Therapy in L.A.

  article of the month
January 2001
A RELATIONAL PARADOX: Disconnecting in Order to Stay Connected
By Anita Frankel, M.A., M.F.T.

Hell, according to an old Chinese parable, is a banquet table piled high with delicious food. Hungry people are seated on either side, each one supplied with a pair of chopsticks which are so long that even with arms extended, no one can get food into his or her mouth. In frustration, some shed tears, others curse the stars, while still others sit quietly with heads bowed. Heaven, according to the same parable, is that very same banquet table, with a difference. Here the guests are smiling and chattingˇ as they go about feeding each other.

As a therapist, I am continually confronted with people's feelings of shame and lowered self-worth when they come up against relationship problems that are clearly mutual in character, but which are experienced as "your problem" or "my problem" alone.

Let's take the dilemma of Jane and John, a white, middle-class couple. Jane was 35, newly arrived in our city some months before, when she came to see me several years ago. She'd left behind good friends and a satisfying, creative, e-commerce job in New York, to live with John, 37, her new boyfriend, and to try her luck in her field here. John had been managing a computer graphics company for five years, and was well-settled in a house he owns, with a large circle of friends here. The two had interests in common, loved playing tennis and collecting vintage stuff, and occasionally fantasized about launching a web enterprise together.

Since leaving one failing L.A. enterprise for another well-paying, but unexciting job, Jane had felt alternately anxious and depressed. She came into therapy missing her community in New York, yet without energy to make new friends. She felt under-valued and under-used in her present work. She was paying off debts, and feeling pressed financially. So she wasn't ready to risk leaving a job for the uncertainty of starting her own business. She considered tapping her contacts in the industry for a new job possibility, but felt "funny" about it. She was stuck.

Jane 's family of origin prized high-profile success and hard work. Her father, a well-known entrepreneur in their small town, cheated continuously on her mother and was never around for this daughter, but encouraged her to excel and "take on the world", as her mother had not done. Mother worked in the home, and was a frenetic caretaker and party-giver. Her response to Dad's infidelities was to sweep everything under the rug. Her frequent warning to Jane was, don't ever let anyone know your private business, or see your unhappiness. Jane escaped the pain of her family by spending every available hour in competitive swimming. But an injury in high school put an end to hopes for an athletic career. She picked herself up, dusted herself off and went on to excel in college, shifting her focus to business. Today she is an intense, responsible and well-organized professional, who loves to design new ways of doing things. She's also very reluctant to ask for help, and will stew about things she doesn't like, hoping that people in a position to assist her will "get the point" without her having to "spell things out."

It was not until her fifth or sixth session that Jane voiced her pain about her relationship with John, from whom she felt she could not expect validation for her disappointment about her job. They often fell into "bickering" about small things, where John's insistent "can-do" cheerfulness came up against her increasing "prickliness" and lack of candor about underlying issues. John was not "the type" to come to therapy, she said, and besides, Jane felt she'd like to have the therapy relationship as something "for myself," not shared with him. Indeed, Jane talked very little to her partner concerning her doubts about her job, or about her feeling of isolation in this new city. She was fearful of seeming a "burden" to him, and of looking like a "quitter" if she left yet another well-paying job. Above all, she experienced her dissatisfaction and confusion as embarrassing, a sign of weakness, and something to settle entirely by herself once she found out what was "wrong" with her. In the meantime, she put 110% into her job, kept an immaculate house, and cooked cordon bleu dinners for her partner.

With great difficulty, but with increasing confidence, Jane began voicing her pain and uncertainty about her present life, including the isolation she felt within her relationship with John. We spent some time just validating and exploring these sentiments, and how "normal" they might be when the context of her life was given its due. We looked at her life story for examples where relying solely on oneself seemed the best course to follow. We explored how she'd learned to present an entirely self-confident and competent face to the world no matter what misery one felt inside. And, we looked at how painful it was to be keeping her inner turmoil out of sight in John's presence.

After a few months, things finally came to a head between Jane and John about his lack of attentiveness on some minor issue, with another standoff looming. But instead of withdrawing and isolating, Jane took the risk of asking for some things she badly wanted -more quiet time alone with John, without the added pressure of socializing with his friends, and his patience while she voiced her confusion about her life in this city. To her surprise, John was delighted to discover that his "prickly" partner was not really upset about the small things that had caused recent arguments. In turn, Jane was tremendously relieved that he didn't share her contempt for her sad and confused state. The ice was broken, and to Jane's surprise and delight, both began to come up with some creative ways to escape from her boring workload and spread her wings a bit to make new friends. Jane emerged from this feeling like she knew and liked herself better, and knew and liked John better. Freed from some of her anxiety and a lot of her shame, Jane became more inwardly confident her future. Their table might not be quite as bountiful as the one in Heaven, but Jane and John had begun feeding each other.

Anita Frankel is a psychotherapist in practice in Los Angeles. She is a member of the Independent Psychotherapy Network.

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