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Creative Couple/Family Counseling: Discovering the Paradoxical Pass in the Impasse

Mark Gorkin, MSW, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, is an acclaimed keynote and kickoff speaker as well as "Motivational Humorist ...Read More

When life gets anxious and contentious, injecting some playfulness, if not a touch of absurdity, can help troubled couples and families find the creative and loving “pass in the impasse.” And not surprisingly, this often involves extricating the kids from their roles as buffers, allies, diversions, lightning rods and messengers or of just being stuck in the middle. This removal process is vital if the couple is to have a clean and cleansing fight. Let me share a vignette in my role as a family and couples therapist. A married woman in her late 30s came in for an individual session. Ms. W, weary if not somewhat depressed, presented her 10-year-old son as the problem. Brian was not doing well in his “special ed” class and he was increasingly teasing and fighting with his precocious eight-year-old sister. Mrs. W also shared feeling that her husband, an accountant, in his early 40s, was not actively involved with Brian; he was not setting sufficient limits on the boy’s aggression. (Two diagnostic questions: To what extent did Brian’s acting out reflect “attention” deficit [in the family environment] as well as “attention deficit” [within Brian]? Was Brian’s aggressive actions the medium through which Mr. W expressed indirect anger towards his wife?)

After this one-on-one, the whole family came in. To my surprise, Mr. W. ambulated with leg-length braces and crutches. He had contracted polio as a child and presently his demeanor seemed sad and weary, with much frustration under the surface. Towards the end of the session, I sensed mom and daughter had a strong bond while dad and son seemed like isolated moons revolving around the female planets. Younger sister had been more articulate, if not vocal, than Brian; Brian appeared more restless. Then, just before our closing, Brian energetically, if not defiantly, raised his left arm and declared: “I’m a lefty and lefty’s are special!”

I was not quite sure how to respond, though I knew Brian had provided us with some psychic ore. The challenge would be imaginatively processing and transforming his potential gem. However, I did give some homework, asking Brian to list the different ways he bugs his sister. He seemed eager to work on this assignment with his mother’s help.

A Paradoxical Plan

The following week began with Brian’s list, which was pretty gross — from putting gum in his sister’s hair to occasionally spitting in her cereal when she wasn’t looking. During the week, an “aha” had occurred giving me a possible plan for working with Brian’s difference. Now, in front of the family, I acknowledged how well Brian had done his assignment. After Brian explained a bit further, I then agreed that lefty’s are different. Still, I wanted to talk with him alone about his powerful list and about being “special.”

Brian liked the idea of having a private meeting with me. Alone, Brian talked more about the list and being lefty when I interjected: “Brian, I know lefty’s are unusual, but you know who is really special?” Brian shook his head and I continued: “People who are ambidextrous.” Again he was dumbfounded. (Nothing like some creative confusion to open up a mind.) I explained that my father was ambidextrous: for example, he wrote with his left hand and played tennis with his right. I then added: “Would you like to see if you could be ambidextrous?” Well, Brian seemed ready to fly out the window to show he could be special in this new way. I continued: “Brian, we know your tough lefty side has you picking on your sister. What would you have to do to be a “righty” with her?”

Initially perplexed, then with a little coaching, Brian finally blurted out, “You mean be nice to her?” My immediate counter, “Not every time. But each time you do a tough lefty thing you then need to follow with some “right” behaviors. We generated a short list of right-minded responses. Brian liked that we would keep our ambidextrous plans secret. We now had created something special between the two of us and some secrecy meant no one else would have to know if he couldn’t achieve the ambitious goal. Brian returned to the family in a more confidently calm manner.

A few days later, Ms. W. called for an individual session. The first words out of her mouth: “I don’t know what you said to Brian, but he sure is behaving different.” She was perplexed but pleased. Now she could share more of her increasing bitterness with her husband’s evolving passivity — both at work and at home. She also expressed frustration with her Administrative Assistant position. Getting Brian out of the spotlight helped me glean the bigger and more troubling marital picture.

We had a couple’s session that was more like antagonistic lawyers presenting charges with a litany of examples: he’s depressed and passive; she’s overly critical; and he would do more with Brian if she wasn’t so controlling, etc., etc. A closing report on Brian’s behavior: overall better, but he was slipping.

Of Human Bonding

During the week I had another brainstorm, this time around involving father and son. Tact was critical as I didn’t want dad believing I was pushing him to be more involved with Brian just because of Ms. W pressuring him or me. (Reminds me of the husband’s declaration to his spouse: “I don’t mind paying the bills. I just don’t like it when you tell me to pay the bills.” Anyone recognize this passive-aggressive power struggle?)

At the next family session, Brian recognized there had been some slippage in our plan. (Throughout, his sister expressed her feelings when needed and seemed pretty cool with Brian being the focus.) I affirmed that it’s not easy to be truly special, and that I had come up with an improved plan…”But I would need dad’s help.” Brian agreed to dad entering our male covenant. Mr. W quizzically went along.

I explained our ambidextrous experiment and asked dad to give a secret signal to help Brian balance his tough and nice sides. Dad would call out the old military marching mantra: “Go to your left, your right, your left. Go to your left, your right, your left. Sound off — 1, 2. Sound off — 3, 4, etc.”

I gulped when the situational context dawned upon me. How would this man, disabled almost all his years, react to a task that involved a drill sergeant role, an impossible role for him in “real life?” To my relief and amazement, dad boomed out our signal with gusto and true passion. Clearly, some longing had been touched deep inside this man. Brian’s face lit up seeing this rejuvenated, powerful side of his father. A father-son connection was created and, ultimately, cemented by pain, passion and team performance. By playing and working together they could achieve both a genuine bond and truly be “special,” especially for each other.

The Couple Close and the Closing Couplet

Now, once having the kids off the therapeutic couch, if not out of the bedroom, the focus could be squarely on Mr. and Ms. W. And while I had no other magic brainstorms to pull out of my therapeutic bag, none were needed. The couple was ready to openly discuss past and present hurts; to identify and gradually disarm the list of usual suspects that rob a marriage of its vitality. Career changes and nightly couch time were part of the rejuvenating regimen. So too was singing out, “Go to your left, your right, your left” when an interactive cycle was starting to spin out of control.

I’ll end with my satirical ditty that, hopefully, will further encourage an appreciation for laughing at our flaws and foibles; for getting past our self-absorbed entitlements or martyrdoms. In our increasingly complex and stressful lives, it’s not surprising that one may have to risk mixing vulnerability and absurdity, courage and imagination for love and partnerships to survive and thrive.

Tenaci-Tea for Two (The Narcissist’s Version)

You for me and me for me
Oh how nurturing you will be.
Forget to be or not to be…
Just simply think of Me, Me, Me!

(c) Mark Gorkin 1998 Shrink Rap™ Productions

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