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March 2002
By Anita Frankel, M.A., M.F.T.


People who call to make a couples-therapy appointment often describe their issue as a problem in a communication. I am never sure what my new clients mean by that word when they first sit down together in my office. Early on, I try to help them uncover how and why their approaches to each other are unsatisfying

No matter how disengaged, or in conflict, two people may be, something hopeful can begin to happen when partners can create an honest conversation about the way they sound to each other. It takes courage, kindness, and even a sense of humor on the part of both the therapist and the clients to create the framework for that kind of conversation.

Each session I spend with two well-intentioned people whose emotions are raw, whose expectations of the other have currently been dashed, who each feel genuinely misunderstood, is a challenge to me to remain alert and curious about new directions that the conversation could take. My own portion of courage, nurtured by some experience with good outcomes, allows me to risk restating in neutral language what clients may be expressing with defensiveness or condescension. Hopefully, I do this with kindness and humor, admitting that I am treading on shaky ground, and that it's human to feel awkward when communication skills are under a microscope (mine included!).

As the tone and pace of the exchange slows and softens, first one partner and then the other may acquire the courage to trust that what they say is actually heard, and that what they hear was actually said. Out of a vicious cycle of miscuing and misunderstanding can emerge what my colleague Larry Zucker calls a virtuous cycle of increasing trust, and even empathy.. The virtuous cycle does not eliminate the potential for conflict and differences. But enriching the conversation can ratchet down the level of anger and fear, and give a template for more good conversations to come.

Take Tom and Jane, two European-American, moderate-income professionals in their mid-thirties with highly energetic (and often oppositional) preschool-age twin boys. In the first session, I learn that Jane has previously had a creatively challenging career in independent filmmaking, and that Tom is a well-regarded classical pianist and vocalist. Now Tom's musical career is in high gear, while Jane is mostly home now with the kids, having recognized that film production requires too unpredictable a schedule for parenting preschoolers. Tom earns enough to take a few month-long periods of hiatus with his family every year, but when he works, he's often touring out of town, and Jane is the full-time parent. Both reluctantly accept this division of labor until the children are older, but agree that it's an unwelcome departure from how their marriage began, and that it violates their shared idea of what a good partnership between men and women should be. But because each one's sense of self-worth is challenged differently by their situation, the difference has created festering resentments and frequent emotional disconnections.

In the first two or three sessions, I invite Tom and Jane to tell their stories of the relationship to me, and then to each other, and encourage them to relate concrete examples of how the other didn't get it. I try to slow down and structure the process so that each can catch on to, and clarify, each other's version of events. I suggest that they alternate speaking, and listening, with the listener then restating the gist of the speaker's story, and so on back and forth (a style of dialogue aptly named reflective listening).

They soon zero in on the awkwardness of their phone conversations when Tom is away on tour. On the road, Tom has some great experiences as an artist among artists, and wants to relate them to Jane at night by phone, so that she can share in the excitement. He also misses his family, and longs for contact with his young boys. So he has a hard time hearing from Jane that things are hectic at home. When she mentions her exhaustion or even boredom, he feels guilty that she's so burdened, and either backs away from the conversation, or feels obliged to apologize at length. He feels· that she feels· that he should be there to share the work or running a house and servicing the kids. The result is that Tom rarely asks Jane how her day has been, and instead repeatedly tries to kindle her interest in his life as an artist. Jane, in turn, smolders at the other end of the line, feeling unappreciated for her work in keeping the home fires burning.

In the next session, as Tom and Jane continue to trade speaking and listening, and I reflect back what I hear from both, some new perspectives on their dilemma come out.

Jane agrees that she is generally a self-confident individual who rarely apologizes for her actions when she feels they are just , and has no problem in bluntly confronting behavior she finds difficult in others. Because she is usually in the middle of orchestrating dinner and baths and corralling defiant kids for bedtime when Tom calls, she feels she owes him no particular generosity. To her, Tom's eagerness to share his day is at best clueless and at worst obnoxiously self-centered. It's all about him, all the time. Her reactions on the phone are admittedly perfunctory. In session, her description of his manner is tinged with irritation and sarcasm

As for Tom, he admits that he would rather avoid conflict, and wants to be seen as the nice guy. He carries great anxiety about pleasing everyone, particularly his wife, and repeatedly asks for patience with his insecurity. He hears Jane's cold tone on the phone as a discount of the value of his work and of his sincerity in wanting her to share in his discoveries. Jane's apparent self-certainty and abruptness intimidates and silences him. As he talks about it, his face reddens, the pace of his speech accelerates, and he seems scared that he is making a bad show of it. The session has a ragged ending.

Then, Tom goes on a three-week tour. During that time, something interesting happens. In the next conjoint session, they tell me the story.

Jane's birthday had come in the middle of Tom's trip. Tom decided to compose a love song for Jane. Unlike a few such efforts in the past, this one had no apologies, and no stories about his own self-doubts. It was all about Jane ö her smarts, her creative talents, her sexiness, her dynamite skills as a mom. He e-mailed to her, and she listened to it on her birthday morning. That night, Tom called her, anxious to hear how she felt about the song. Before he could even ask the question, Jane, surrounded by the pre-dinner cacophony of the twins plus several additional kids, said simply: I love you sweetie, but I'm up to my ears in alligators. Can we talk again tomorrow when the boys are in school? Tom detected some awkwardness in her voice as she offered this unexpected package, but was surprised and happy that she'd made the effort. The next day, she told him what a great present the song was, and how good it made her feel.

Everything is not hunky dory in Tom-and-Janeville tonight. After five or six sessions of couples therapy, the inequalities of child-rearing vs. career building, the interplay of brusqueness and meekness, the fears that one's mate is hopelessly self-centered or forbiddingly self-contained, continue to weigh on the relationship. But Tom and Jane now have a growing body of good-conversation experience. They have seen how that experience can influence future conversations, and help dispel the mutual caricatures left over from disappointing conversations in the past. In Tom and Jane's relationship, there is now a little more courage to listen, and courage to speak.

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

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