Friday, July 10, 2015

Overcoming Therapy

Reading through Peter Goodman’s Modern Love column, wherein he recounts the story of his courtship and marriage, I was struck by these sentences:

As the product of 1970s-style parenting that embraced therapy and a formulaic mode of sensitivity, I had been marinated in the notion that talk was the sole means of alleviating human friction. Deanna and I did plenty of talking. We could stay up all night and not run out of things to say. But the obstacles in our relationship were sufficiently weighty that words alone would not resolve them.

I am naturally happy to see that someone else sees therapy and its culture as something that needs to be overcome.

Goodman outlines the problems in his relationship with novelist Deanna Fei in terms that are both intelligible and real:

I’m a dozen years older and was keen to start a family, but she wasn’t ready. I was an expat living in China, a foreign correspondent seeking to extend that life indefinitely. She was longing to get back to her family in New York and appalled by the thought of letting my career dictate her geography: She would be no one’s appendage.

Talk can yield clarity, understanding and empathy, but sometimes it just brings exhaustion and recrimination. Sometimes action is the only pathway to good will. And when I picked her up, I proved it.

Dare I mention that his action does not feel very feministically correct.

How did Goodman discover the limits of the therapeutically correct way of life? One evening in Shanghai he and Deanna could not agree on where to go for dinner. After a time the disagreement descended into bickering.

He recounts what happened next:

Chinese or Italian? A high-rise restaurant with a commanding view, or the leafy garden of a French colonial mansion? The stakes were hardly critical, yet our conflict was a proxy for a deeper question gnawing at our life as a couple: Where were we headed?

I grew exasperated. She said, “Forget dinner.”

In previous relationships, I might have stormed out and sought diversion in a bar, writing off the possibility of resolution as both futile and beneath my pride. This time, though, I swept up Deanna in my arms, damsel-in-distress-style. Caught by surprise, she succumbed to my rescue. I had literally elevated us above our stalemate. We kissed and headed out to dinner, no longer concerned about where we went.

One suspects that this is seriously incorrect behavior. Perhaps that is its charm. Perhaps that is why the two of them ended up married and living in New York:

Every time she felt lost or worried, I swept her off her feet. Every time she contemplated walking away, I carried her over the next threshold. I aspired to be her superhero, rescuing her from whatever perils lay in our path.

Of course, there are limits to such superhero antics. There are worlds where it does not fit, where it is jarring, where it leads astray. You cannot construct a marriage on uniquely male behavior or uniquely female behavior. Goodman discovered this truth when his daughter was born seriously premature and had suffered a brain hemorrhage.

He describes what happened:

As Deanna lay in a recovery-room bed, I was led upstairs to the neonatal intensive care unit, where this wisp of a creature was encased in a glass incubator and connected to an alarming tangle of tubes, wires and beeping machinery. It did not feel right to look at her, let alone photograph her as the nurses urged me to do so I could share this image with Deanna. She didn’t look like a baby to me.

There was nothing I could say or do to lift us from our stark reality. I tried to reassure Deanna that there was at least a one-third chance that our daughter would be fine. But then the doctor returned to our hospital room to tell us that our daughter had suffered a brain hemorrhage. She used the word “catastrophic” and discussed the possibility of “comfort care,” a euphemism for pulling the plug….
Once the doctor had left, I told Deanna that if comfort care became our daughter’s fate, we would not be there to watch her die. We would go home to our irrepressible boy and pretend none of this happened; we would tell ourselves this was a miscarriage. Never having known her, we would not know the pain of losing her.

I felt strengthened by my words of resolve, but my wife looked at me as if I had become a stranger — as if she were now facing this crisis alone.

“If it comes to that,” she said, “we would be there. We’re her parents. However long she lives, whatever her life turns out to be. We’re the ones who have to hold her. She’s our baby.”

In that moment, I recognized that my wife was the real superhero. In trying to plot a clean escape, I was the coward.

Of course, he wanted to protect his wife. He wanted to do what he could to limit her suffering. In so thinking, he had misunderstood her, had underestimated her strength and had failed to recognize that his duty to protect and provide extended to a helpless neonate.


priss rules said...

All that talking didn't do much good for the couple in "Eyes Wide Shut".

Tuco would agree:

In the end, it's about the jism, not the ism.

Sam L. said...

Sometimes you have to march up to the Gates of Hell, pound on them, and shout "I'm coming in!" said...

Beautiful, an absolutely beautiful story illustrating the differences of masculinity and femininity at their best. It also made me think of a very old movie we enjoyed in a psychoanalytic film group, "Swept Away."