Most of us were trained to believe that we needed to be extremely careful when helping clients face the really difficult truths in their lives--especially their own obnoxious, selfish, or self-defeating actions. Nevertheless, my own experience as a couples therapist has taught me that we aren't doing clients a favor by soft-pedaling difficult issues, despite what my early supervisors tried to instill in me. The approach I've developed, Relationship Life Therapy (RLT), is based on the premise that it's disrespectful to clients not to let them in on the truth about what we witness regularly in our offices as they play out their relationships in front of us: the ways they deal with their partners are often self-centered, unfeeling, and counterproductive.
In some ways, the guiding principle of RLT is to be able to say to clients what we might otherwise say only to our colleagues in our supervision group or around the water cooler after a tough session. Instead of confiding, when they're out of earshot, something like, "I can't believe what a witch she is to him. He's such a Caspar Milquetoast," I believe that's what you need to say--skillfully and respectfully--in the session with the couple.
I think the quality of directness I'm talking about is better described as joining through the truth.
"A small thing, a small thing, maybe, but I feel invisible. And as far as I'm concerned, that's why we're here--because David hears what David hears, and David does what David does. There are times when it feels like I don't even exist," Sarah says of her husband, punctuating each word for emphasis.
"This is the story of a small thing turning into a big thing, and then turning into a really big thing."
"Tell me," I say.
"A few weeks ago, we get an e-mail from our daughter's old school. There's a dinner and they'd like us to come. Our daughter went there for many years; David was on their board. It was an important part of the family. So I tell him, 'I think we should go.' Then he gives me all the reasons why we shouldn't: 'It's just a fundraiser. They just want money.'
"A week later, I bring it up again and say I think it's really important to go--and, again, he launches into the same lecture. So now, I'm frustrated. Do I feel listened to? I do not."
Sarah is 40 and describes herself as "small but mighty." Petite, blonde, with ice-blue, fiercely intelligent eyes, she can be a force to be reckoned with.
I squint at David for a minute as he sits back in his chair. Then I break the first of many rules I'd learned in my training--I take sides.
A cardinal principle of couples therapy as I learned it was: Thou Shalt Not Take Sides, and particularly, you're not to side with a woman against a man. Evenhandedness is critical, I learned. If you lost your "therapeutic neutrality," you had to go talk to your supervisor. But I'd heard enough, not just in this moment, but also in others from previous sessions, to convince me that Sarah's complaint had the ring of truth to it. She was right--David didn't listen.
"She's right, David."
"Your behavior, which would drive most women crazy," I tell him.
"My diagnosis?" I hold up my hand, as if reading from a marquee. "I'd say, 'David Sharpe, terminally obtuse.'"
"Ouch," he says.
"I'm sorry," I tell him. He seems equal parts abashed and annoyed. "Maybe I'm the one who should be sorry," he says half-heartedly, clearly unconvinced.
"Maybe so," I reply.
For more than 50 years, the mental health field has focused on helping people come up from the one-down position of shame. But we've done a poor job equipping therapists to help entitled clients come down from their one-up perch in life. The trait that clients like David are missing is empathy toward others--and an appreciation of consequences.
The organizing principle that drives David's selective obtuseness is easy to see: selfishness. In fact, with this particular couple, the difficult truth isn't something that's hard to acknowledge. When I bring up David's being, at times, selfish, they both warm to this description surprisingly easily.
"I can see myself doing it," he complains, "but I can't seem to stop." Sometimes the struggle to confront difficult truths may not come in the present, but in the past, where a particular relationship stance was learned.
"I really was perfect. I was a straight-A student. I was captain of the football team and the prom king. I graduated from a top-tier college magna cum laude.” David says. “In fact, it was murder that I missed being summa cum laude. No really," he pursues, "I was depressed for weeks at that. I mean, I was vicious to myself."
"Welcome to the joys of perfection," I tell him. But he's deep in thought, seeing things, learning things quickly. "You know," he says, "I think that's why I get so angry and defensive with Sarah."
"Go on," I say.
"I think I can't stand it that she thinks I'm not perfect. I mean, I can't stand it."
"So, whatever she says must be wrong," I offer.
"Whatever she says is nuts," he affirms.
Before this session, David had never questioned his need to be perfect. He hadn't thought about it one way or another; he'd just acted it out. For the first time in his life, he found himself holding this belief, this self-image, this stance at arm's length.
"Tell me what you're feeling right now," I ask.
"My kids love me," he says. "Down deep and all, they respect me. But...I don't know...the warmth factor is missing."
This is a moment in the therapy I've been waiting for. David's sadness about his children is a heightened appreciation for the negative consequence of his selfishness, a break from his grandiose inattention. We are, for a moment, on the same page. This is the mature part of David I want to form an alliance with.
"You know David," I say, "we have to stop this. If this were to go on, you'd be one of those guys who, you know, the kids call up and say, 'Hi, Dad. Lemme talk to Mom."
"You don't get it," he tells me, looking suddenly deflated, all the bellicosity knocked out of him. "I already am that guy. It's already happened." Tears fill his eyes.
Turning to her husband, Sarah says, "You're lovable, you stupid lunk. That's what you are. You've never been so lovable!"
"Great," David muses, wiping his face with the back of his hand. "I've never felt like such shit and you two are throwing a party." I hold out a tissue box for him.
"Welcome to the real world," I say.
"You're in the dark night of the soul," I tell him. "Everything you've ever known, ever lived for, has cracked open. And you're not sure what to replace it with yet, but you will be. Trust me, David, it'll come to you."
"What will come to me?" his voice is full of despair. I glance at Sarah, who, without hesitation, turns to her husband. "For one thing," she tells him, "I'll come. I have come. I've never felt closer to you. I'm right here."
It took David many weeks to let go of his need to be perfect, weeks to accept something he'd seldom allowed himself before: feeling the support from his wife.
It's good for someone like David to come unglued; it's been a long time coming, and he needs to. Although it's painful, his collision with his own humanity won't damage him. It'll bring him back to his real, imperfect self. And back to Sarah.
"I'm kinder," he says looking at his wife. "Softer."
"Sweeter," she pipes in.
"Maybe," he says. "Maybe a little."
"David," Sarah goes on. "Face it, admit it. You're becoming a mensch, a true human being."
More than adopting any particular methodology of change, we can be far more direct and challenging to the clients who come to us than we've previously acknowledged. I operate with the assumption that, by and large, people are neither fragile nor stupid. If you show them how they're getting in their own way and what behaving more skillfully looks like, they'll be grateful. Rather than the expectation that telling tough truths will send clients out of the room screaming, I've seen over and over that, if done with love, grace, skill, and even an occasional dose of real wisdom, therapeutic coaching brings clients back for more. I've found that the couples I see are ready to meet the challenge of examining themselves, of becoming explorers in what is, for them, uncharted territory. The question for the field of psychotherapy is whether we're ready to meet that challenge ourselves.
Terry Real, LICSW, is the author of the bestseller I Don’t Want to Talk about It: Overcoming the Secret Legacy of Male Depression and has been featured on numerous national news programs. He’s been in private practice for 30 years and is the founder of The Relational Life Institute, where he teaches therapist trainings and workshops for couples.
This blog is excerpted from "Joining Through the Truth" by Terry Real. The full version is available in the November/December 2012 issue, The Rise of Therapeutic Coaching: Is the Game Changing?
Illustration © Art Valero/SIS
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