This article first appeared in the November/December 1995 issue.
EARLY IN MY CAREER, I LOVED the stories of the great family therapists who, with unwavering conviction, marched into therapy sessions and applied their particular brand of intervention. When I watched tapes of the Master Therapists, I was always transfixed by the happy ending: the stone-faced father who finally cried, the controlling mother who saw the error of her ways, the phobic child who happily went back to school. Our Movie-of-the-Week version of therapy lulled me into believing that there was either success or failure for therapists, either health or dysfunction for families. But 20 years later, having experienced my share of ambiguous cases satisfying and frustrating, painful and oddly funny, disastrous and successful I now know better. Life is a messy and confusing tangle of middle ground, neither here nor there, never just black or white. I’ve come to believe that as important as it is for therapists to know the right intervention to end a family’s emotional gridlock, it’s just as important to resist the pull of polarized thinking either/or, good or evil, victim or perpetrator, pro-choice or pro-life, or any one of a million dichotomies that shape our identities and our culture.
Polarizations, both mundane and existential, have one compelling quality: they break things down into neat categories and seemingly clear choices. They are also insidiously destructive, creating a wedge between people by making their differences seem vast and insurmountable. If I believe all white people are racist, my life is simplified; I don’t have to consider each white person I meet on an individual basis. I can conveniently categorize a large segment of the population, and thereby negotiate my world more quickly. But the consequence of this kind of either/or thinking is disconnection and fragmentation.
I have been struggling with dichotomies for years as an African American. Although I grew up in a black community, I went to college and graduate school in primarily all-white settings and went into a profession that hasn’t traditionally included many African Americans. As a young man, I was always implicitly or explicitly confronted with questions such as “Are you really black?” My relatives and friends back home wondered why I would want to be a therapist, a white person’s profession. White people wanted to know why I wanted to be a therapist, since “black people don’t believe in therapy.” In the past, whenever I have written or spoken about being a black man in a white-dominated profession, I’ve focused on the splitting and tension between supposedly opposing identities. Although presented as opposites, I have recently come to see both parts of myself as equally real and authentic. Part of the tension for me is knowing that it’s not like I can consciously choose which one is me and have some sense of comfort. There is some anxiety I experience with both sides. Neither one fits like a glove, but they are both me. Finally admitting that I was not either/or allowed me to relax in a way I hadn’t ever before in my life. I could be both/and; I could step away from the circumscribed choices I felt I had been given and see myself as both one whole and two worlds at war. Today, I am just as comfortable going across the street and hanging out with the boyz in the ‘hood as I am giving professional workshops. I know both of those worlds are mine, and I am never fully at home in either. As an older and, I hope, wiser version of the confused young man I once was, I only wish I could go back and tell myself at age 27 that I didn’t have to see my life as divided down the middle between the loving notions of Virginia Satir, a therapist I admired, and the hard realities of racism that blacks struggle with every day.
When my clients come in complaining of the usual miseries of too much fighting, not enough intimacy, disrespectful adolescents, or generalized un-happiness, I try to meet them where they are and understand their pain and I also try to make room for another truth to surface: even while they are suffering, a part of them is also okay. I’ve seen individuals who are simultaneously furious with their divorced spouse and still love him or her. A man both grieves and is relieved at the loss of a wife who had suffered from Alzheimers for the last ten years; a young woman feels both anger and love for her abusive alcoholic father; a child both hates being sexually abused by her uncle and also likes his paying attention to her; a Latina woman feels both pride in her heritage and unrelenting shame about her heritage. I have come to believe that, above all, therapy should allow breathing room for all parts of an experience to be discussed. Healing becomes possible when neither we nor our clients can fall back on our usual dichotomized truisms about life.
I had a client a few years ago who exemplified for me how one thing always contains the other, how within what is bad is also what is good. This woman, a low-income African-American mother, had experienced just about every possible hardship one could imagine. The school sent her and her son to see me because the 15-year-old boy, Clark, was playing hookey from school. Despite their many problems, which the mother did not deny, this family had a striking sense of spiritual wholeness. The mother was able to have two things be true at the same time their hardship was devastating and also a source of strength. She would often say, “I think in some ways, I am no different from Rose Kennedy. I have it all in this world. It doesn’t show. But I have it all.” She was aware of all the material things her family didn’t have, but then she would tell me, “The Good Lord has blessed us by giving us so little, because my children know whatever they get in this life they worked hard for. They never have to fear being left out because they know what it is like to be on the outside. When you grow up having so little, you have everything.” This doesn’t mean she didn’t have pain in her life-she could talk about that, too. But I have taken her wisdom to heart and come to appreciate the complex truth of both/and. This isn’t simply refraining to a more positive picture, or focusing on competence or being solution focused all of those techniques are involving downplaying problems, or defining them out of existence. This type of therapy is a careful balancing act of holding both parts up at the same time and resisting the urge to amputate what makes us uncomfortable.
