Sal: When my Dora and I got married I was 25 and she was 19. She hadn’t ever lived away from home before but I was already working at the company and had my own apartment. So, not only was I working 45-50 hours a week, once the kids were born the house went to hell and I had to help with the chores there too. Dora was always complaining she was tired or stressed. When she didn’t lose the baby weight she asked me to “support” her in her diet schemes. We shelled out money for Jenny Craig, Weight Watchers, Curves, and about a dozen other things. She would start them all fired up, lose a few pounds, and then get sick of it. The weight would come back plus a few more pounds. I was always encouraging her, reminding her not to eat too much, but then she’d get mad at me-even though she was the one who said she wanted support! I take the kids out on the weekends so she can rest, I pay the bills, and I’ve given up on the sex thing-there’s no way that’s happening anymore. She’s depressed, spends too much money, and lets the kids run all over her. So this is my question-you’re telling me every marriage is 50/50 and every marriage problem takes two people, but I don’t get it. I just don’t see that I’m the problem here!
Therapist: By the time spouses come in for therapy, both of them have gotten stuck in reciprocal patterns of unproductive reactions to each other. Every person is responsible for his or her own behavior in a relationship, so it might not be 50/50 in that way-for example in the case of an affair. But in any long-standing problem situation you will always find two people doing the same things over and over again, hoping for a different outcome but not getting it.
Sal: I still don’t see how I’m doing anything but trying to help.
Therapist: You keep trying to make your marriage better, so it’s hard to understand why it’s not better. Do I have this right?
Sal: Yeah. Why won’t she just listen to me?
Therapist: What would Dora say is the most difficult thing about being married to you?
Sal: She’d say I’m always telling her what to do and how to solve her problems. But I know I’m right, if she’d only listen! My friends think I give great advice. Even my mom comes to me with her problems. She says my Dad’s too judgmental.
Therapist: Does Dora think you are judgmental?
Sal: Probably. She’d probably say I don’t think she can do anything right.
Therapist: So you’re giving her all this great advice and she never takes it. Seems kind of pointless to me, what do you think.
Sal: Obviously. But how else will things get better?
Therapist: Well, how did your parents work out the problems in their relationship?
Sal: I don’t think they ever did! They barely talk now. They’re more like roommates. I’m scared that’s where Dora and I are headed, if we’re not there already. I guess Mom did complain to me that Dad was always telling her what to do. She’d ignore him, or go behind his back. He was so controlling though!
Therapist: You’re the oldest child, right?
Sal: Yeah, I have two younger sisters. They used to complain I was a “know it all” just like Dad.
Therapist: Right, and you’re used to being the responsible one in the family, aren’t you? What would happen if you let go a little bit? Let Dora figure things out for herself?
Sal: I don’t know…I think things will just get worse.
Therapist: What evidence do you have that anything you’ve done so far has worked?
Sal: None, I guess. And I see what you mean-the more I tell Dora what to do, or maybe treat her like a child, the more she acts like one. It’s just so hard to watch and not do anything.
Therapist: Stop watching. What have you done for yourself lately?
Sal: Not much. I’ll have to think about all this. Maybe I am part of the problem after all. That actually makes me feel better. At least then I can do something about it-which I guess you’re telling me is that I should do less, not more! I’d like to try that for awhile, anyway.