"He's Holding Me Back from My Dreams"
The Counselor's Turn
Kelly and Chad wanted their relationship to work, but the marriage had become a series of subtle power struggles that neither was fully aware of, let alone knew how to defuse," said the counselor. "Whether the issue was money, childcare, or Kelly's return to school, they were jockeying for power and control on a daily basis. 'Whenever someone feels powerless, resentment brews,' I said. 'That's why you're arguing all the time.' Before they could end the emotional tug-of-war, however, they had to understand its source.
"Both had strong self-sabotaging streaks that are typical of people from highly dysfunctional families. Just when things were going well they'd find ways to stir up the pot. As children each felt unheard and unloved; neither believed he or she had a right to be happy, then or now. To protect herself Kelly had resolved not to let anyone control her or prevent her from achieving her goals. Deeply resentful of what she saw as her husband's attempts to keep her under his thumb, she reacted with anger and threats to walk out. I helped her see that Chad's responses had nothing to do with punishing or controlling her but sprang from a deep-seated fear of losing her love. To feel safe, calm, and more in control, he needed to be in charge of every decision -- unfortunately in ways that undercut her.
"'Resolving a conflict doesn't mean you must think or feel exactly the same,' I explained. 'It means accepting and respecting inevitable differences in opinions and priorities.' To build a foundation of trust, I told Kelly she had to stop yelling and threatening to leave. At the same time Chad had to reconnect after an argument instead of going into an emotional deep freeze. I suggested that, when he felt himself pulling away, he had to remind himself that his fears were based on the alienation he'd felt as a child, not on the reality of today. 'If you want Kelly to see your point of view, you have to acknowledge hers, and you can't do that if you distance yourself every time you clash.' I taught them how to discuss their differences respectfully, using phrases such as 'what I hear you saying is...' instead of going on the attack. I also urged them to touch each other physically during these 'discussions,' especially when they got heated.
"Kelly and Chad were surprised at how quickly they were able to sort through their feelings once they understood each other's motives. In one breakthrough session Chad took a deep breath and admitted, 'I've been a jerk. I don't want to hold you back but I'm scared that school is the first step you'll take away from me.'
"This brave confession touched Kelly deeply. Reaching for his hand, she said, 'I'll always be here for you, Chad.' Feeling more secure that he would not be diminished by his wife's success, Chad decided to look for someone to replace Kelly at work, even though she wouldn't be leaving for several months. This gave her plenty of time to train the new person. As for Charlie, in the fall he'd be old enough for half-day nursery school. Kelly agreed that she'd take morning courses and pick up her son on the way home. Chad would be in charge of evening childcare so Kelly could study. She then broached the topic of money, explaining that she felt like a child asking for her allowance. Together, she and Chad expanded her role in the family's day-to-day finances. She opened her own bank account, into which Chad deposited several hundred dollars a month so she could manage her own spending. Her gripes about Chad's ex-wife evaporated once she felt fully supported by him.
"With her confidence high, Kelly applied to and was accepted at several local universities. 'I'm a college girl!' she said happily the last time I saw her.
"'She is irreplaceable at work,' said Chad, 'but I'm so proud of her achievements! We're happier now than we have ever been.'"
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, May 2009.