DISCLAIMER: The following column is a composite of several different experiences I have had with clients. It does not depict a specific encounter. This story is not about you!

There is an old proverb that goes, “The children of a shoemaker go barefoot.” We’ve all heard this saying and know what it means. But one might wonder whether this idea only applies to tangible items, or whether it can also be applied to one’s needs on an emotional level, which could take it to a much more complicated place.

After all, if we spend much of our time looking at people in a deeper way, peering “under the hood,” so to speak, wouldn’t that become our natural mode of connection? Would it become the only way these people know how to engage with others? Based on the couple you will meet shortly, I suppose the answer could be yes and no. Though it would seem otherwise, there are very few absolutes in the world.

He Said

Barry is a 46-year-old businessman who sparkles with good humor as he shares his background and is able to discuss the good, the bad, and the ugly with an easy-going acceptance. However, as we got to the point where I asked him to explain why he believed he was coming to see me, his manner changed and he responded as follows: “So, you’re going to love this one! My lovely wife, Cindy, is a therapist. From what I hear, she’s an excellent one! She keeps very busy, and I’m sure she helps many individuals and couples. Even when we’re around certain family members and friends, I’ll observe how she speaks to them, particularly if they’re asking her for advice. Cindy seems so insightful and filled with wisdom. I’m sure she is. As I watch her do her thing, I’m in awe of her, but then wonder how she can be two such different people.

“Here’s the crazy part. With me at home, with our children, she’s like an entirely different person. Her gentle, understanding demeanor vanishes. She’s angry much of the time. I feel like she’s even irrational at times. She blames me or the kids for everything that goes wrong. It’s like she’s either a different person at home and the real person outside the house, or vice versa. That’s something I’ve been trying to figure out for years. I still don’t know the answer.

“I know that when we leave your office later, she’s going to kill me for saying these things. I know I’m taking a real risk in being so honest with my experiences, but it’s gotten to the point where I just can’t live like this anymore. I’ll ask her a simple question and the next thing I know, she’s accusing me of being a narcissist. Since she has all the psychological jargon down pat, she’s got great labels to throw at me; it’s a pretty uneven fight. And honestly, part of the problem is I’m just not as quick as she is and I don’t have her degree. So, when she starts letting me have it, I’m not equipped to respond quickly or successfully. But even though I don’t have her background or experience, I know in my heart that something is very wrong.

“While I’m letting all this rip, I think it’s important to add that she doesn’t get along with her two sisters all that great either. I see they keep a respectable distance from her because they know what she is capable of. Her father passed away many years ago, but her mother tiptoes around her as well, trying not to get her upset. That’s kind of how I treated her for many years: trying not to anger her, trying not to get in her way. But what has taken me over twenty years to figure out is that it doesn’t really matter. Even if I’m the most considerate person in the world, trying to consider all her needs first, I still manage to get into trouble. It’s crazy-making.

“But the most crazy-making part of all of this is the fact that when she is in “work mode,” she sees the world so clearly. She seems to understand triggers, baggage, and people’s frailties. But when it comes to herself, she’s clueless. Honestly, she needs her own therapy. I’ve mentioned it to her, but it only leads to fighting and arguments. So, I figured, maybe a place to start is with couples therapy. Maybe there is something I’m doing that is adding to this mess. I’m willing to work on myself. I have no problem with that. I just wish Cindy was as open to doing the same. I’m incredibly grateful that she agreed to come with me here today, perhaps under false pretenses.”

She Said

As a therapist, Cindy knew the drill. I didn’t even have to say anything to engage her. She spoke first briefly about her background and then began, in a very composed manner, to respond to Barry’s diatribe. (Or at least that’s how she referred to it.) She quickly got down to business. “First, let me say that I feel as though I’ve been highjacked into coming to this session. After Barry was continuously begging me for years to accompany him to couples therapy, I finally relented, having no idea that this was going to end up being finger-pointing at me and everything that is wrong with me. So, to be clear, I feel as though I was tricked into coming today.”

Feeling duped, I thought, was not a good way to begin this process. The only way therapy can lead to successful results is when people engage in it honestly and with the determination to make positive changes. If a person feels ambushed, nothing good can possibly arise from such a beginning. The question then became: could I find a way to turn this situation around since we were not off to a promising start?

“I can certainly understand why you might be feeling duped and resentful,” I said. “Who wouldn’t be in your shoes? Do you have any idea why Barry resorted to these tactics?” I knew I was treading on thin ice, since Cindy no doubt knew where I was going with my question and was possibly two steps ahead of me.

Cindy responded, “I think that’s pretty obvious, don’t you? He clearly thinks that everything wrong with our marriage is my fault and that I’m the one who needs help, not him.” She had a point!

So, what was really going on here? Was Cindy so busy focusing on the needs of her clients that she failed to take time to notice the state of her marriage and the needs of her family? Or was Barry the one who was in denial? Or maybe it was the two of them who were contributing to the state of their marriage. Lots to unpack.

I knew my first order of business was to create a connection with Cindy because I felt as though she was viewing me as being in cahoots with Barry or some kind of adversary. That would never work. So, I proceeded with kid gloves, trying to validate, empathize, and create some sort of attachment between myself and Cindy. Slowly, cautiously, I was successful in creating a new dynamic with Cindy where she was able to see me as someone who truly cared about both of them and was invested in helping them live better lives.

Thankfully, we all agreed it would work best if I saw Cindy alone for a bit. Couples therapy could wait. Shockingly, I learned that Cindy had never been in individual therapy before, which is quite unusual for a therapist. How she avoided it all these years, I’m not really sure. But she had lots of inner work to do, and somehow the timing was right. She was finally at a place in her life where she understood the need for such work.

Intermittently, I met with Barry, which was helpful for him. After a few months of intense work with Cindy, I felt it was time to pursue the original goal of couples therapy. We began from a much better starting place than would have been possible had we jumped in the first time we met.

Just to bring this column full circle, Cindy indeed had been so busy helping many others professionally that she neglected number one: herself and her immediate family. Her life was no longer going to resemble just another proverb. n


Esther Mann, L.C.S.W., is a psychotherapist in Hewlett.  Esther works with individuals, couples and families.  Esther can be reached at 516-314-2295 or by email, mindbiz44@aol.com.


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