Grandiosity and Leverage
Another way of saying that someone is blatant is that they stride through life feeling superior, looking down their nose at others, or ignoring the rules and feeling entitled. David's selective obtuseness is a form of what my colleague Jeffrey Kerr has called privileged obliviousness--in other words, a form of entitlement that's mild, in comparison to many other grandiose people, but enough to endanger his marriage. David's inattention is the kind of quality-of-relationship issue that would have been written off a generation ago, but in today's world, could steer a marriage toward divorce.
When faced with a difficult or grandiose client, even someone as mild as David, most therapists are intimidated. Grandiose clients bring to therapy the same privilege they bring into their living room and bedrooms--the privilege to blow up or flee. Encountering the threat of such volatility, we're taught to go gingerly. Under the rubric of "forming an alliance," or "gaining the client's trust," we learn, in essence, to replicate the traditional spousal role: we reason, we cajole, we seduce--we do everything except tell the truth and put our foot down.
As a result, most therapists get about as far with grandiose clients as traditional wives get with stubbornly entitled husbands. Therapists fear that if they push too hard, the client will explode or leave treatment--not unreasonable fears--so we play tough clients like fish, alternating between giving them enough line and reeling them in. Therapeutic coaching deals with this issue a little differently. It begins by removing the power of intimidation. Before I reach for an alliance with a difficult client, I know that I first must gather leverage if I'm to have any hope of bringing about positive change.
Leverage means that therapy must offer the grandiose client either the prospect of something he wants--a warmer, sexier wife, for example--or a buffer against negative consequences he distinctly doesn't want--like losing his marriage or damaging his children in the ways he was damaged by his own parents. Gathering leverage isn't coercive: it just spells out the negative consequences of the blatant client's continued dysfunctional behavior. This is a necessary first step with entitled clients because grandiosity impairs one's sensitivity to others and ability to assess negative consequences. Psychiatrist George Valiant once remarked that there are two kinds of people in the world: a guy who walks into an elevator, gets claustrophobic, and turns green, and a guy who walks into an elevator, lights up a big, fat stogie, and everyone else turns green. That's the difference between shame and grandiosity.
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. Many current forms of couples therapy invite therapists to listen empathically, reflecting back what we hear, to be nondirective, to serve as a secure attachment figure, a safe holding environment. Such a nurture-based, facilitative therapy can work with a shame-based person because lack of empathy to oneself is central to the disorder. But the guy with the stogie has no problems being empathic toward himself. His missing trait is empathy toward others--and an appreciation of consequences. In David's case, Sarah had already supplied ample leverage with the consequence of a threatened separation--a risk David was taking seriously. Whatever "attitude" he may have had in the marriage, or in previous therapies, had dissipated in the face of impending loss. If I could convincingly portray myself as someone who could save his marriage, he'd be all ears. That's leverage.
I don't believe that our clients have stored within themselves such a rich treasure of inherent wisdom that our primary job is only to guide them gently into finding their own solutions to the difficulties in their lives. In fact, we live in a culture in which few of us learn what intimacy is as we're growing up, or how to create and sustain intimacy in our adult relationships. In our society, intimacy is considered a feminine characteristic, and most men react to the prospect of intimacy with all the enthusiasm of sitting through a chick flick.
As a culture, we do to relationship what we often do to things deemed feminine: we idealize it in principle and devalue it in fact. Yet we've never wanted more from our long-term relationships. Gone is the tepidly emotional, companionable marriage of the previous century. Today, couples want long walks on the beach holding hands, heart-to-heart talks, and great sex into their fifties, sixties, and beyond. We yearn for a lifelong-lover kind of romance. However, our culture is built for production and consumption--not romance, and we simply don't equip our sons and daughters with the skills needed to realize these historically new, psychologically ambitious desires. If you ask clients, "How do you think you should be intimate?" most would honestly say, "We haven't a clue. Please tell us. That's what we're here to find out."
Answering this request for guidance means that therapists must face a challenge of their own. If we're going to help people develop the skill set of knowing how to sustain connection, we need to know that struggle inside out from our own lives. We need to have mastered in our own intimate lives the same skills we ask our clients to use, and we need to be transparent about it. On the days my wife, Belinda, and I don't use our tools, I often tell the couples I see, "We look just as unhappy as you do." My clients love hearing things like that. They love it when we therapists come out from behind our blank screens and are human with them. I believe in communicating to our clients that we're in the mud with them--more like 12-Step sponsors than paragons of traditional therapeutic wisdom.