Emily and Randy are a couple I’ve been seeing intermittently for the last year. When they first came to me they were on the verge of breaking up over Randy’s closeness to his parents. His parents, although they live hundreds of miles away, are quite involved with their son’s life, calling and visiting frequently. His Mom has a somewhat intrusive personality and has even been known, on occasion, to open cabinets and drawers in Randy and Emily’s home to make sure he has the “proper” utensils and accessories that she believes necessary to good housekeeping, which understandably feels very threatening as well as insulting to Emily.
Randy is a caring, relatively soft-spoken guy whose immediate instincts are to avoid conflict and to try to keep everyone happy. Not infrequently this would involve Randy’s withholding from Emily certain details relating to conversations with his parents, particularly his Mom, which he accurately predicted would upset her. When Emily would press Randy for details of certain conversations between him and his Mom, Randy’s first instinct was to leave out the potentially provocative parts. Emily would keep pressing, Randy would finally “reveal” the entire transcript of the talks he had (he was a pretty bad dissembler), and Emily would feel betrayed, and that her husband lied to her. The couple talked about “irreconcilable differences” and the probability of a breakup at our first meeting last fall.
Our initial sessions focused on coaching Randy on ways to draw clearer boundaries between his household affairs and his Mom’s good intentions, while seeking to calm Emily, who grew up in a somewhat more distant family and thus simply could not understand Randy’s Mom’s actions, nor Randy’s subdued responses.
My work with them was successful, and they became engaged this past spring with plans to marry in March, 2013. However an incident last week triggered Emily’s insecurities about her fiancé and caused the couple to call for an appointment as soon as possible, the first in six months. Rather than get into the details of the triggering incident, let me simply say that it was identical in its fundamentals to the previous upsetting incidents.
I had a long session with them yesterday afternoon which began with each describing their version of what happened (Emily in distraught and dramatic terms, Randy quietly and almost apologetically). Emily announced that if Randy couldn’t establish firm (almost impermeable) boundaries with his parents, she would reluctantly call off the wedding. “I can’t feel fully safe and trust that you are really there for me”. To her, Randy’s behavior was a conscious choosing of his parents over her. She couldn’t understand why Randy wasn’t able to “stand up” to his parents like she did, and why Randy felt so very reluctant to hurt their feelings.
An idea occurred to me – I asked Emily if she’d ever lost a pet. Immediately her eyes teared up and she said “ten years ago my dog Sasha died and I’m still not over it”. I then asked her why it was that, sad as it is, some people mourn the loss of a pet for a few weeks and then go out and get another one, while others remain inconsolable for months or years. The same with mourning the loss of a loved one – some people NEVER recover, others are able to move on relatively quickly. I said “We’re just different in how we relate to others, and just as you felt, and feel, an unusually strong bond to Sasha, Randy feels an unusually strong bond to his parents. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t care about you, it’s just that his heartstrings are attached differently.”
I then turned to the trust issue. “Emily, in what ways does Randy demonstrate his love and caring for you?” I asked. She at first hesitantly, and then with increasing ease, enumerated examples. I pointed out that if she focused on the many ways in which Randy loved and supported her she could feel safer and more trusting, rather than obsessing on the parental issue. “It’s a choice, Emily. Not an easy one, because your emotions are telegraphing a danger message. But if you are willing to try harder, to give your fiancé the gift of that extra effort, you can make things easier for yourself and for him.” Randy then asked for my help in composing a response to the parental request that triggered this entire episode. Emily left us alone for 10 minutes, and we developed a script that Randy could live with (“I feel bad about saying this to them – I don’t want to hurt their feelings – but I’m willing to go outside my comfort zone as a gift to Emily”). We’ll see, but I think Randy and Emily grew in their love and understanding of each other yesterday, and will be more cognizant of their ability to give each other the gift of extra effort in the service of strengthening their bond.