A few weeks ago, I wrote about a session I had had with a middle age man who was struggling with several things that had begun to break down in his life, such as his health, his job, and most pressingly, his marriage. His wife had “checked out” of the marriage long ago and had been living with another man, much to my client’s chagrin. However, as I had noted, it was long before he decided to do anything about it, the first step being finding a therapist. The main point of my article was the Countertransferential moment whereby this man interpersonally conveyed to me the silent suffering he was almost accustomed to going through, and not being “allowed” to say anything about it.
Here is a small excerpt of the thoughts I had about him from that article:
“Every week he would present another almost absurd way his wife had disgraced their marriage and disregarded both him and their daughter that lived at home with him. Why had he put up with that situation for so long?… For him, it [likely] mirrored his teenage years during which he lived without his biological father together with his mother and her new husband. She had several other children with him and would often tell my client how unwanted and “in the way” he was… But… he “put up with” the awful situation; he suffered in silence for all those years.”
I had not actually told him about that connection (between his wife and his mother) that occurred to me at that time. Rather, I merely postulated the concept of “suffering in silence.”
Today, I saw this client again for his regular weekly session. We had recently been discussing the sense of “detachment” he often displayed, almost a kind of “poker personality,” as he aptly put it. I pushed to see if we could locate a possible source of this “detachment.” In the ensuing discussion we discovered that he feels he is in a weaker position when he lets his emotions be known; he feels his feelings can be used against him. We pushed further and discovered that his mother was known to have an exceptionally sharp tongue and was quick to discipline physically and harshly. We also looked at how after his father left when he was a baby, as he had been only child, he and his mother grew very close and remained that way until she remarried when he was 12 and had several new children with this man. My client tells me that at that time he actually overheard a phone call of his mother telling a friend that she and her new husband were considering sending my client away to a boarding school, since his step-father did not like my client very much; he was an awkward appendage to the new family, and he didn’t want him around. My client was not actually sent away in the end. However, my client’s mother, apparently, acted in ways which showed she had become disinterested in and “detached” from my client, even while telling him she still loved and cared about him as a son. My client was relegated to a babysitter for the young children, and was tasked with caring for other people’s needs instead of his own. He would never mention to her the overheard phone call.
And that’s when my client says, “Hey, when my wife now is living with another man, that feels similar to when my mother remarried” (which was exactly what I hypothesized to myself several weeks ago, as I quoted above). I then suggested to him that for a long time in both situations he needed to keep quiet, for fear of being sent away and physically losing the attachment to family which he may have placed as a priority over the misfortune of having to deal with being unloved. I then quietly said, “so you suffer quietly.” He looks up at me and says that’s the first time he heard that, and he can’t believe how powerful those words were to him.
I often find it truly amazing how small seeds planted early in a therapy can grow unnoticed, in the background, and only after weeks, months, or even years of work in therapy, they bear fruit. What at one point was merely an early hypothesis and small suggestion turns out to be a powerful and encompassing insight that my client came to on his own.