Marcus, sixty-seven, was anxious to retire at sixty-five. He worked in marketing for forty years and he was tired of it; he wanted out. He started engaging in volunteer activities, mostly sitting on boards for non-profit organizations. His wife, Cecilia, also sixty-seven, wanted to keep working, so she did. Two years into retirement Marcus comes to see me, concerned that his marriage of twenty years was having trouble. “Cecilia is constantly telling me everything I am doing wrong. She complains about what I buy in the market. She says that our house is too messy, but let me tell you, it is spotless. I just don’t understand it.” Marcus and I work together twice a week for a year to slowly uncover that Cecilia does not seem to be the problem, or at least she does not seem to be a major player in his internal turmoil. “Did you ever have problems with Cecilia before?” I asked Marcus many times, each time getting a slightly different answer. “Well, I was working and I was traveling so her behavior did not get to me so much.” Marcus would say, as if spending more time with Cecilia was the problem.
One day, I ventured down a different path. “Maybe when you were working, your self-esteem was better, so now that you do not feel as useful, you are more sensitive to Cecilia’s comments. Maybe work gave you scaffolding for your sense of yourself, such that now you have collapsed internally.” Marcus looks at me, quiet for a few moments, then says, “well, yes, I see what you are saying, but I don’t want to go back to work.” “I notice that you jump into a solution, going back to work, and that it is hard for you to reflect on how your job gave you a better sense of yourself.” I say, hoping that Marcus and I can toss around the ingredients of work which helped him feel good, before jumping into action mode.
“Well, sure I got validation from work,” Marcus says, somewhat trivializing my comment. “It is more than validation, it seems to me, work seems to have covered over some deep insecurities which are now being exposed,” I say, trying to move our conversation into a deeper realm. “Why do I feel so sad all of a sudden?” Marcus asks, but it seems so clear to me. “We are talking about a very dark subject, so I can certainly see why sadness has overcome you. We are exploring your sense of yourself, which at times, on a very deep level, is both uncertain and unpleasant. At those times, Cecilia’s behavior is more irritating to you and so consciously you think that she is the problem, not you. It seems that work gave you so much more than validation. It protected you from yourself. ” “This is so heavy,” Marcus says. “I am glad we are at the end for today. I don’t know how much more of this I can take,” Marcus concludes, with a smile on his face, as if to say he looks forward to coming back, but for right now, he needs a rest.