to grind our love into powder are the multigenerational legacies that come to us, unbidden, in those moments when we’re least responsible and our actions are most automatic. The crux of the difficulties couples experience is the playing out, in ways large and small, of those unresolved feelings of childhood: pain, rawness, fright, anger.
“Jimmy, why don’t you tell Terry what really happened?” Julie says in a tight voice, twisting in her chair to confront her husband. With black hair and ice-blue eyes, 36-year-old Julie is as Boston Irish as a cold beer at Fenway Park, and about that frosty.
“You go ahead; you tell him,” Jimmy grumbles, trying to sound tough. At 41, six feet, five inches, and an easy 260 pounds, he looks like a linebacker gone to fat. In her stocking feet, Julie might clear five one or two, but beneath his bluster, Jimmy seems afraid of her. Watching her lean into conflict with a hard smile on her face, I’m a little afraid of her, too.
“No, Jimmy,” she insists, her voice hard, “you tell it. Just do it right.”
“I thought I was,” he says.
Julie had called me about two months earlier, complaining that their bickering was out of control. Now, in this, our fourth session, she and her husband are doing a great job of letting me see what she meant by that. They’re describing what should have been a fun waterskiing afternoon with their 8-year-old daughter the previous weekend.
“Where was Chloe?” Julie demands, turning to face Jimmy full on.
“What? Why are you—? She was in the water,” Jimmy answers.
“What was she doing?”
“Jeezus!” Jimmy’s eyes dart around the room as if looking for an escape route. “Skiing, Julie,” he responds. “You were in the water with her. I was in the boat and you were in the water right next to her.”
“Was she crying, Jimmy? Was your daughter crying?”
Jimmy lets out a sigh befitting his size. Suddenly he looks like a Tibetan Hungry Ghost to me—a big blob of a creature with a tiny little mouth; all the air has gone out of him.
“What was she crying about?” Julie continues relentlessly. “What was Chloe crying about?”
“Me, no doubt,” Jimmy tries sarcasm. ”She was crying about her out-of-control father.”
“We were heading toward the propeller, Jimmy!” Julie yells, dropping her payload. “The propeller you wouldn’t turn off.”
“You were a good 30 feet away!” Jimmy yells right back.
“She was frightened,” Julie responds undeterred.
“You could have settled her down,” says Jimmy
“And you could have turned off the motor till I did, like I asked you to,” Julie concludes harshly, blame incontestably shooting from her eyes.
Jimmy frowns and sighs again. He has no reasonable comeback to this, though the scowl on his face indicates that he no longer considers this a reasonable conversation anyway.
Here’s the back story. Chloe was learning to water-ski. Mom was in the water with her; Dad was in the boat. Chloe had almost gotten up a couple of times, but she was nervous, scared of hitting the water, scared she wouldn’t get it right, and scared of the propeller. “Which wasn’t turning,” Jimmy insists.
So Chloe was afraid, but then again she has a lot of fears; she’s an anxious, slightly obsessive-compulsive kind of kid. Julie told Jimmy to turn off the motor. He ignored her. She said it again. He looked at his daughter. “Chloe, you have the rope, right? Just lean back and I’ll pull you up this time.”
“She’s not ready,” insisted Julie.
“She would be if you’d just shut up,” Jimmy called back, evoking a chorus from both mother and daughter simultaneously: “Dad!” “Jimmy!” And that was it for him for the rest of the afternoon.
Jimmy hauled his daughter into the boat. Julie followed along with a muttered string of invectives. Then no one spoke a word, while Dad drove his sullen, defeated family back to the pier. It could have been worse. Three months before, after such a challenge by this coalition of females, Jimmy would have headed back and popped open a beer, which would have led to a few more, and then a few more after that. Now he’s one month sober and a sporadic attendee of AA meetings. His newfound abstinence hasn’t pulled him back from the brink of divorce, however. Listening to them and watching them, I can see why.
At times like this, Jimmy and Julie have been completely taken over by what we at the Relational Life Institute call “Whoosh!”—being emotionally triggered, and completely losing it. We also call it “first consciousness”—the instantaneous knee-jerk reaction, the unconsidered, visceral response, to an emotional trigger. It’s the miller’s wheel. Whoosh comes up from the feet like a wave washing over you, creating a pit in your stomach, a tremor in your hands, a reddening in your face. It’s highly physical and totally convincing. When Jimmy and Julie are screaming at each other, whether on the water or in my office, they’re truly lost—lost to each other, and lost to themselves.
At first glance, they look like they’re fighters, but really their whoosh is a two-step pattern. First they fight, and then, once it becomes clear that neither of them is going to get anywhere, they withdraw in different ways: Julie turns to the kids, and, until recently, Jimmy turned to the bottle.
Most couples who come to see me are on the brink, like Jimmy and Julie. Luckily for them, we specialize in pulling couples back, working with intractable partners to produce quick, dramatic change in their marriages. Our model, Relational Life Therapy (RLT), does this by focusing on restoring connection.
All couples therapy welcomes increased connection between partners, but RLT tracks the patterns of connection and disconnection explicitly and single-mindedly. We see authentic connection as our natural state and birthright. Closeness is our therapy’s compass. When we watch a couple behave like Jimmy and Julie, we’re looking at what we call “relational deformities,” the characteristic ways each partner obstructs or pulls away from the satisfaction and vulnerabilities of that simple state of connection. All other considerations—the particular stressors, family dynamics, communication patterns—while important, are secondary. From an RLT perspective, the critical questions for each partner to consider are: What do I do that pulls me out of that state of connectedness? and, What do I need to do to return to it? But even asking those questions, let alone answering them, demands something beyond whoosh, something more than first consciousness. Couples have to see themselves in the moments of disconnection, and remind themselves that they want something different, something more.
“Look,” I tell Jimmy and Julie later in the session, laying out for them the particulars of their relational deformity and how they collide. “When you’re busy screaming at each other, it’s Self-righteous Indignation Meets Self-righteous Indignation. That goes on until you’ve had enough, and then it turns into Disgusted Withdrawal Meets Disgusted Withdrawal. Both halves of this pattern suck.”
“So, what are we supposed to do it about it?” asks Jimmy.
I look at them both for a moment, he hulking and put-upon, she restive and sharp. “Wake up,” I tell them. “What you need to do is wake up.”