Friday, May 12, 2017

How to Wreck Your Marriage

In the world of psycho reporting New York Magazine offers one of the better columns. It’s called “Science of Us” and it features writers like Melissa Dahl and Jesse Singal et al. It reports on the latest research in cognitive and social psychology. Hats off to NY Mag for that section.

Then, the magazine offers the musings of its advice column, Ask Polly. Written by a purportedly satisfied therapy patient it offers bad advice, amounting to the mindless mantra: feel your feelings. As it happens, this week Ask Polly is far better than usual. In effect, she gets it right. I will have a few words to say about it in time, but for them moment I want to examine a new New York Magazine column, called “What Your Therapist Really Thinks.” Written by therapist Lori Gottlieb it gives an insight into what your therapist is not telling you. One feel constrained to remark that if your therapist is lying to you or not telling you what he really thinks, you should find a new therapist.

So, Gottlieb addresses a woman who dubs herself Head Happily in the Sand—we will abbreviate it to HHS. And Gottlieb shows us how a competent qualified licensed therapist can go about ruining your marriage. Yes, indeed, this column should have been entitled: How to wreck your marriage.

As for the impetus behind Gottlieb’s work, it is watered down and regurgitated psychoanalytic therapy. I will spare you the details but anyone who has put a toe in the fetid waters of what remains of Freudism will recognize the tropes. Gottlieb does not offer advice, but she explores the patient’s unconscious wish to have problems. She will eventually tell her patient to feel her feelings. At least, Ask Polly was not a credentialed professional. Reading this swill from a professional is barely bearable.

Anyway, Gottlieb defines her work in these terms:

It’s not exactly an advice column, because in practice, most therapists don’t give explicit advice — instead, we help people to discover what’s keeping them “stuck,” so that they’ll be able to get out of their own way and point themselves in the right direction. Rather than steering them straight to the heart of the problem, we gently nudge them to arrive there on their own. In that spirit, I’m going to share what a therapist might be thinking (but perhaps not saying at the first session) if presented with your question. What are the theoretical underpinnings of the issue? What are the ways in which our unconscious pulls the strings of our conscious mind? How do our defenses create blind spots in the telling of our stories?

Therapists do not give explicit advice, I would say, quoting myself (from my book The Last Psychoanalyst) because they not know how to give advice. They do not understand situations and do not understand how to deal with them. They prefer mythmaking and storytelling. No matter what the patient says the therapist will spin out an excruciating narrative that probably shows nothing more than the therapist’s ability to spin out narratives.

Anyway, Gottlieb’s victim, HHS has this to say:

I think my husband may be cheating. My suspicion is based mostly on a vague sense of intuition, and on the fact that he has ample opportunity. For work, he travels frequently to an international city that’s known for its attractive women and permissive culture.

On a number of occasions during recent trips, he has uncharacteristically been out of touch overnight. There could be an innocent explanation for this — he does tend to have long, late, drunken work dinners (command performances), and he might well be too inebriated (and exhausted) at the end of the night to call home….

 As much as I recoil at the idea of my husband sleeping with other people, I see the possibility as something of a hornet’s nest — I don’t want to poke at it, for fear of what might emerge. I hope that if I leave things be, whatever is going on will resolve on its own, without causing injury….

If my husband really is engaged in some sort of extracurricular activity, and if my desire is to preserve my marriage, what’s the best course? Can I continue to look the other way, and hope that whatever is going on passes without any major harm done?

HHS is having suspicions about her husband’s uncharacteristic failure to call her before going to sleep. Since he has done this a number of times, it is not exactly a break in routine. 

She is sufficiently politically correct to suggest that her husband might be sleeping with “other people,” as opposed to other women. Of course, there’s cheating and there’s cheating. There are affairs and there are one-night-stands. And there are trips to strip clubs or Geishas. And, if the husband is traveling to Japan, after-work drinking bouts are very common, and are a part of doing business. He might have been drunk and simply fell into bed.

