Carol’s heart was racing, literally. She thought it could be a heart attack, so she went to the emergency room. An MRI revealed no heart dysfunction, so her doctor diagnosed it as a panic attack. She came to therapy because she wanted to discover the underlying cause so she could heal the condition without drugs.
Session 1. Carol opened our first session by explaining her recent medical emergency and then announced, “Let me tell you what I think is really causing this. It’s my relationship with my husband!”
Scott had been angry with her for years. He was a plant manager for a multi-billion dollar corporation. They had attended marriage counseling for a short time years ago with another therapist, but the same pattern continued. Carol’s voice reeled with bitterness from years of unresolved conflicts. Her rapid-fire words launched missiles of pain and anger. Once she threatened to leave the marriage, but she had no job, so she stayed. He treated her with more respect after that, but they lived like roommates.
I explained, “Carol, if you want to heal this the quickest way possible, I need to see you and your husband together, not just you. It takes two to tango. If you both learn the skills to create intimacy and resolve conflicts, you can have a successful marriage and your health will increase.”
“I don’t want Scott involved. He will feel so hurt. I haven’t told him all the things I told you.”
I suggested, “Each of us is responsible for our own feelings. You need to express your truth in the kindest way possible, and let Scott be responsible for his own feelings. Your job is to accept responsibility for your emotions and reactions. You need to learn how to maintain your sense of self and simultaneously experience healthy connection. Your reactions to each other are the tip of the iceberg. These patterns started in childhood and they are exposed in your marriage. You both have a major opportunity to heal and grow.”
“I see what you mean. I want a happier marriage, and I want to be healthy. Those heart palpitations really scared me. I’ll ask him to attend a session, but I don’t think he will.”
Scott was a high-level executive in a Fortune 500 company, and he prided himself on fixing others problems. He did not like to ask for help.
Session 2. I placed a phone call to Scott, inviting him to join us. Miracles never cease. He showed up at our second session. I knew I had to gain his respect quickly or I would lose him. Although I was a bit anxious to be in the presence of such a powerful leader, I realized that I instinctively knew how to work with this kind of man because I had grown up with one, my father. I was able to combine just the right blend of intellect and emotional empathy. I acknowledged how difficult it might have been for him to come to see me, and that it might be difficult for him to trust me. I made good eye contact while conveying compassion. Feeling respected, he agreed to return for more sessions with his wife.
Before therapy, Carol had seen Scott as an insensitive business leader, caring more about accomplishing tasks than tending to their marriage. She did not think he would open up. But when I looked inside his heart, I saw the teddy bear hiding inside.
He confided to me, “I want to help Carol and our marriage, but I do not think I can. I promised him that I could help him learn the needed skills.
Session 3. Scott’s Background: Scott’s parents expected excellence, and he produced it. There was little emotional connection or physical affection between his parents, or between his parents and him. Scott sent his feelings underground. He graduated top of his class in high school and in college. He held executive level jobs and worked long hard hours. He played the trumpet from age 9 to 24, and he was a member of an elite college band, yet he reported, “I’m not a real musician because I cannot play requests at a moment’s notice.”
Carol was an accomplished artist, writer and poet. She grew up with parents who were emotionally distant, too. She learned to be tough, perfect, and to ignore her own needs. She was stoic, angry, and critical of Scott. I wondered what held these two together. I looked for the best place to intervene.
I offered, “Scott, I know you see yourself as a left-brained engineer-type, but my assessment shows that you are primarily right brain dominant. I think your true nature is to be relationship-oriented, creative, philosophical and spiritual. I know you are very smart, but underneath your stoicism, I see a kind-hearted teddy bear. What do you think of that?”
He looked perplexed. I sensed he wanted my help to let his soft side emerge, although he did not say so at the time. He had to think about it, and I gave him time.
Session 4. I taught them standard communication skills. (1) Listening skills which include paraphrasing your partner’s message, empathizing and validating. (2) “I messages” to convey your own experience as follows:
“I feel _______ (Describe your emotion and take responsibility for it.)
when you __________ (Share a non-blameful description of your partner’s behavior.)
because _________ (Describe the tangible effect on you if there is one.)
Make a request for behavior change that will help you.
Scott sat in the rocking chair, and Carol perched on the sofa across from him. Carol timidly shared, “I don’t want to hurt you.”
He returned her gaze with big puppy dog eyes. He wanted to understand her and felt anguish because of her pain. His hardened intellect melted into compassion.
Carol offered her “I message” cautiously, not wanting to arouse his anger. “I feel anxious before you come home every night. I don’t know what mood you will be in, and I get so scared when you are angry. I never know what to expect.”
