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Faulty Interpretations - 2/20/2009

When the phone rang at 3:30 a.m., I knew it wasn’t a social call.  I immediately recognized the voice hysterically shouting,  “The hospital is releasing me in the next 30 to 40 minutes and I need to see you.”  My first office appointment was at 6:30 a.m. and I was booked all day, so I said, “What about 5:30 a.m.?” She readily agreed.

Two hours later, I met  Jana and her husband, Kurt,  at my office.  Her arm was in a sling and there was a giant bruise on the right side of her face.  Their story began this way: Their daughter called from college.  Her boyfriend had broken up with her and she was depressed, my patient thought possibly suicidal.  As any mother would, she became tremendously concerned about her daughter’s situation.  They suggested she immediately contact the University counseling center said they would be there the next morning.  

As is her typical way of dealing with anxiety, Jana took out the ironing board, a stack of clothes that needed ironing, a record by “old blue eyes” and a bottle of white wine.  Her husband, in his usual fashion,  disappeared.  Sometime later, she found him in the bedroom,   “sleeping like a baby”.    

The sight of him lying in bed, “peaceful, unbothered and able to sleep”, enraged her.  It was the same behavior she had complained about throughout their marriage.  It was proof positive that nothing mattered to him but himself.   She returned to the ironing board and furiously went through the stack (and the bottle of wine.)  When she finished both, she went back to the bedroom to wake him.  In a rage, she reached for an appendage I won’t name, to yank him out of bed.  She was successful but, out of fright, he kicked out,  hitting her on the side of her face and pushing her across the room so forcefully she hit the wall, injured her arm and fell to the floor, which explained the hospital visit and the bruise on the side of her face.

Kurt, who accompanied Jana to my office, sat with his head propped in his hands, appearing depressed and remorseful.   He explained that he had been startled and had no idea what was happening or why, and his foot had gone out to protect himself.  But she’d have none of it.  This was her opportunity to crucify him.  In her words, “There is nothing you can say that can alter the fact that you kicked me in the face and pushed me against the wall.  The doctors will testify to that.  All your friends will be aware of it and they’ll know how you’ve treated me all these years.”  Granted, she was in a hysterical state, but remember she was emotionally very upset prior to the incident.  However, I doubt she would have tried to arouse him in the manner she chose had she been sober and in control of her actions.

Fortuitously, I had a cancellation later that day and Jana returned to my office, this time alone.  Her doctor had given her a sedative and she’d had several hours of sleep.   Thus, she was calmer and far more receptive to our conversation.  Essentially, I agreed with her regarding the fact that her husband, in contrast to her, holds his feelings in and isn’t demonstrably emotional.  I acknowledged that his behavior caused her pain, in light of the fact that her emotions are typically worn on her sleeve.  Then, I asked her to answer several questions:

“What do you do when you’re worried, upset and concerned?”

“If it’s really bad, I bring out the ironing board,  listen to Frank Sinatra records and drink.”

“What does your husband do when he’s upset?”

“I guess he goes to sleep.”

“Well, there you have it. Contrary to what you said this morning, that he has no feelings, his “sleeping like a baby”, indicated that he was terribly upset and as genuinely concerned about his daughter as you were.  However, he dealt with it in his typical fashion, by escaping.   On the surface, it appeared the two of you were miles apart, but, emotionally, you were in the same place.  This is not unusual.   More often, it’s the rule, rather than the exception.  Most of us marry individuals who have exactly the same feelings as ourselves, but who demonstrate them in polar opposite manners.  That describes where the two of you were coming from.”     

I suggested that it would be extremely constructive for her to sit down with Kurt and attempt to explain that she had overreacted, rather than chastise or threaten him.  I added that this was an opportune time for the two of them to begin discussions about previous hurts and the possibility that their numerous disagreements over other issues really stemmed from her basic concern that he didn’t care about her or realize how desperately she needed to be reassured that he cared.  I also stated that, over time, conversations of this type could possibly lead to him learning to share his feelings with her.  

Eventually, their relationship improved radically.  Kurt’s wherewithal to demonstrate his thoughts and feelings increased significantly and Jana’s emotionality and consumption of alcohol decreased.  

I should add that their daughter and her boyfriend had reunited by the time Jana and Kurt arrived at her dorm.

This situation is the same for many of us.  We live together, make assumptions based on outward appearances, rarely question where the other person is actually coming from, give credence to erroneous perceptions and frequently react  inappropriately to them.  The lesson to be learned from this throughout our lives, is not to make assumptions, but, instead, to ask our partners what they feel.  It’s not an easy thing to do.  Sometimes, it means opening up and saying, “I love you” in the face of behavior you interpret as rejecting, critical or hurtful.  It takes courage but I believe it’s a wonderful opportunity for intimacy, to allow your partner to see into you

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