Julie’s childhood was anything but normal, but there was nothing she could do about that. The old adage “You can pick your friends but not your parents” is a truism. It wasn’t that her parents were necessarily evil. They didn’t give advice to the devil. Quite the contrary. They meant well, but they held rigid beliefs that governed their behaviors, attitudes and thoughts. As a result, this young lady’s propensity for spontaneity, self-confidence and emotional expression was highly constricted. She learned it was “wrong” to be angry, to have envy, or to be emotional. Instead, she had to be thankful for what she had and obey the rules laid down by her parents.
Thirty-eight years later, she’s resentful and angry toward her parents, but feels guilt over having these feelings. Her marriage ended after years of living with an intellectually brilliant man, who was as unbending as her parents. For most of those eighteen years, she complied with his wishes, just as she had with her parents. As long as she did so, things went swimmingly. But, when she attempted to find herself, to further her education and to declare her independence, the relationship became increasingly conflictual. In essence, their interactions were more parent-child in nature than lovers. Sexual relations between them were all but absent. At the same time, he developed several extramarital relationships that Julie knew about but took in stride. She turned her head in order not to see his indiscretions. Inside, however, she was aware of them and resentful of him, as well.
The day she completed her graduate degree was almost the day her marriage came to an end. She felt increasingly independent and self-sufficient and began to think that there was more to life than she had ever experienced. Her husband sensed her change of attitude and was quick to respond. Rather than deal with the possibility of her leaving, he left her first. Initially, Julie was totally depressed. Nevertheless, she knew she had to support her children and develop a life. Professionally, she did exactly that. She went from one job to another, each time increasing her salary and experiencing greater success. But even there, her lack of confidence and the difficulty she had expressing emotions restricted her growth. It limited her wherewithal to inspire confidence and undermined her leadership ability.
Socially, the picture was radically different. She totally focused her attention on her children. At least until a friend introduced her to Jonathan. He was the first person she dated since her divorce and she immediately fell in love. Their relationship was more meaningful and satisfying emotionally and sexually than anything she had ever known before. It was a wonderful period of her life. She finally found someone who appreciated her and dealt with her in a kind, considerate and adult fashion. Inside, she envisioned a future marriage, a blending of his and her families, and a lifetime of happiness unlike anything she had ever experienced before. But that wasn’t to be. Two years later, they still dated, but he never introduced her to his children. As more time passed, the less committed Jonathan seemed to become. It wasn’t that his behavior changed. When they were together, it was still wonderful. When they traveled, they were compatible in every way. But their goals differed. He was reluctant to start a new family. His earlier marriage had left scars that were difficult for him to forget. He enjoyed the relationship he and Julie had, but he also valued the independence and privacy that were his when they were apart. He was equally devoted to his children, but whenever they were with his ex-wife, he filled his time with Julie. The arrangement was exactly what he needed it to be. Similar to her behavior during her marriage, Julie tried to avoid the reality she knew existed. She hoped for a miraculous change of heart, but a year later, when she pressured him for some type of commitment, some indication that there was a future for them, he left, an action that exacerbated every one of her childhood feelings that she was lacking and that if she expressed herself, showed feelings or attempted to establish any limits she would be rejected. Weeks turned into months and still she hoped that he would call, come to his senses, and recognize the value of their relationship. But his fears from his previous marriage and his desire to avoid commitment circumvented that behavior. All the while, she pondered the advantages of being strong, independent and self-sufficient vs behaving in a compliant, passive, unassertive manner and being grateful for whatever you get.
This loss was worse than the loss she felt when she left home for college and far worse than what she experienced after her divorce. She fell into a state of apathy, saw the future as bleak and dark, and lived with an overwhelming sense of helplessness and futility. It was then that she finally sought therapy, the sole purpose being to learn what she had done wrong and how she could correct it in order to get Jonathan back. That was easy to answer. She started out being a successful career woman with two children she primarily raised on her own. Someone whose favor you had to earn, who was strong enough to lift you up when you were down and, therefore, worthy of you overcoming your fears of marriage to gain her acceptance. She ended up being an emotionally dependent, needy child who couldn’t set limits for herself and who would settle for very little emotional expenditure. Hardly anyone you could look up to or lean on. By this time, the chances of getting him back were slim.
What therapy has to offer Julie is the insight to recognize herself for who she is; to see that she isn’t a victim and that she has the wherewithal to alter the way she copes in her world with those she loves. Once she learns to be the same adult she is at work in her interpersonal relations, her emotional world will take care of itself. It’s not an easy task. It will involve growing pains she heretofore avoided. But, in the end, it will be well worth it.