?” Jill asked as if uncomfortable about the prospect of Joe’s actually making some of the changes she’d long wanted.
“Because I think you won’t do it just because I want it. That’s why you refuse to lose weight: you just don’t care at all about what I want.” As so often happens with couples at this stage in the change process, things were sliding backward again. I now needed to confront Jill.
“Are you willing to explore your role in creating this struggle?” I asked her.
Jill nodded yes and I continued. “Do you know why you’re resisting Joe?”
“I don’t know,” she said softly. “Sometimes I just feel stubborn about it, but I don’t really know why.”
I decided to take her through a Gestalt dialogue to help identify both sides of her own conflict and rebalance the session by giving Joe a chance to get out of the hot seat himself.
“Let’s dialogue for a minute between the part of you that wants to lose weight and the part that doesn’t. What does the part say that does want to lose weight?”
Jill: “I’d feel better and look better.”
Ellyn: “What does the part say that doesn’t want to lose weight?”
Jill: “I’m angry at him. Damned if I’m going to do it for him!”
Ellyn: “Why not?”
Jill: “I want to be loved as I am. I want him to think I’m gorgeous—tell me I’m gorgeous—like he did when we first met.”
Ellyn: “And what would that mean to you?”
Jill: “That I’m special; that, he loves me—all of me.”
Ellyn: “And who else did you want to love you so unconditionally?”
Jill (after a moment): “My dad.”
Ellyn: “So you want to matter to him the way you wanted to matter to your dad. So this is very emotionally loaded for you; way beyond just the two of you. (She nods.) I wonder what you’d experience if you could imagine losing a few pounds just because Joe wanted you to?”
Jill: “No. . . . I’d be copping out on the part of me that wants unconditional love.”
As the session drew to a close, the energy in the room had shifted. Joe and Jill no longer saw themselves in a hopeless power struggle. They were beginning to embrace possibilities that could take their relationship in a new direction. It hadn’t been easy, but I’d had to confront both of them over an issue freighted with psychological meaning for me. Many years ago I’m not sure I could have found the right mix of gentleness and strength, or kept my footing and my focus, but at least for this hour, I could feel the difference that 25 years of couples work made in my own clarity and sense of inner direction. At the end of the hour, it was as if all three of us had experienced a small victory over the power the patterns of the past have to constrict the more expansive possibilities of the present.
Make no mistake: in our work with couples, we sometimes feel like we’re bringing a water pistol to a gunfight. But more often than not, we get inspired by couples who make the difficult journey, falter, stumble, and rise again—just as we therapists do. When they express difficult truths with loving honesty, it gives us the courage to keep stretching ourselves, and in a profession in which burnout is a prime occupational hazard, perhaps the only feeling that we rarely experience in our work with couples after all these years is boredom.
For both of us, being couples therapists hasn’t permitted us to be complacent about our own marriage. Doing this work has pushed us to grow and develop ourselves as spouses and therapists in ways we never have imagined when we began. Being a couples therapist isn’t for the faint of heart! As Sir Edmund Hillary, who with Tenzing Norgay was the first person to climb Mt. Everest, said, “It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.”
Ellyn Bader, Ph.D., and Peter Pearson, Ph.D., couples therapists for more than 25 years, are the founders and directors of The Couples Institute and creators of the Developmental Model of Couples Therapy. They’re the authors of In Quest of the Mythical Mate: A Developmental Approach to Diagnosis and Treatment in Couples Therapy.
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