She “bitches” at him, and normally he just takes it; he looks the other way and lets it roll off his back. In my therapy with this couple, we have been working on identifying the pattern that recurs over and over again. She’s always nit-picking and he “chooses his battles.” In public, however, when she gets mad at him in ways he feels others can overhear, he gets very mad at her; he becomes embarrassed and finally blows up, and finally brings up all those times in private that he didn’t say anything in return, as if he was waiting for an excuse to finally let her have it.

In exploring deeper, we learned that the manner in which she criticizes him is as a parent would do with a disorganized and careless child who constantly needs reminding, prompting, structuring, etc… And when it occurs in front of other people, he becomes afraid people will actually see him that way: as lazy, a do-nothing, an incompetent loser.

But we were still left with questions in our sessions: Is she mostly right? Or is he oversensitive? Does she do this with everyone: treating most people around her as needing her help because she feels best about herself when she is in charge and is taking care of everyone around her? Or is she truly pointing out an unfortunate character flaw he has of actually being lazy until someone calls him out on it…?

And the final question that stumped us was this: why does he “take it” at home? Why doesn’t he feel embarrassed in front of himself? Why does he let her “get away” with so much ridicule and only object when others can hear it?

We discovered an answer today during session where she described getting annoyed at him for not putting away a hammer he had used, making her have to do it. Their youngest son is hearing impaired and severely learning disabled. They had him after many years of infertility following the birth of their older daughter, 8 years before. About the potential danger to her son of a misplaced hammer, she exclaims, “It’s for his safety for god’s sake! How come he doesn’t know this already? Like I have time to do this anyway?”

Now, what had happened the day of the session? She had planned to take the day off from work, but an hour after dropping off her son, the school called saying he had vomited; she needed to pick him up. And this became her day off: driving to the school, bringing him to the doctor, waiting for their session, not being able to bring her son back to school, settling for a late lunch followed by dropping him off at a babysitter before coming to the session. When she arrived at the session, she calmly and matter-of-factly told me about what had happened that day. She then switched topics and proceeded to talk about her husband’s leaving the hammer around. However, I had wondered: where did her anger go? Wasn’t she upset about her day being ruined?

A concept often discussed in couples counseling literature is Projective Identification. In short, this phenomena consists of one partner unconsciously disavowing certain unwanted feelings, then unwittingly inducing their partner to actualize a facsimile of those very feelings, and then for the first partner to recognize and react (either positively or negatively) to those expressed feelings. This occurs quite often in close relationships and is a function of the highly attuned and sensitive interpersonal “radar” we all have.

With this concept in mind, it hit me like a jolt of lightening– she was unconsciously drawing him out to “hold” or express those feelings she had in the first place: She feels put-upon, unfairly beset with a child with special needs. This child has a lot of difficulty with basic activities at school as well as at home. Her life is run by the needs of this child. She never imagined her life would turn out this way, and she is rightly outraged but doesn’t know it– and certainly doesn’t want anyone else to think so. She therefore “projects” these feelings of being “put-upon,” unfairly treated, and disrespected onto her husband, and “induces” him to become increasingly upset and feel disregarded. The role he plays at home is to “hold” onto these feelings and in an almost loving gesture, feel the hateful feelings for her. That’s where the anger went. It’s “in” him! (Only when they are in public, does he refuse to “hold” them and reacts strongly. In private, this is partially their “agreement,” part of the glue which barely holds them together.)

I asked her: why aren’t you angry? She couldn’t understand what I was talking about. Why should she be angry, she asked? I mentioned how her day had been ruined, and how in her exasperation, she referred to the lack of time she has to handle her husband’s laziness (“…like I have time for this?!”), alluding to how she is saddled with so many other responsibilities heaped onto her. I suggested that not only had her day been ruined, but perhaps the hopes and dreams she had for her life as a mother and wife were also seriously altered with the birth of her disabled son, and maybe because of social appropriateness she hadn’t fully allowed herself to experience her dismay at this and mourn the loss of her original vision. She listened, then looked down. After sitting quietly for a few moments she said she would be willing to explore this further in the next session. Our time was up.