No simple panacea will erase the tension created by either/or thinking from our clients’ lives not becoming solution focused, multicultural or postmodern. Consider this case: Don, a 42-year-old man, and Risa, a 40-year-old woman, came in because of fights about sex that were so bitter that both were worried about the future of their marriage. Risa had been raised in a strict, Catholic household and had considered becoming a nun before meeting Don. She felt that Don was too focused on sex and wanted him to stop pressuring her. Also raised Catholic, Don said that in spite of all his efforts to overcome his conditioning to feel guilty about enjoying sex, Risa made him feel guilty for even asking. When she rejected him, he would go off on his own feeling angry and masturbate.
I tried to help them each see that they weren’t as polarized as they thought Risa did have a part of her that enjoyed sex and wanted to feel more free to respond to Don. And Don had a part of him that could understand her refusal to have sex. “What was important for them was not giving up their differences but staying in supportive emotional contact during the conflict. Don had to let go of simple solutions masturbating and blaming Risa for his sexual frustration and stay connected to her even when he felt rejected, looking her in the eye and telling her what he felt without using it to punish her. And Risa also had to embrace complexity. She had to listen to Don and not react by just getting angry or defensive. She heard her husband say, with difficulty, “I feel rejected by you, like you don’t love me. I’m struggling right now not to let the rejection overwhelm me so I say things to you that I don’t really mean.” Risa told him, “You come home and are critical and disapproving of me and then expect me to warm up to you in bed. I don’t work that way. But I’m trying not to withhold sex to punish you, it’s just that it’s hard to hear that you want me. It’s easier to hear that you’re mad at me. That’s how it was growing up. It makes me feel vulnerable to feel
like you want me and love me.” Of course, accepting that they both had these opposite parts in themselves did not magically clear up the problem. Risa and Don still didn’t agree about how often to have sex, and he still felt hurt and rejected while she felt pressured and guilty.
This couple didn’t have sex more frequently at the end of therapy than they did when they came in, nor did they stop their fighting altogether, nor did they completely let go of their fantasy that “if only the other one would change, my life would be great.” But the bitterness of their fighting did subside and they were able to be both vulnerable and also hold to their own needs and desires. Breaking down the polarities allowed them to find a new middle ground that wasn’t about making each one give up what they wanted. Therapy was about their learning to live more comfortably with the discomfort of their differences. By reclaiming and owning the part of themselves that had been denied or cut off, and then exposing it to their partner, they opened up a new level of intimacy. With Risa, I used the metaphor of heaven and hell a polarity with a lot of power in her life to help her understand that she can both be suspicious of lust and also free to enjoy it. With Don, I worked on moving him from his macho-man sex machine persona to admitting the secret truth that he, like his wife, felt guilty about his sexual desire.
The next time Don asked for sex and was “rejected,” as he put it, by Risa, something changed. He realized that she could love him, accept him, respect him and not want to have sex with him. He still felt frustrated, but not psychically wounded. Risa heard his request differently, not only as an unreasonable demand but also as an expression of his desire to be close to her. Reattaching those lost parts of themselves was a way of neutralizing the polarizations that were keeping them in a cycle of antagonism. In this case, my goal was not simply to help them have a more fulfilling sex life, but to help them to grapple with complexity and tolerate discomfort so they could move through it to mutual respect and openness. Even if there was no simple solution we’ll have sex every Sunday what was important was their staying connected in the face of their differences.
The problem with being lulled into believing that life can be simple is it creates impossible expectations we want happiness without un-happiness, entertainment without boredom, love without risk. I once saw a high-powered lawyer whose husband was having an affair. She felt she would do anything to keep him, including undergoing expensive and painful plastic surgery to mold herself to his ideal of beauty, or buying him lavish gifts with her family inheritance. I tried to help her see that as long as she wasn’t at peace with the idea of losing him, she could never fully participate in their relationship together. The greatest threat to their relationship wasn’t his affair but her either/or thinking, which made her believe that either she was perfect and thus deserved her husband’s love, or she was imperfect and de-served his infidelity.
Our therapy involved encouraging her to reveal more of her vulnerabilities because she was under the illusion that appearing strong and invincible would be attractive to him. She was afraid of this intimacy because she didn’t believe he could love her if he saw her “true” self, the part of her that was needy and scared and angry. She was both right and wrong he didn’t want to see that side of her, but the opposite was also true. He said he felt exasperated being with someone whom he felt he hardly knew. “I had an affair because the other woman has a pulse and a heartbeat,” he told his wife. “She’s a whole person with me.” We had to work for several months before she felt comfortable being imperfect human and feeling that, nevertheless, she deserved to be loved. Both things could be true.
