"He's Threatened by My Success"
The Counselor's Turn
"When I met this couple, I didn't believe, as Josh claimed, that their problems centered on sex and discipline of their daughter," the counselor said. "Instead, I felt they were engaged in an unconscious power struggle that was being played out in those areas. Josh didn't begrudge Linda her big paycheck, but he did long for greater professional success and didn't know how to achieve it.
"Still, hostile as they were, Linda and Josh loved each other and wanted to revive their marriage. I believed they could, provided they understood the source of their conflict and then changed their perspective and behavior.
"I encouraged them first to see how their families of origin shaped their attitudes. Growing up, Josh felt intimidated by a domineering father who either belittled or ignored him. As a result, he suffered from low self-esteem his whole life and in some ways never grew up. This lack of confidence prompted him to abandon music and join the family plumbing business for financial security. 'You were on the cusp of success after grad school, but you weren't emotionally prepared to go for it,' I told him. 'You gave up too soon and ran home to Daddy.'
"Given his past, Josh was probably hardwired to choose a spouse who could provide economic cover. Yet it was this capacity that drove him into a power struggle with his wife. It didn't matter that Linda enthusiastically supported his career, regardless of his earnings; Josh didn't measure up in his own eyes. He equated their salary imbalance with a power imbalance in their relationship, so to set matters right, he verbally attacked Linda in an area where he felt she didn't measure up -- her sexual performance.
"Meanwhile, Linda was raised in an emotionally antiseptic environment by a hard-to-please mother and a remote father who passively accepted his wife's disparagement. Linda vowed to be powerful and independent -- hence her tendency to be controlling. Having promised herself not to marry a meek man, she instead chose someone as hard to please and critical as her mother -- in effect re-creating her childhood struggles in her marriage.
"Once Linda and Josh understood that his low self-esteem and her need to control were issues left over from their childhoods, they were able to accept their personality differences, which I helped them reframe as virtues. For instance, I pointed out that their personalities had dictated career choices that worked to their advantage. As I said to Josh, 'You could take a $75-a-night jazz gig and still live in comfort because your wife's desire for power worked to her financial advantage in the corporate world.' To Linda I pointed out that Josh's being a musician gave him a flexible schedule that allowed her to focus on her career and travel for business without worrying about childcare or the house.
"Next, to boost Josh's confidence and sense of personal power, I recommended he focus on raising his income. It was clear to me that Josh hadn't maxed out his earning potential as a freelance musician. Following my advice, he promoted himself more aggressively, and during the year the couple spent in counseling, he was hired to play for the city's opera company, doubled the number of students he taught at home, became a part-time instructor at a local college, and sold several articles to a music magazine.
"The more economically successful he became, the better he felt about himself. 'If you're doing what you love and making money at it, that's success,' he said in a breakthrough session. 'We live in such a money-oriented society that I never really believed that before. But now I do.'
"When it came to sex, I suggested that Linda might be more responsive if Josh changed tactics. 'Is this any way to woo your wife -- by berating her as cold in bed?' I asked rhetorically. They both got the message. As Josh stopped his criticism, Linda's libido slowly reawakened. In addition, as Josh became more satisfied with his career, he was less preoccupied with sex. 'Josh's sex drive will probably always be stronger than mine, but we're more accepting of each other's needs now,' Linda said, 'and we're working on making sex better for both of us.'
"After a rocky early marriage Josh and Linda had learned to control their tempers, so I knew they could change their communication style if they wanted to. 'Don't scream, don't call names, don't give each other the silent treatment, and do not fight in front of Audrey,' I said. 'Children who witness this behavior often grow up to repeat it.' Once their communication improved, the couple felt more emotionally connected. Their lunch dates resumed.
"I pointed out that they used their daughter the way they'd used sex -- as a pawn in a power struggle. She was caught in the middle -- a psychological dynamic called 'triangulation.' The battle on the airplane was a perfect example. Audrey refused to switch seats with Josh, and this disrespectfulness tapped into his insecurities. Linda did not admonish Audrey, which perpetuated the triangle, and then Linda and Josh ended up fighting. 'You unconsciously sabotaged your own power by going after your daughter, and then you set up Linda to take her side and go after you,' I explained to Josh.
"When parents are split, it's common for the child to try to get away with as much as she can -- and indeed Audrey was a moody preteen who was behaving like any adolescent would if 'triangulated.' I agreed with Linda that Josh needed to act more like an adult with his daughter and choose reasonable, enforceable punishments. Yet Josh was right to insist that Linda stop calling him childish and striving to be 'top parent' by being too lenient and spoiling Audrey.
"'By coming to Audrey's rescue you're positioning yourself for ongoing battles with Josh,' I told her. Once Josh stopped being verbally aggressive with Audrey, Linda was less quick to jump to her defense, which reduced their arguments. She stopped being so extravagant with Audrey and held the girl accountable for her behavior. The couple began determining appropriate punishments together and became a united disciplinary front.
"Linda and Josh were model clients in that both welcomed my insights and eagerly implemented my recommendations. By making the difficult, but necessary, adjustments in attitude and behavior, they rediscovered the bond that had brought them together so many years ago. 'I'm less controlling and critical,' Linda recently acknowledged, 'and because he's more successful, both artistically and financially, Josh is less argumentative. When I stopped calling him childish, he started acting like an adult. He's back to being the great guy I fell in love with.'"
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, November 2007.
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