“Let me say it. Take your breath and bring it into your heart. Imagine your healing breath bathing your heart. Got it?” He nods. “OK, Jimmy, now breathe yourself out of all that angry-victim stuff. Nobody drives anybody anything. Who’s responsible for your feelings?” I ask. This is, by now, an old question between us.
“I am,” he says.
“Keep your eyes closed. Now I want you to work on bringing yourself down; down from all that righteousness and contempt. Ya there?”
“Good,” I say. “Open your eyes.” He does, turning to look at his wife. “Now Jimmy,” I add, “from this place, talk to your wife.”
He turns on the couch to face Julie and reaches out his big hands so she can place her tiny hands in them, which she does.
“Honey,” he begins (letting her know that he cherishes her).
“That’s better,” I mutter from the sideline.
“Julie, if you’re scared, just say so. Don’t boss me around or try to control me” (going for what he wants).
“But you’re so reckless,” Julie wails.
“Hey Julie,” I say, “How about a change in your tone?”
“But he is reckless,” she protests.
“I’m still on your tone,” I persist. She takes a deep breath.
“James,” she says more softly. “I’ll try to do that. And you can help by giving me less to be frightened of” (asking for what she wants).
“Well done,” I observe.
“Jules,” Jimmy says, talking as softly as she does, “I don’t want to scare you” (speaking for repair).
“Then just stop—.” Julie starts to crank it up, but catches herself (a moment of second consciousness). “Try to keep that in mind, Jim. OK? I appreciate it,” she says, more calmly and generously.
“Nice work.” I conclude. “Nice save there, Julie.”
She smiles, clearly pleased. “It was a hail-Mary pass,” she confesses.
The Importance of Tone
In these sessions, both Julie and Jim use a host of skills not all that different from those taught in couples therapists offices everywhere: speaking from the “I,” letting go of objective reality, negotiating their needs. But the particular skills are less important than their willingness to use them in the first place, less important than their changed internal state. That’s why we pay so much attention to tone. Tone trumps content, because tone will tell you where the person is inside. The tone we look for in a session is simply a switch from their usual: you want the weak, one-down, shame-based client to sit straight and speak up; you want the strong, one-up, dominating client to become more open and soft. Sitting with these two fighters as they began waking up to second consciousness, I knew that this is a state of mind that rarely comes spontaneously; it must be sought out and cultivated through hard work. Here’s how Jimmy describes it in a later session.
“So I come home after being away on a business trip, OK? I’ve got a heavy bag on my shoulder; I’m tired. She meets me at the door in a state, you know: ‘I’ve been alone with the kids for three days! You barely called!’—the whole nine yards. Now, in a former life—,” he says, leaning forward.
“The old Jimmy—,” I respond, joining with him, and underscoring the change.
“Exactly, the old me,” he agrees. “It would have been, ‘Who the hell do you think you are!? I come home after bustin’ my tail putting food on our table—,” he grins. “You get it?”
“Self-Righteous Indignation Meets Self-Righteous Indignation,” I say.
“Exactly. But now,” he says, “another part of me chimes in. It’s literally—I don’t know how it is for other people, but for me it’s literally like a voice in my head.”
“Which says?” I prompt. His grin widens.
“‘Shut the eff up,’ is what it says—. ‘Jimmy, just shut up!’”
“That’s called containment,” I tell him.
“OK, yeah, anyway,” he says, “I breathe, like you told me. Exactly. I breathe into my heart. I bring myself down from all that—.”
“Contempt,” I suggest, “anger. Big angry victim.”
“All that stuff. I put up a boundary. Her shit’s her shit, not mine. But respectfully,” he’s quick to add.
“You hold her in warm regard,” I offer.
“And why not?” he agrees. “We all have our days, right? She was alone with the kids for three days. So, instead of my usual gettin’ all pissy, I—.”
“Ask yourself,” I add unable to contain myself. “‘What could I say or do right now—’”
“‘—that would be constructive, i.e., pertinent to the current situation,’” he completes in his own words.
“And so you say,” I prompt.
“Honey, I’m sorry. Where are the kids now? What can I do to help?”
“What can I do to help?” I repeat, in a tone of awe, marveling.
“And she melts. Terry, I’m telling you. On the spot; she just melts.”
I regard him admiringly. “A-plus, young man,” I tell him, nodding. “Who’da thunk it?”
Julie, quiet this whole time, raises her hand, a schoolgirl.
“I would have,” she exclaims, “I knew it!” Then she catches her own enthusiasm and grows sheepish. “Well, not for a while maybe, but once, once upon a time.”