From the moment I saw Harvey and Paige in the waiting room, I sensed things were not going well. Harvey started by saying, “I recognize that what took place this weekend was entirely my fault. I acted poorly, and I take the full blame, but Jessica has to recognize her part in it. She’s always griping and finding fault with me. It’s no wonder I lost it. Now, go ahead, Jessica. Tell him what I did.”
“This is not to rub it in; it’s only to let Dr. Ed know what happened. We have three kids and everything falls on me. All he does is give me double messages. If I put the kids in baseball, he complains about all the games and practices. When I don’t sign them up, he questions, why, aren’t our kids doing what the neighbors’ kids are doing. There’s no way to please him.
This weekend was our middle son’s birthday, but he made plans to meet with his sister and her husband. I like them, but you can never tell how long a birthday party is going to go. I thought it would end by 3 or 3:30 but it was at least 4:30 before everyone left. From 3 on, he griped about the guests not leaving. Then, when we got in the car he called his sister saying, “We’re definitely going to be late because Paige can’t stick to a schedule.” I lost it and started to cry in front of the children. One of them even drew a picture of me and underneath said, ‘Mommy is sad.’ Usually, I don’t cry. I just keep things inside and never show how upset I am.”
“I don’t think it hurt the kids that much. I talked to one of them and asked, ‘Did it bother you when Mommy and Daddy argued in the car?’ He said, ‘What argument?’ ”
That was the way the session went. Paige complaining that all Harvey did was sleep on the weekends. Harvey equally adamant that, come the weekend, he was entitled to rest, but there was always one more thing to do or place to go. “I work five days a week, 10 hours a day?” She retorted, “Four days a week, but I work, seven days a week, 24 hours a day.” After 30 minutes, I stopped their exchange and said, “There’s not one issue you’ve complained about that I haven’t heard from numerous other couples. Raising kids can be an ordeal. It involves a lot of responsibility, time and inconvenience, particularly in today’s world where you have to chauffeur them to friends’ homes, tutors and extracurricular activities. Without a doubt, kids contribute to parental stress, but that isn’t your problem. How you handle the stress is.
“Jessica, all your life you’ve tried to be an adult, who, at least in your mind, was the responsible person, who worried and cared for others. Even as a child, you felt you had to make everything and everybody all right. That’s an awesome goal, but an impossible task.”
“Harvey, you’re the quintessential overindulged child who, despite the fact that you were protected and spoiled, was never given the emotional involvement you needed. As a result, you resorted to complaining, feeling discounted and unappreciated.”
Those are the emotional handicaps each of you brought to your marriage. That’s not surprising, because in every relationship, you are attracted to a partner you can interact with on the basis of coping techniques you developed early in life. For example, caretakers always marry caregivers. Thus, if you thrive on being helpless, you find someone who needs to help. In effect, you meet each other’s neurotic needs.
The problem that often occurs is that, over time, people change or grow and, as a result, their needs change. That’s when it becomes necessary for one or both of you to either alter the way you coped in the past, to resign yourself to live together unfulfilled or to divorce. To make your marriage work in the future, you, Harvey, can no longer act as a spoiled child. It’s time to man-up and play an adult role. Similarly, you, Paige, must learn first that, even if you lean on someone, you’re still worthy of being loved; and, second, that living with anger isn’t healthy.
Sadly, heretofore, both of you behaved out of a sense of weakness and neediness, rather than out of your strengths. Fortunately, each of you has the wherewithal to change your coping techniques.
In the future, Paige’s people tag needs to go like this: “I don’t want to fight anymore; I’m exhausted, emotionally depressed and filled with anger, because I feel I’m responsible for the entire family. When I married you, I got what I unconsciously needed – a child, I could take care of, but that’s not what I want now. I want someone that I can lean on. I want to be able to put my head in your lap and have you take care of me because I can no longer feel or want to take care of everything. It may sound as though I’m blaming you, but I’m not. I really do think that you are strong enough to take care of me. The problem is, I haven’t let you. In the future, I’m going to try to tell you when I feel weak or upset so I won’t stay angry and withhold my affection from you.
Harvey, your tag has to be: Sometimes, I feel like I don’t amount to a hill of beans. I learned early in life to get attention negatively, and it worked. I guess in a way I’ve stayed a baby, but I never profited by it. In my head, I also felt I had to be perfect, but unlike you, I never felt I could measure up. I’m going to try to change that, but I’m frightened. I don’t know if I’m strong enough, because I’m so use to letting others take over and then complaining about their behavior. From now on, I’m going to try my best to be there for you to lean on.
The rule of thumb is that to improve any marriage or relationship, first, you have to have insights into yourself and then share your insights with each other. It’s not an easy job, and it’s not something you can achieve by constantly bickering with one another. Because, in the end, the real battle everyone has to face is with themselves.