I tell the husband that if the wife forgets the agreement and begins to discuss one of these matters outside of the special meeting, he should begin to take off his clothes. He might first remove his tie, his watch, his shoes, his socks, and continue undressing, no matter where they are, for as long as the wife continues to talk about the issues. He should continue to undress, even if it means that he’ll end up naked in public.
Typically, the husbands laugh and say something like “I can do that.” The wives usually laugh too, and the atmosphere of the session lightens. This is an outrageous strategy, but it works to break the pattern of negative interactions and turns them into playful exchanges. Humor involves outrageous behavior, and so can therapy. Plus, I don’t think I’ve ever had a husband who had to remove more than three or four items of clothing.
Healing Hatred with Paradox
A woman came to see me because she was obsessed with hateful thoughts about her ex-husband. Her marriage hadn’t been happy. After years of enduring his stonewalling, his put-downs, and his coldness, she’d decided to divorce him. He didn’t want the divorce, but soon after it was finalized, he married a much younger woman and moved into a beautiful house. His new wife didn’t have to work, while my client had to work hard and struggled with money issues. Now she couldn’t stop hating her ex-husband and wishing all kinds of evil upon him. Since she’d always thought of herself as a kind person, she didn’t like having these thoughts.
I told her that it was okay to experience hatred for her husband: the problem was that the hatred invaded her whole day when it should be contained to a specific time, leaving her free to experience joy and other positive emotions at other times. She agreed, although she said she’d prefer to experience no hatred for her ex-husband at all. Of course, I preferred that as well, and hoped that my paradoxical strategy would eliminate the hatred altogether. But I didn’t share this. Instead, I simply said that since that ideal outcome didn’t seem possible just yet, she should try this new plan.
“I want you to get up every morning 20 minutes earlier than usual and sit in a special chair that you will use only for this purpose,” I directed. “During those 20 minutes, you’ll think only about your hatred for your husband. Your mind will probably wander, but you’ll have to bring it back and concentrate on only thinking and experiencing the hatred. It’s like meditating: at first it’ll be difficult, but then it’ll get easier.” I explained this in a kind and serious way, saying that this is an established strategy for containing a negative emotion to a specific time and place.
She came to see me two weeks later and told me that she wasn’t thinking hateful thoughts about her ex-husband all the time anymore. She’d followed my instructions, until her mind had begun to wander to thoughts of hatred toward me, the therapist, for having made her do this every morning. She said this with a mischievous smile, and we both laughed.
Of course, this strategy stems from Viktor Frankl’s paradoxical intention: in the context of working to eliminate a behavior, one asks the client to engage in more of it. Frankl, for example, would ask a patient who was afraid of having a heart attack to have a heart attack right there in his office. The patient would typically laugh at the absurdity of this request, and Frankl would say this laughter was precisely what he was after: it indicated the patient’s ability to take himself and his fears more lightly. In the case of my client, consciously spending 20 minutes every day trying hard to have hateful thoughts about her husband began to seem absurd, even ridiculous—which in effect broke the spell. Once her sense of humor had been aroused by engaging in the directed behavior and we could laugh about it together in the office, her need to ruminate hatefully about her husband disappeared.
A Cure for Panic
Breaking a pattern of interaction in absurd and humorous ways can often reverse years of conflict and suffering. Once, for example, a therapist asked Richard Chouhy, my student and now colleague, for a consultation with a woman she’d treated for panic and anxiety over the preceding decade with no results. Marianne’s panic attacks would start early in the morning every day, last all day, and often be accompanied by intestinal cramps and diarrhea. At those times, she’d brood about dying and would be overwhelmed by fear. Virtually paralyzed with dread, she couldn’t take care of the house or the children, so her mother and her mother-in-law would take turns stepping in.
For the initial consultation, Chouhy invited Marianne’s husband, Marc, to come with her. The couple was attractive and charming. They’d known each other since childhood, and it was obvious there was a great deal of love between them. Chouhy asked Marc how he’d attempted to help Marianne, and Marc described how he’d done everything in his power to help her: he’d listened to her, talked to her, reassured her, given her love, and taken care of her in every way he could think of. Chouhy listened carefully and then said, “Perhaps it’s time to do something different.”
“Like what?” asked Marc. “I’m willing to do anything to solve this problem.”