As a therapist I’m often waiting to hear the rest of the story from the people I meet in my office. Frequently what I’ve heard from a couple doesn’t fit with what I perceive when I’m with them in the session. I can see the part they’ve shown me and told me, but I may have a sense there is more hiding in the bushes, obscured from view but present nonetheless. I’m aware of the rustlings among the leaves, so I press on, looking for clarity.
It was on one such day that I met alone with a wife who had told her husband she wanted a divorce. She had moved out, but no lawyers had been involved in their saga, not yet anyway. I had met with the couple several times before suggesting this session alone with her. My main purpose was to find out what it was that made her question her desire to continue in the marriage. As we started, I purposely asked her a vague question about her disillusionment with her relationship so she would have the freedom to respond as she wished.
She hesitated before speaking, studying the palms of her hands as if somehow the answer would be written there. She said it was difficult for her to answer my query because at that moment everything her spouse did irritated her. If he sat down to watch TV with her, she wanted to leave the room. If he washed the dishes, she felt like she owed him something. And when he prepared dinner, she felt as if he were doing her job. In short, in her eyes her husband couldn’t do much right.
I asked her if it had always been like this for her. Had what he was doing rubbed her the wrong way since they had met? I was pretty sure the answer to this question was no, otherwise she would never have married him in the first place. She said it hadn’t. She said she’d found him exciting and entertaining when they dated. When they would go out, he talked about himself and his life. Most guys don’t do that, she said, so it stood out. He had been and still was quite the gentleman in their relationship.
When you’re anxious to have the rest of the story and a spouse tells you all these great things about her partner while at the same time saying she wants a divorce, the sounds of the something in the underbrush I mentioned earlier get louder. I asked her again what she found so objectionable about her husband that she wanted to give up, on him and on your marriage. What was it that made her want to press the “escape” button?
She paused to think. I thought she was attempting to find just the right way to tell me what was troubling her. Instead she was simply concocting something. She said that if she had to sum it all up, she didn’t love him any longer because he was not manly enough. She said it with a straight face, so it wouldn’t do for me to laugh out loud. Still, I almost did. I knew for a fact, that her husband was one of the most manly men I knew. He was in the military. He was fit and strong. He played basketball and racquetball on post. And when he went home for the holidays, he hunted havelina on the family ranch in Texas. At night. Armed only with a flashlight and a knife. I had seen the pictures of his trophies—menacing and tusk-laden and dead. I’m not sure what her definition of manly entailed, but I was thinking it must have been drastically different than mine.
Composing myself and forbidding the smile that was growing inside to reach my face, I responded flatly that it seemed to me she was just making something up. At first she tried to be angry with me, then stopped herself. After a pause and with a sigh of resignation she confessed. She told me she was seeing someone else. The thing hiding in the undergrowth walked into the clearing. The truth was out for us to see. Happy to finally have more of the story, I asked her how she met him and we began to talk about this new truth that needed to be addressed.
One of my favorite songs includes the line, “When you point your finger ‘cause your plan fell through, there’s three more fingers pointing back at you.” No matter how hard we try to blame someone else for our unhappiness, pointing an emphatic finger in their direction, those three fingers we point back at ourselves remind us that no relationship is perfect and that I play a role in the problems and tension I see and feel. My client needed to remember that.
No marriage is perfect. In fact I am suspicious of anyone who tries to convince me their union is flawless. We all have our moments of catty responses, anger at needs not being met by our partner, and failure to follow through on commitments we’ve made. When we don’t own our own failures, we tend to point the finger of blame at our partner, pinning all the responsibility for any problems on him or her. If that goes on long enough, we may feel justified in pulling away, seeking support inappropriately from someone else, or even an affair.
It is a mark of wisdom and maturity to remind yourself from time-to-time, “My index finger is firmly aimed at my partner, but I’ve got three fingers pointing back at me.” Such a reminder could signal the beginning of taking responsibility for my own part in our difficulties and dissatisfaction.