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|Case Studies - Page 3|
Research has amply demonstrated that the habit of anger regularly hijacks our ability to think clearly. Because their chronic anger caused them so much mental and physical tension, the first few sessions with Don and Sara were spent teaching them stress-reduction exercises to relax their bodies and restore calmer thinking. Since they'd "practiced" their feelings of anger so much, their therapist had to model, teach, cajole, and encourage them to find within themselves their underused capacity for relating to each other with kindness and gentleness. They went through a series of guided-imagery exercises designed to calm them down as well as refocus from negative internal images to more positive ones.
The initial focus was on learning that accessing submerged feelings of gratitude, compassion, and love—both in general and toward each other—could come as naturally as accessing blame, shame, and anger. Their therapist asked them to try an experiment: "You know how it feels to mistrust the other. Let's see what it feels like to practice goodwill." In doing this, they were first reassured that they could always return to their old negative interactions, which they already knew how to do very well.
After some time practicing stress-reduction and breathing exercises, Don and Sara felt less automatic emotional reactivity and found that they could listen better to each other. When Sara told Don that his anger kept her from having sexual feelings toward him, he managed to listen quietly without exploding. The mere fact that he could stay still and listen had the effect of relaxing Sara, and she began to lean closer to him when he spoke.
Another initial focus was to diminish mutual expectations of what each partner "owed" the other—what we call "unenforceable rules." People often react badly to not getting what they want, escalating their desires into demands, and then becoming unable to forgive other people for not fulfilling these demands. Don and Sara were punishing each other for their unmet hopes, while being unwilling to realize, as the Rolling Stones put it, "You can't always get what you want." Don had every right to be hurt and angry at Sara's early betrayal in their marriage, but his outrage and inability to forgive her for more than two decades stemmed from his belief that her fidelity was his entitlement. From this sense of entitlement, he drew the "rule" that it was her obligation to make him feel strong and masculine.
Sara's unenforceable rule was that, as the strong male protector, Don must always love her and keep her safe, no matter how she behaved or what mistakes she made. Naively thinking he'd simply appreciate the honesty of her confession, she'd expected that the slate would be wiped clean. As a result, she was completely unprepared for his hurt and outrage. She needed help to see that his hurt about the affair didn't cancel out his protective feelings for her and to realize that her fierce protector was vulnerable, imperfect, and sometimes selfish. Bottom line: he didn't always have to give her what she wanted for her to love him.