By Esther Mann

 

Dear Esther,

When I met my husband, I think the part of him I was most attracted to was his intensity. I found it exciting and appealing. My family is wonderful but, honestly, kind of bland; no excitement. I always used to say that we were all “regulars,” but Chaim, my husband, was an “irregular,” in a fascinating way. I knew that there was a lot brewing inside of him, but he never revealed very much. All I knew was that he had a difficult childhood, and after getting to know his family, it was easy to see why.

His sister never married; she moved out of the country years ago, and has little to do with any of them. His brother is divorced and also has little to do with his family. His mother scares me. I don’t know what her story is, but from the first time I met her, I felt goosebumps. His father doesn’t engage with anyone. What a family! I know I should have run for my life long ago, right after meeting this cast of characters, but somehow I felt drawn in — like the way a person can’t tear his eyes away from a train wreck! Frankly, I can’t figure out how it was possible that I saw so much dysfunction from the beginning and yet I still stuck around. Maybe I felt I could fix Chaim and make up for everything that he went through during his childhood. He never gave me the opportunity to know him deeply enough. He never shared the details of his upbringing.

Chaim is a bright guy and became successful in business about 15 years into our marriage. At that point, he decided to “invest” in therapy. It was obvious even to him that he definitely needed help, and he justified it to himself and to me by saying that it would help him be a better businessman. He tried a handful of therapists, men and women, until he finally found someone he connected with; he has continued seeing her for the past eight years. And that brings me to my question.

I’ll call the therapist Ellen. Though he seemed to have felt safe with her from the start, it took some time for him to truly trust her and trust that she was smarter than he was. It took even longer, I think, for Chaim to really start opening up to her. What’s been happening over the past year or so is that he has gotten more and more connected to Ellen. I’m not suggesting, G-d forbid, that there is anything inappropriate going on between them. He started quoting her a little here and there, in response to something I would do or say. Like, he’d say something such as, “Well, I know that Ellen would say that your behavior is totally self-centered,” or “Ellen would call that move passive-aggressive.”

Since our “lockdown,” Chaim’s been working from home so he has a lot more time on his hands. He’s gone from speaking to Ellen once a week to now twice a week. He’s constantly quoting her. Mind you, he never shares anything personal and meaningful that went on in his sessions about himself, but he’ll quote her constantly in order to put me down or prove me wrong.

At this point, I feel like there are three adults living in our home: Me, Chaim, and Ellen. I feel her presence constantly; it’s crazy. When I tell Chaim that I don’t appreciate hearing him mention her name constantly, he says that I am trying to sabotage his growth. That is totally not the case. I should mention that Ellen has helped Chaim manage his anxiety and anger better. Over the years that he’s worked with her, he seems happier and calmer. So there is definitely much good to say about how Ellen has affected his life. But I feel like she is coming between us, because he seems to value what she has to say much more than he values what I have to say. So I’m competing with someone I shouldn’t be competing with. I’m afraid to suggest that he stop seeing her (not that he would), because I know she helps him, but this situation feels threatening in some strange way and I’m just not comfortable with our present relationship.

Threatened

Dear Threatened,

Firstly, just to validate your experience, what you’re dealing with does sound extreme and difficult. You’re juggling conflicting realities. On the one hand, you are aware of and probably grateful for all the help that Ellen has provided to Chaim. On the other hand, Ellen must feel like some sort of invisible threat that has entered your home and invaded the personal connection and space that you share with Chaim. Something is definitely feeling “off,” but where you go from here is not clear.

Sigmund Freud, who was the founder of psychoanalysis, uncovered the concept of “transference,” wherein an individual unconsciously redirects his or her feelings about a parent or parents to his therapist. Dr. Freud considered this to be an important part of psychoanalysis. Feelings, desires, or expectations that were never satisfied by the parent, or some other primary relationship experienced during childhood, are applied to the therapist, and, in a sense, they get a chance to be “re-parented.”

I’m putting this idea out there, not because I have an absolute reason to believe that this is what is happening between Chaim and Ellen, but simply to explain the concept in case it has some relevance to your situation. And if so, to enable you to understand what may be happening, so that you don’t have to necessarily feel as though their relationship is a personal threat to you. Nevertheless, it’s not OK. You don’t have to be and shouldn’t be the collateral damage of Chaim’s personal growth, feeling as though your emotions and ideas take a backseat to Ellen’s.

I therefore encourage you to implore Chaim to give you the opportunity to join him at his sessions with Ellen, in order for you to have a platform through which you can explain to Chaim, in the presence of Ellen, what your experiences have been like. At that point, Ellen should be sensitive and skilled enough to enable both of you to work through what’s happening at home.

It’s possible that Chaim might be possessive about his private therapeutic relationship with Ellen and that he won’t feel comfortable bringing you into the fold. Should that be the case, petition for couples’ therapy for the two of you with a separate therapist. Either way, the scenario you describe needs to be nipped in the bud. You are correct in recognizing that this should not be part of Chaim’s response to therapy. It’s great that Chaim respects Ellen and is able to “hear” her and grow as a result. But boundaries need to be created in order to strike just the right note.

Esther

Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Hewlett. Esther works with individuals and couples. Together with Jennifer Mann, she also runs the “Navidaters.” She can be reached at mindbiz44@aol.com or 516-314-2295.

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