Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

Archive for February 9th, 2010

Teaching at NCP

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on February 9, 2010

Wednesday, February 10, 2010….Female Adolescent Development…..Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy Program

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Low Expectations

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on February 9, 2010

     Working with couples is endlessly fascinating. Why do people make each other miserable and yet it would take a stick of dynamite to separate them? Why do others feel deprived and punished, and yet they are withholding and sadistic? Why do some couples compete for attention from their children, and yet in other couples, one member feels like a single parent? Why do some people seek extramarital sexual relationships, while others stay loyal for decades? Why do some arranged marriages work really well?  The more I work with couples, the harder it is for me to answer these questions. However, oftentimes, I see that people pick others to work something out in their internal worlds. In other words, a person is looking for the nurturing he never got as a child, or he is looking  to be understood, or he is looking to be appreciated.

    Recently, I saw a couple that I have worked with for many years. The dynamics of this relationship are clear. The wife feels overburdened with child care issues, and the husband feels emotionally neglected. The wife, Maryellen, wanted kids. The husband, Larry, was ambivalent. Maryellen insisted and so they did. Larry felt steamrolled, even though now he loves his kids. This dynamic has played out over many years. Larry is constantly angry and resentful that he is never attended to. Maryellen feels unfairly treated since she does the lion’s work of the domestic responsibilities, along with working full-time.

   Larry and Maryellen come faithfully to couples therapy. It is a wonder that they can work it into their busy schedules. Together, we work very hard at trying to understand why their relationship feels so unsatisfying, and yet at the same time, they have stayed together for many years. In our last session, Larry said “Maryellen is never there for me.” I said “you mean that she is not there for you in the ways you need her to be.” Larry, with tears in his eyes “yes”. I asked Larry about his parents. I wanted to know more about their relationship. I was wondering about his marital paradigm. Maybe if I understood his parents’ marriage, I could understand where his expectations came from.  

    With shocking emotion, Larry tears up while stating “my parents really loved each other”. He continues “every night my dad came home from work and my mom and dad would go into the bedroom and talk about his day.” The emotional content of this interchange was so powerful for me that tears welled up in my eyes too. I felt so bad for Larry that he could not get from his wife what he felt his father got from his mother. The moment was powerful.

    I began to think about the cultural context. Larry grew up in the 50s. His dad worked and his mom stayed home, took care of the kids and made dinner every night. More to the point, his mom had the emotional energy at the end of the day to be a really good listener to his dad. I think, as I have stated in the earlier  post, that the woman’s movement, with all of the many positive changes,  created hardship for both men and women. Larry cannot get the attention he craves from Maryellen because Maryellen is working full-time, taking care of the kids, taking care of the home. Further, as with many highly educated, working couples, Larry and Maryellen were older when they started their family, so they are now in their 50s. As such, they do not have the same energy that their parents had when the parents were in their 30s  raising their families.

       I switch out of feeling so sad by Larry’s emotion into understanding that Larry feels painfully deprived. I try, with minimal success, to help Larry understand that his deprivation is not Maryellen’s fault. I say “if we can eliminate the blame, we can look at ways to help you feel better.” Larry gets upset by that comment and he responds “isn’t a wife supposed to be there for her husband?” I say, to Larry’s visible shock, “sometimes”. I begin to talk about scaling back expectations given the high demands on both of their lives. Larry is shocked, yet again. “Should I not have enough self-esteem to demand what I need” he says. I respond by explaining that he can ask for what he needs, but he also has to have the understanding that Maryellen has many competing demands on her time and that sometimes she cannot attend to him in ways that he wishes she could. Larry was not happy.

     Maryellen was uncharacteristically quiet during this session. Ordinarily, she has a lot to say and she gets angry if I interrupt her. Today, however, it seemed that she felt supported by me. Her facial expressions suggested that she appreciated hearing my dialogue with her husband and she appeared to be thinking deeply about what each one of us was saying.

     This was one of those sessions which was really hard to end. Larry was ruffled by my suggestion that he lower his expectations. Maryellen was silent. I was moved to tears by Larry’s description of his parents’ marriage, and although I tried to elicit the help of my left brain to get me out of the emotional pit, I was aware of how I had gone into a very deep emotional state with Larry. Finally, we made another appointment. Larry and Maryellen left in silence.

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