consultation 88 .
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When couples come to see me in crisis mode, I know that I have to work very quickly to enable each person to begin to think and respond differently. Often he or she has labeled his or her partner as problematic and doesn't appreciate his own contribution to the ongoing difficulties. She has a hard time being empathetic and as such fails to appreciate the other person's perspective. The following is a typical conversation between patient and therapist:
Psychologist: How do you feel your husband has been treating you? Woman: Terrible.
Psychologist: How? In what way?
Woman: He has said incredibly mean things, nasty terrible things and has hurt me deeply in ways I never could have imagined.
Psychologist: How have you been treating your husband? Think for a moment and attempt to be as honest as you can be.
Woman: (Long pause) Terrible. I guess, absolutely terrible.
Psychologist: I appreciate your honesty. How? In what way?
Woman: I've been mean, I've been nasty, I've said things to intentionally hurt him, to get a response, some response, any response. He ignores me.
Psychologist: You feel ignored. You feel that he does not listen to you.
Psychologist: Have you thought about how you'd like to be treated?
Woman: Like a queen. Like I am the most important person in his life. Like I am his best friend and not his worst enemy. I want to be seen as special. Like I was when we dated before we were married. Like I matter.
Psychologist: Do you like the person that you have become with time in your relationship? How have you changed and are you happy with yourself?
Woman: No, I have become mean and nasty. I am unhappy. I am miserable.
Psychologist: So let's see if we can change this and attempt to understand this all better. You are saying that your partner is being "terrible" to you and in return you are being "terrible" to him? You are also saying that you want to be treated well - like a princess.
Woman: No, like a queen!
Psychologist: Like a queen! If I treated you terribly, do you think you would want to treat me nicely in return?
Woman: Definitely not. I'd want to give it back to you. Why would I be nice?
Psychologist: Has it helped in any way to treat him terribly in return?
Woman: No, it just seems to distance us further.
Psychologist: So, you are asking to be treated nicely yourself, yet you acknowledge that you are treating him terribly. Why would he want to treat you nicely if you are acting as unkindly as you say?
Woman: I guess that I am hoping that if I am mean to him and talk back to him and punish him that he'll get the message and will start treating me better?
Psychologist: So you are hoping that if you treat him worse, that he will get the message and start to treat you better? But you have said this hasn't helped in the past.
Woman: Yes, I guess you could say that. So are you saying then that if you want to be treated nicely, you have to treat someone nicely?
Psychologist: Yes, that is exactly what I am saying. And if they don't treat you nicely, and you continue to try to treat them with kindness and respect, they'll have a better chance of getting the message. Up until now we know that the reverse has not worked. So what I am saying is that if you want to be treated nicely, you have to act nicely. You have to search deeper within yourself to try even harder by showing deeper caring and understanding. Remember, treating him nastily won't suddenly make him turn around and be nice. Treating him nicely won't initially make him treat you nicely either. It will take a while.
Woman: Wow - that's asking me to do a lot. To give when it is the last thing I want to do.
Psychologist: Have you asked yourself why you are holding on to your anger? What is not enabling you to let go and move on? Is it really a burden that you want to carry with you throughout your relationship or do you want to let it go and instead attempt to build on what you once had? Remember the expression your mom may have told you: You get further with honey than you do with vinegar? How about killing someone with kindness? Moms really knew more than we thought.
Woman: But what if he starts it, if he provokes me?
Psychologist: Does it really matter who starts it? Perhaps more importantly is "Who will end it?"
Woman: I guess I can try. I can say that I am sorry for my actions. I can say that I want things to work and I can dig deeper even though it is difficult and attempt to be there for him in the way that I want him to be there for me. I can start noticing the good things that he does more often. It is so hard. I can try and ignore his sharp tongue. I can recognize that often his frustration has nothing to do with me. This will be a tremendous challenge for me but I guess you are right. If I don't let go of my anger, what do I have and what will I have?
Psychologist: Yes, none of it is easy but you can make things work. These are challenges within your control. How do you think you may feel about yourself if you treat him nicer?
Woman: While I may at first feel it's all so unnatural and I may resent having to work so hard, I would like to think I could feel better. Yes, I know I would feel better. I'd like me more as I'd like who I am, not who I was starting to become.
Psychologist: Sounds like you have a plan of action for the week. This is a gift; this is your second chance. To do this successfully, you have to be willing to let go of the past hurt. This one is up to you. You have to ask yourself seriously what you really want. Do you want an opportunity for a better relationship or are you not ready to abandon old behaviors even though they didn't work? How will you act differently given a second chance? Are you able to rewind the film and try a different approach? You know what doesn't work as you've tried it. Are you committed for just this week to try to be more respectful, empathetic and nurturing?
Woman: I have to be willing to try as the alternative is unthinkable.
Psychologist: Good luck. Remember, the goal is not to be perfect. It is simply to try.
The writer is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in Ra'anana. firstname.lastname@example.org
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