He continued to gaze at her, surprised but wanting to know more.
“Carol, tell him how you feel in your body,” I prompted. She held her breath. Her chest tightened. The back of her shoulders braced, and her jaws clenched.
“Oh, my head hurts!” she exclaimed. “Oh, it really hurts!”
The familiar emotions and sensations she stuffed for years rose to the surface. This time, she felt safe enough to express them to Scott, but she was still scared.
“Carol, breathe. You can do this. Breathe.” I coaxed. She took some deep breaths.
I thought to myself: If I continue to sit in my chair several feet away, she will express herself superficially. But if I sit next to her, she will feel supported enough to go all the way into the feelings and sensations, and she will heal more completely as I engage Scott’s compassion.
I said to Carol, “I’m going to sit right beside you and support you. Is that OK with you, and may I touch you?”
“Yes.” She willingly accepted the invitation.
I placed one hand on her upper back to help her body feel safe.
“Breathe, Carol, breathe.” She was afraid to feel the pain, and to reveal it to Scott.
“Oh, the pain!” She held the right side of her head.
“Breathe,” I said in a low, reassuring voice. “Just breathe and feel.”
“I am not supposed to feel weak. I’m supposed to be tough and have it all together,” she retorted.
I held my hand steady on her body. She breathed a little more and allowed herself to feel scared.
Looking at her husband, she said, “I don’t want you to feel hurt. You have to go back to work after this.”
I intervened, “Carol, highly sensitive people like you feel what others feel. Let him have his own feelings and let him be responsible for himself. He can handle this.” She brought her attention back into her own body. She placed her attention under my hand that was still supporting her back.
This time, with more feeling in her voice, she said to him, “I get so scared when I don’t know how you’ll treat me when you come home. It really bothers me.”
He practiced empathy. “I see how scared you get. I had no idea. I can see how you would feel that way.” Then he added, “I am so sorry for your pain, and I will try to stop that behavior so you don’t hurt.” His sad puppy dog eyes revealed his aching heart.
“It helps me so much to see you looking at me with soft eyes. I feel safe now,” she whispered with appreciation.
My steady hand helped her shift the energy in her chest. She was able to breathe easier and deeper.
“How’s your headache, Carol?”
“It’s gone! It’s gone!” she exclaimed.
She jumped up and gave Scott a big hug. “Thank you so much for understanding. It means so much to me!” Tears glistened in her eyes.
He received her hug and returned it. (I knew he was a teddy bear in disguise.)
Turning to me, he said, “I feel so inadequate to do the right thing to help her. I really want her to be happy.”
“I know. You can learn the skills. Remember all those years you practiced the trumpet? How many years did it take for you to become good? How many years have you been married?” He was putting the whole thing in perspective.
“You know how to practice and become masterful. After a year or two you will have these skills down pat. But just like with the trumpet, if you want to be really good, you will have to practice for years, not because you have to, but because you want to become masterful at intimacy with your wife. You can do this,” I affirmed.
Scott saw the bigger picture. He could not know all the lessons that would lie ahead, but he had hope, and he trusted me to show him the way.
Carol had more courage and confidence to share her feelings with Scott so he could support her. She learned to give him specific requests, instead of throwing out complaints that felt like bombs. He learned to feel his emotions and reveal more of himself.
“Practice these skills,” I encouraged them before they left, “and you will become masters.”
Follow-up Sessions. They attended sessions together for one year. Sometimes Carol attended alone where I helped her heal emotional wounds from childhood. When I checked with them four years later, they were happy. They continued to use their skills. Carol’s self-esteem glowed as she told me about how delighted she was in her career. She rented space in an artist studio where she socialized with creative, out-of-the-box people, just like herself. Life was good!
1) When you hold in your emotions, where do you feel aches and pains?
2) In what ways do your coping behaviors help you live a healthy life?
3) How do your coping behaviors diminish your health, and intimacy in your significant relationships?
I use Gottman Method Couples Therapy and Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy by Dr. Sue Johnson.
About the Author: As a Psychotherapist, Benita A. Esposito, MA, LPC combines a master’s degree in psychology and 4 decades of career wisdom. Combining her intuitive ability to understand people at depth with classical training, she gets to the bottom line quickly so people can efficiently resolve challenges and move into their full potential. Benita facilitates people to develop and sustain flourishing personal and business relationships rooted in The Authentic Self.
Click here to Contact Benita Esposito for a complementary 10-minute phone get-acquainted visit. Or call 770.998.6642.
(Clients names were changed to preserve confidentiality.)
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