One would like to know what he had to say when he did call, whether he apologized or just let it go. One understands that HHS is somewhat disturbed by the new routine, but it might be that he is working with a different group of people, group that has different habits. We do not know how long the couple has been married, whether they have children, and so on.

All things considered, we know too little to try to understand the situation. Any therapist worth his reimbursed fees would seek out more information first.

Anyway, HHS thinks it best not to press the issue. HHS is right. We do not know what may or may not have caused this behavior, but, as everyone but Gottlieb knows, the biggest mistake you can make is to take it personally. If someone stands you up, you will probably find out that factors beyond his control caused it. If you take it personally you will be making it all into a drama and you will, as HHS understands, be turning your orderly marriage into a grand psychodrama. If you take it personally you will make it personal, even if it is not.

Which is what Gottlieb advises. You see, Gottlieb attacks HHS for not addressing the issue with her husband. She is undermining the trust that undergirds any marriage. She says that surely if HHS is suspicious there must be something wrong with her marriage. Even if her husband is not cheating, then surely her suspicions mean that there is a problem. 

In truth, all we are dealing with her is a different routine. It might mean something. It might not mean anything. If you imagine that a businessman working in Tokyo or Shanghai has complete control of his time, you are dreaming. If you think that Gottlieb knows anything about the man’s work and after-work schedules you are laboring under an illusion. We note that Gottlieb has nothing to say about said husband’s potential work situation.

And if there isn’t anything wrong, leave it to your friendly therapist to make a mess of it.

Gottlieb writes:

Whenever somebody in my office brings up sexual infidelity (confirmed or suspected), my first instinct is to wonder what other infidelities might be going on. I don’t mean other affairs — I mean the more subtle ways of straying from our partners that have at least as much potential to threaten a marriage. The affair, of course, gets the most attention, but it’s the affair that is also often misunderstood. And it’s because of this misunderstanding that the cheating takes center stage — and that the other factors, the betrayals that need the most attention, stay out of the spotlight. That’s why, HHIS, I’m not primarily interested in whether your husband is cheating.

She continues, spinning a web that will eventually catch her sometime patient and undermine her marriage.

… that “hornet’s nest” you mentioned. If you poke it, what are you afraid of learning? That your husband doesn’t love you? That he’s not attracted to you? That you’re not appealing enough to hold his attention? That he has commitment issues? Even if any of this is true (and most of it won’t be), it probably has little to do with why he would cheat.

When Gottlieb considers the possibility that work in certain places requires excessive drinking, she naturally reads it into her narrative of a failing marriage. She makes even that a sign of a bad marriage:

Maybe your husband drinks to the point of inebriation to obliterate his feelings of blah-ness and loneliness. Maybe he has sex with other women for the same reason. Or maybe he simply watches porn or cat videos in his hotel room instead of saying goodnight to you because he doesn’t want to have another hollow conversation about the house or kids or work, or engage in perfunctory sign-offs of “I love you” that will remind him that this might be all we have — and who wants to think about that in an international city full of attractive women, even if he’s not sleeping with any of them?

Taking a lesson from Ask Polly, Gottlieb joins her in whining about how this woman is not feeling her feelings:

And putting one’s head in the sand serves exactly the same purpose: to not have to feel.

She continues, telling HHS that her marriage is failing, that she is useless and that she does not want to recognize it. If you can think of a better way to undermine a person’s confidence and self-respect and pride, I would like to hear about it. Because this is awful:

I wonder what you might not want to feel, HHIS. And I wonder what you might be feeling anyway, despite trying so hard to keep your head in the sand. Anger? Fear? Sadness? Loneliness? Anxiety? Despair? I always tell clients that when we feel something, it’s a signal to look inside ourselves, not at the other person (which most of us do, naturally, because it’s so much easier to look out than in). Here’s what I see when I look inside your letter: I won’t let my husband get near me — the real me, the messy me, the vulnerable me. I won’t let him see my fear. I’m cheating him of my authenticity. I’m a fake, and he knows it.