I see in each client a potential to embrace other parts of themselves, and therapy can be a vehicle for helping them to retrieve the part of their experience that they have disavowed. Even with the most heinous abuser, I look for a redeemable quality that provides the possibility of change. Because we all contain the potential to be all things, I can’t give up on anyone. I can’t say I would never work with the Grand Master of the Ku Klux Klan if he came for therapy.
Admittedly, it can be very complicated and uncomfortable to work on this rocky terrain of both/and. A family came in last month concerned that Sam, their 16-year-old son, was regularly drinking alcohol. The parents were divorced but both were actively involved with him. I spent several hours talking with Sam, and it was very clear to me that no matter what threats his parents had made about punishments or even kicking him out of the house to induce him to give it up, Sam was going to continue drinking. His drinking had become the arena in which he and his parents were struggling for control over his life, and he saw his right to drink as his declaration of independence. His father, Ralph, had grown up on a farm with very strict parents and had never been drunk until his late 20s. He was determined to control his suburban-raised teenaged son and had given Sam an ultimatum to either quit drinking or be out on the streets. His ex-wife, Sally, reluctantly supported his decision. From what I could see, the more Ralph pressured his son to stop drinking, the more it eroded their relationship.
I was concerned that the polarized positions taken up by Sam and his father were like two trains on a collision course. I concluded that the parents’ best course might be to say to Sam, “We absolutely don’t condone your drinking. If you choose to do it in spite of our disapproval, here are the parameters we insist on with regard to when, with whom and how much you can drink.” Ralph was irate when I suggested this as a possible solution and accused me of being professionally irresponsible. He emphatically rejected the idea and said there was no way he could tolerate his son doing something illegal. Sally worried that it sounded like they would be sending Sam a mixed message, but she was willing to give it a try. I knew I was suggesting something that went out on a limb, but I wanted to depolarize the father’s and son’s positions. Sam had already made his decision and his parents couldn’t control that. What I wanted to avoid was disengagement if Ralph cut off from his son, the possibility for change and growth would also be cut off. Ralph was absolutely right: as a minor, Sam was breaking the law whenever he drank alcohol. I had to resist the pull of the polarities again legal or illegal and see that a therapeutic solution did not only have to be a legalistic solution.
This is what therapy is about: making sure that no one is stuck in a polarized position, that everyone in the system can be freed somewhat from the narrow choices circumscribed by polarities. My position as a therapist was not to condone the boy’s behavior but to be able to understand his experience and then help the family find more options. Maybe Sam didn’t have to drink all the time; maybe his parents could live with his drinking if they had some control over where, when and how much. Sam might have been more willing to listen to his parents if he felt they respected his decisions. I wanted to find an alternative to their ultimatum, a way he could both drink and stay in the family, both make his own decisions and respect his parents’ need to guide him into adulthood safely. One of the greatest myths of therapy is that problems like these arise because family members need to communicate better. In this case, they understood each other’s position perfectly: they just disagreed. The father could not imagine an adolescence different from the one he had had on a rural farm, and his son couldn’t imagine what a father feels watching his child put himself in harm’s way. I had seen this family as a one-day consultation, but after our four-hour meeting they asked if we could schedule another session, and we did for the following week. A few days later, Ralph canceled our appointment and never rescheduled. In one sense, he ended up handling his difference with me in the same way he suggested handling his difference with his son. It was the very thing that I try to avoid disengagement.
As a black person, I have become sensitized to the pain of either/or thinking. When we see one another through the split lens of either/or, we are prevented from working together and cultivating a broader kindhearted-ness and compassion that doesn’t stop at the border of white or black. I can’t talk about the pain that slaves endured in this country without also talking about the humanity slave masters lost by their cruel acts. The pain may not be equal, but nevertheless it’s part of the experience of both sides. Victimization and domination contain each other, and therefore we can’t ignore either side. When we do, we disconnect and disengage, and possibilities for change become limited.
One of my black colleagues told me she believes black people have got to take the power and put whites in their place. I listened to her respectfully she had been on the other side, had suffered so many slights and injustices at the whim of whites who had power over her that I could understand her frustration and anger. We all have this desire to be in control, to have the power rather than have power -wielded over us. But I challenged her notion that it would make her feel better to dominate whites. I said that if she saw power in this dichotomized, either/or way either you have it or you don’t she would feel no better as the dominator. There would be just a different kind of pain, maybe self-loathing, at becoming a tyrant or fear of losing power. What we all hunger for is a new world of choices without those poles of either/or pulling us away from the complexities of our everyday experiences.
Kenneth V. Hardy
Kenneth V. Hardy, PhD, is director of the Eikenberg Institute for Relationships and professor of marriage and family therapy at Drexel University.