When the family came back to my office, surprised and confused by the diagnosis, I said, “I totally agree with the doctor. Myra is an artist, and you’ve been trying to change her into what she’s not, instead of nurturing who she really is. I know your intentions are good, but she’s the only artist in the family, so you don’t have the experience of what it’s like to deal with an artist. Artists need an angel, someone to support them financially and encourage them in their work. And Myra is so fortunate that her father can be that angel for her.”
My thinking was that if Myra could feel that her father loved her unconditionally, that she didn’t have to be self-supporting or hard working to have his love, she’d develop the maturity and self-confidence that she so badly needed. Love has huge healing power. There was no question that the father loved Myra, but he wasn’t giving her his love in the way she needed to get it.
I turned to the father and said, “From now on, you’re going to support her financially so she can devote herself to her art, and you’re going to support her according to your own social class, not so she lives in poverty. You’re going to provide for her every need.”
Myra’s eyes were wide open. The father was stunned. This was the last thing he expected from me. I could tell he was thinking that by following my directive he’d be enabling lazy, obnoxious behavior.
The stepmother asked, “What about tough love? Aren’t we supposed to teach young people to be independent and self-reliant?”
I said, “That doesn’t apply to people with an artistic temperament.” Then I became specific, instructing the father to pay off all of Myra’s credit cards, have her car repaired, make sure she has medical insurance, and so forth. The father agreed. He was an intelligent, successful man, and he knew that what he’d been doing wasn’t working, so he was willing to try this radically different approach.
After this agreement, there was no more cutting and no more trips to the emergency room. A few months later, Myra called me one day, tearful about a boyfriend who she suspected was going to break up with her. I asked how old this boyfriend was. She said 25. I said, “Twenty-five? That’s a boy. You need a 40-year-old man who’ll invite you to Paris for the weekend and have his assistant make the arrangements.”
Myra laughed and said, “You’re right, Cloe. I need a rich, older man. I’m okay. I just needed to hear your voice. You always make me laugh.”
Three years later, I heard that Myra had gone back to school and was finishing her master’s degree in fine arts. There’d been no more family dramas.
The Therapist as Miss Marple
As I see it, a good therapist is primarily a kind of detective, a Miss Marple (Agatha Christie’s elderly lady sleuth) with a degree in social work or psychology. Our mission is to burrow in and find out who our clients really are and the sources of their problems—even when they themselves aren’t entirely sure or aware of what drives them (which is often the case). This kind of work requires, more than many forms of therapy, an ability to pick up on the sometimes hidden-in-plain-sight idiosyncratically funny details of their situation.
There’s no way to do this ethically and effectively without first forging a strong therapeutic relationship built on mutual respect, trust, and appreciation—a relationship in which clients feel deeply seen, heard, and understood. None of my clients would even consider my “silly” directives, much less try to follow them to the letter, if they didn’t feel I cared about them and had some insight into what troubled them. Without that level of mutual regard, this kind of work would be a travesty, and I’d have no clients. They do what I ask on trust—trust that I know and care about them enough not to harm them, even inadvertently.
Built on thoughtfulness, deep attention, and obvious regard for the clients, these kinds of directives work because they wake people up from their misery-trance. You can see the new spark in their eyes, almost hear their brains start to buzz with more liveliness. Garrison Keillor, host of A Prairie Home Companion, once said that “God writes a lot of comedy. The trouble is, he’s stuck with so many bad actors who don’t know how to play funny.” In a sense, these paradoxical directives are a bit like acting class: the clients may start out as melodramatic tragedians, but during this process they learn how to do pretty good stand-up comedy!
Cloe Madanes is a world-renowned innovator and teacher of family and brief therapy and one of the originators of the strategic approach to family therapy. She has authored seven books that are classics in the field: Strategic Family Therapy; Behind the One-Way Mirror; Sex, Love, and Violence; The Secret Meaning of Money; The Violence of Men; The Therapist as Humanist, Social Activist, and Systemic Thinker; and Relationship Breakthrough. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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