According to Gottlieb both HHS and her husband are terrified about the truth of their relationship… which is really bad and really dire. They might not know it but their friendly therapist does. Given that Gottlieb is the one who has her head in the sand, she does not consider other possibilities. Perhaps work is not going so well. Perhaps business is bad. Perhaps husband is about to be demoted. And so on.

She does not allow any of it to interfere with her wish that this marriage is in trouble. If it was not in trouble before she got her claws into it, it will certainly be that way now:
You’re scared, but I think you were scared long before you suspected your husband’s cheating. And now, you’ve become so terrified of the truth of your relationship that you’d rather remain physically present but emotionally vacant.

Again, this therapist tells HHS that her marriage is not even worth saving:

You say you want to preserve your marriage, but what, exactly, do you want to preserve? Do you want to be married in a general kind of way, for convenience and safety, or do you want to be married to him? Does he want to be married to you? Does your husband know why he matters to you? Do you know why you matter to him? Do you just want to hang on to what you have, or do you want something more mutually fulfilling, something with enough glue to hold the two of you together for the long term?

That’s why poking at the hornet’s nest — and not by “snooping around” — is actually safer than living with the illusion that you can protect your marriage by leaving it alone. The hornets that get stirred up can show you a new way of connecting, even if they sting at first. If your husband is cheating, it doesn’t have to be a revelation that leads to an end. In fact, you may want to come closer to your husband rather than farther away, if he’s willing and interested in coming closer to you, too. You may want to get curious about the reality of his inner life, if he’s curious about the reality of yours, too. Love, at least the kind that pushes us to grow, is incredibly durable.

Gottlieb will conclude that if this unhappy couple, that was not necessarily unhappy before she taught them distrust and ginned up their misery, goes to therapy and is totally honest with each other they will rise up the next morning renewed and reinvigorated.

And the phoenix will rise from the ashes… in a fairy tale, perhaps. But not in the real world.

[An afterthought: if the wife does not hear from her husband she should send him a message, via text or email, hoping that he is having a wonderful evening and that work is going well.]


Ares Olympus said...

Stuart: They prefer mythmaking and storytelling. No matter what the patient says the therapist will spin out an excruciating narrative that probably shows nothing more than the therapist’s ability to spin out narratives.

This certainly sounds destructive.

Stuart: We do not know what may or may not have caused this behavior, but, as everyone but Gottlieb knows, the biggest mistake you can make is to take it personally.

That would also be my advice, although I'm still not sure what to do when you find yourself taking something personally against your will.

She asks confusingly "Can I continue to look the other way, and hope that whatever is going on passes without any major harm done?"

The key phrase is "whatever is going on" which suggests she has certainty there is something unknown, while it could be nothing. And she can't even guess what the right questions would be.

ANd that's my general conclusions on conspiracies. There certainly are coverups, but its more likely someone covering up their stupidity getting scammed, or negligence at something they should have been paying attention to, or even just secret depression expressed as drinking alone. And in such cases it is shame doing the cover up, and it would be better for a spouse to know, at least if its not something he can escape immediately, or if the situation can threaten their financial stability.

So expanding the dangers like that we can ask if it is prudent she "hopes that whatever is going on passes without any major harm done"?

If it has nothing to do with her at all (but it may affect her in the future), and she's willing to learn her husband isn't perfect, it would seem better if he could confide in her if she asks what's going on.

It seems fair for her to ask generically if something is wrong, but she's still stuck trusting his answer if he says no. But at least then it would stay his responsibility to withhold anything.

Sam L. said...

I see the therapist as feeding the fire for more sessions.

James said...

"I see the therapist as feeding the fire for more sessions."
Kind of like the candy at the dentist's office.

Walt said...

The wife is right. If the husband is having one night stands on business trips--whether because he's genuinely and temporarily aroused or because its an expected part of his business culture (and it often is) it's likely to be irrelevant to their marriage. That he gets drunk on those trips may be because the many requirements of his role as a "businessman" are remote from who he is as a man (a person) and force him to act so inauthentically, he can only get through it by getting drunk. In any case, it is what it is and only what it is and it's likely about him, not her or their marriage.