"He Lost His Job"
The Therapist Says
Heitler: Laura and Matt are each stuck in a personal and professional crisis of confidence. Their story illustrates how one person's problem can balloon into a couple's problem when partners are unable to tell each other how they feel or what they need. I suspected that Laura's super-supportive role in some ways indulged her husband, allowing Matt to procrastinate in his job search and wallow in his depression. And the longer it takes Matt to find his professional direction, the more unsure Laura becomes about him and the marriage.
We spent several sessions discussing the kind of work for which Matt was best suited. Many times, when someone is searching in vain for the "ideal" job, it's because they're not listening to their true self. Matt needed to do some serious soul-searching. "If you don't learn to listen to yourself," I told Matt, "you'll climb out of the frying right into the fire -- witness what happened when you took the job with someone you knew would not be compatible with your style."
When Matt considered this, he realized that the living-on-the-edge life of the entrepreneur was not a realistic goal for him. I told him to take the time to notice what he loved about a job, not what he thought he should do. Matt had been so caught up in the hype of his industry that he'd lost sight of the fact that he didn't have the same goals as many of his colleagues. I asked him to think about what he enjoyed doing, not just at the office, but in his leisure time, as well. What kinds of activities filled his idle hours? What books did he love to read, which movies fascinated him? What kind of work environment made him happiest and challenged him the most? I also suggested that he use Laura as well as his friends and relatives as a sounding board to talk about his interests and ideas. By articulating his desires, Matt clarified and refined them, zeroing in on the ones he felt comfortable with and discarding the ones he didn't. Soon, he was entering job interviews with the confidence he needed to stand out from the pack.
Step by step, we worked on verbalizing feelings instead of acting them out. At this point, I was able to help them both learn to break their pattern of arguing by using four steps to guide themselves toward resolution. Whenever any issue, large or small, was up for discussion, I advised them to first state their feelings -- without hinting, coaxing or expecting the other to read their mind. Then, take the time to examine the specific concerns underlying those feelings, giving equal weight to each of their interpretations or needs. Step three involved summarizing the points each had mentioned so they eliminated the possibility of misunderstandings. Finally, they were to create new options by modifying their positions until they both felt acknowledged. Although this was clearly a stilted way of communicating, it gave their discussions a much-needed structure.
In fact, once Matt and Laura started to take time to reconnect at the end of the day and actually talk about what was on their minds, it became invaluable. Slowly, they both came to the conclusion that they no longer wanted to raise their children in a big city. "We dared to let ourselves stop talking the talk," Laura reported. "And we decided to relocate to a small university town in the Midwest where I'd spent many happy summers. I have an aunt and uncle there so it's not as if we don't know anybody." Laura applied for a part-time teaching job at the law school, which will allow her to spend time with her sons without stepping out of the working world entirely. Matt drafted a new resume and re-focused his job hunt on finding a strategic planning job in a mid-sized company. "I think I finally realized that my strengths and personality are better suited to long-range planning and growth of a company rather than high-risk deal-making," he said. The last time I spoke to him, he was deciding between two, equally good, job offers. "We're leaving at the end of the summer," he told me. "And we both know it's the right move."
Most importantly, Laura and Matt realized that, even in a good marriage, you must expect and anticipate change. However, every crisis brings with it the possibility for new hope. By learning to manage their individual stressors, these two reinvented their relationship -- and their life.