Saturday, July 11, 2015

Up From Off Of the Couch

Everyone is familiar with the New York Times “Modern Love” column. I posted about a recent column yesterday. (scroll down)

The column is so well known that someone once decided to post some of the submissions that were rejected by Times editors. She posted on a site called something like “Modern Love Rejects.” As best I can tell the site is no longer operational.

Most people are now familiar with the Times’ more column called Couch. Ostensibly, it offers therapists and others within the mental health field an opportunity to recount a clinical experience. I have had occasion to comment on the columns on this blog.

Recently, I decided to submit something of my own to the Times. The paper showed no interest in running it. I will not call it a Couch Reject. I prefer to think that it was too good for the Times.

Here it is, as submitted:

Back when I was practicing psychoanalysis I never gave advice. True to my Freudian training, I aspired to a state that the Stoics called apathy. I remained inert and disengaged.

Then one day a distraught young man came to see me. He had gone on a romantic weekend getaway with his girlfriend, a woman he had dated for more than ten years. He wanted to propose marriage. Everything went as planned… until he dropped to one knee, offered a diamond engagement ring, popped the question and heard her say No.

Staggered by her refusal, he threw an epic tantrum. It nearly culminated in a physical assault. Reasonably, she packed up, left the hotel and broke off all contact with him. He responded with a barrage of plaintive and aggressive telephone messages. She did not answer any of them.

This man had been a great success as a student, an athlete and a businessman. He was charming and sociable. Having never really failed at anything, he did not know how to deal with rejection.

Now, beset by anguish and despair, he was barely able to sleep or to eat. He was too distracted to focus on his work.

When I asked him why she said No, he explained that she could not abide his conditions. He wanted her to convert to his religion and to be married according to its rites.

They had been discussing the conversion issue for almost as long as they had been together. He thought that she would change her mind. She thought that he would eventually come around.

He wanted to resolve the impasse by proposing marriage. If she accepted his proposal she would be accepting his terms. Or, so he thought. When she said No, he could neither accept nor understand her decision.

Their relationship involved a clash of cultures. He had been born and raised in the Middle East, but had been educated, from high school to business school, in America. She was from the American Middle West.

By all measures, he was thoroughly Americanized. Yet, when it came to marriage, he felt compelled to revert to the customs prevalent in his native country. If she could not accept them, he told me, he could never present her to his mother.

When I told him that he was trying to pressure her into doing something that she clearly did not want to do, he told me to mind my own business.

Beyond that, he knew exactly what he wanted from me. He wanted me to tell him how to get her back.

At first, I declined. I hadn’t done all that psychoanalytic training to end up as an agony uncle. Explaining that it was not my job to give advice, I offered to help him understand why he felt so crushed. Perhaps new insights would mitigate his despair and restore his confidence.
He listened attentively and told me that we were going to do things his way or not at all. If I could not tell him what to do he knew an astrologer in Moscow who would.

I may have been strictly Freudian, but I was not going to shrink from a challenge. Without thinking, I blurted out that I would tell him what to do, but only if he promised to do what I told him.

To my surprise, he agreed.

So, I said that he should send her a dozen roses, accompanied by a note apologizing for his appallingly bad behavior.

I added that I wanted to see the note before he sent it. Then, I could ensure that he was offering a sincere apology, not a self-serving effort to shift the blame.

Since the harassment had to stop, I told him that he was not to initiate any further contact until I agreed that he could.

Any therapist, hearing about this intervention will sigh and think: if only it were that easy. In truth, I did not have very high hopes for my foray into advice giving.

But, I felt that I had to choose between letting him work it out on his own and my taking control of the situation. Since he was in no state to work anything out, I opted for the latter.

There is no redeeming virtue in making an avoidable mistake. True enough, people learn from their mistakes, but the lesson learned from jumping into an empty swimming pool is rarely worth the price.

As it happened, the man followed my instructions… to the letter. In his mind, a deal was a deal. As a man of honor, he could not go back on his word… even to me.

Two days later he brought me a draft of his apology. When I approved it he sent it with flowers. He made no effort to contact her.

Within a week he felt considerably better. His mood and his attitude improved dramatically. He regained the concentration needed for work, recovered his appetite and got some much-needed sleep.

It felt like an instant cure. In many ways it was.

As a psychoanalyst I had been taught to distrust cures that were not accompanied by insight. Perhaps I was losing faith in psychoanalysis, but I started thinking that insight into his infantile neuroses would serve no real purpose. You cannot look backwards and forward at the same time.

This man needed to learn how to manage a difficult and complex situation. His problem involved a cultural conflict, not bad toilet training.

As for why he got better, I saw several reasons.

First, I showed him how to take control of the situation. Second, I did not try to rationalize his bad behavior but insisted that he accept responsibility for it. Third, I had respected him enough to believe that he would keep his word.

When his former girlfriend did not respond to his flowers and note, he argued, vigorously, that I should allow him to contact her. For weeks he pleaded and cajoled, all the while not contacting her.

Here, as in many things, delay was therapeutic. The longer he abstained, the more he manifested self-discipline.

After three months I agreed that he could try to re-establish contact, I recommended that he allow me to help him to orchestrate the process. Notes were exchanged. Meetings were planned. Meals were consumed. Concerts were enjoyed. Romantic trysts occurred. Within a few more months they were back together. Not yet engaged, but involved.

By that time he felt that he did not need my counsel. I did not fully agree but I did not object to his decision to suspend treatment.

For the next year or so I received updates about him through a third party. He and his love were still together, but they had not yet married. The course of their love had not “run smooth.”

At that point, now nearly thirty years ago, I lost track of him. When I googled is name a month ago I discovered that he and his love had married, and that they had gone into business together.

I suspect that they married on her terms.


Ares Olympus said...

A nice story with a happy ending. And it's good to know therapists can and do maintain long term interest in people they try to help. So this was this a step of your path towards life coach?

Athletic coaches get the privilege to offer advice and training programs, and can make careful prediction of an athlete's potential.

Most athletes, specifically runners, push themselves too hard, and need a voice that says "this much, no more" and that sounds a bit like the advice to wait on further communication after the apology.

I'd say most athletes are very happy to have advice to follow, and as long as there's a feeling of "promise" in the future, whatever tasks are being required, including patience, seem easy to carry. Injury recovery is also a big part, as athletes want to jump back in as soon as pain is gone, and having someone else make the decision to wait a bit longer is a sort of permission to allow time for healing.

I can see the satisfaction in the "expert advisor" role with an objective perspective and experience to offer promising suggetions. It is easier to see why you should get paid for that, while more passive input, and letting a client flounder through their own passivities might also serve a different purpose, it doesn't seem reasonable to get paid just to listen and not clearly help.

Larry Sheldon said...

The only time in my 76 summers that I have knowingly participated in "Counseling" I entered the effort in ignorance, knowing that what I wanted most was a referee (I was prepared to be the target of the yellow or red card when appropriate, but I expected my wife to be the recipient on occasion).

Fat chance.

My wife (it appears) got what she wanted, I did not. said...

He was ordered after he deferred to your authority, nice work!

Jack Fisher said...

At the point where she turfs him, I'd be laughing. If you're Bogart and Ingrid Bergman has just dumped you in Paris, you can tell stories like that. If you're not, you're a total dweeb. If I had to hear his sad sack story more than once, I'd reach for my gun.

I'm not a good therapist of any kind.