An Emotional Affair Meets Financial Infidelity: Part 4. The Blame Game & Taking Offense
Part 4: The Blame Game & Taking Offense at What Others Think of You
The next time we met, Steve and Carey sat closer on the royal blue two-cushioned sofa.
“How’s it going?” I asked once they settled.
Steve glanced at the beige Oriental rug, then raised his head. “We’re better. I’ve ended my meetings with Vanessa.”
“Was it painful?” I leaned closer.
He shook his head slowly. “I told her our talks are costing me my marriage.”
“What’d she say?”
“She said she’s married and she understood.”
“How’d you feel about that?”
“I was sad. It’s a loss.” He cleared his throat. “But I’m relieved.”
“Relieved of what?” Carey cut in.
Steve turned to her. “Guilt. I’m sharing more with you. Not holding back.”
Carey met his gaze with a smile.
“Like a weight off your shoulders?” I asked.
The creases in his forehead relaxed. “Yeah. I even feel good about it.”
Carey laughed. “I’m relieved!” Her eyes shone. “Good boundaries have helped us.”
I nodded. “Boundaries keep us faithful. They stop us from taking personally what others say or do.” I turned to Carey. “When Steve spent time with Vanessa, did you make that about you?”
“I thought if I were a better talker he wouldn’t need to talk to her. I woke up when I realized his talking with her was about him.”
“When I stopped needing Vanessa’s approval,” Steve said, “it became easier to end our talks.”
“Did you do what you felt was right?” I asked.
“Yeah. And I respected myself for it.” He sat back and smiled.
I returned his smile. “Years ago a patient said his father taught him: ‘what other people think of you is not your business.’ His wisdom struck me. I wished I’d known that growing up.”
Carey’s eyes narrowed. “Why is it not my business?”
“Because what others think of you is primarily a reflection of them: what they perceive, their values, and their judgments,” I answered.
She nodded. “I see how having good boundaries could change my life.”
Steve’s tapped his foot nervously. “I want to try medication to stop using pot. It relaxes me, but I’m bothered when it makes me cough.”
“It can give you bronchitis from the smoke,” I said. “Let’s try a medication to see if it helps. Have you ever taken Buspar?”
He shook his head. “I’ve used Xanax.”
“Buspar helps with anxiety and it doesn’t cause dependency like Xanax. It’s slower and takes a few days to kick in.” I picked up my pad from the round, leather-topped coffee table, wrote a prescription, tore it off and handed it to him.
He smiled as he took the script, folded it and put it in his shirt pocket. “We’re still having trouble talking,” he said looking at me. “We’re not on the same wavelength. I want to talk facts and make decisions. Carey talks about her feelings. It’s just not efficient. If we talked like that in our office, we’d never get anything done.”
“I need to talk about my feelings,” Carey glared at Steve. “I want you to know how I feel. When you don’t listen, it’s like you don’t care about me.”
“Men and women talk differently,” I said. “Men use ‘report talk’ to accomplish an agenda. Women use ‘rapport talk’ to share feelings and empathy. I stood up from my black swivel chair, walked over to the floor-to-ceiling bookcase, and plucked Deborah Tannen’s book You Just Don’t Understand off the shelf. I handed it to Carey. “You should both read this. I think it would help.”
“I know men and women talk differently,” Carey said. “He’s all about thinking and wants to get right to the point. I want to share what I’m feeling.”
“Tannen calls it ‘genderlect’ and likens it to dialects.” I smiled at Carey, then at Steve. “What’s more, John Gray says women use about six-thousand words in a day, men around two-thousand. There’s a lot less talking on Mars than on Venus.”
Carey eyed the book. “I hope this helps. I’m tired of Steve telling me that I don’t talk about anything meaningful.”
“When Steve says that, you have to decide whether it’s valid for you. If it’s not, drop it outside your boundary, yet appreciate that it’s Steve’s reality. It’s as valid for him as your truth is for you.”
“I know my reality is different and I’ve hurt him at times by not talking to him,” Carey said. “But I haven’t felt like sharing when he’s running around with Vanessa.”
“Rather than keep silent you need to tell him that.”
“I knew it!” Steve pointed an accusing finger at Carey. “She’s been giving me the silent treatment to hurt me!”
“Steve,” I said, “now you’re back in the blame game. You’re blaming Carey for what you’re making yourself feel. When Carey is silent, you interpret it as trying to hurt you. You could see it as her attempt to protect herself.”
Steve crossed one leg over the other. “That makes sense.” He shrugged. “Can you explain the blame game again?”
“I blame my partner for what I make myself feel, or I blame myself for what my partner makes herself feel. At the dance I blamed myself for hurting my wife when she stopped dancing. I blamed her for hurting me when she said, ‘I’m uncomfortable.’”
“So how does that apply to me?” Steve asked.
“You just blamed Carey for hurting you by being silent.”
“I get it.” He glanced at Carey. “I think she blames me for being unhappy.”
“You’re right,” she said, “I do.”
“The truth is neither of you is responsible for your partner’s happiness. We’re each responsible for our own. Abe Lincoln wisely observed: ‘Most people are as happy as they make up their minds to be.’”
“You make it sound like we have a choice to be happy,” Carey said.
“You’re right,” I replied. “Happiness is a choice. I make up my mind to be happy regardless of conditions and circumstances, not because of them. Happiness is an attitude.”
“If happiness is an attitude, what’s the feeling?” Carey asked.
“Joy. The story of Paul is a good example. When he was arrested in Philippi, he was thrown into prison. With each arm chained to a prisoner, and fed only by friends, he faced execution. You know what he did? All day he sang praises to God! He rejoiced.”
Carey cocked her head. “So that’s why you say we each create our own reality?
“Yes. If you criticize me, for example, I decide whether it’s true for me. If it rings true, I take it through my filter and have feelings about it.”
“What if I criticized you for taking Carey’s side?” Steve interjected.
“I’d have to evaluate whether that rings true. If so, I’d admit it. I encourage couples to tell me right away if either of them thinks I’m partial. That way we can discuss it. If we can’t resolve it, my efforts to help you won’t work. You each need to feel I understand your side.”
“You’ve confronted me a lot,” Steve said.
“True. That’s because you’re more often the offender, while Carey’s more often the victim. I’ve confronted both of you with playing these roles. Even so, if either of you feels I’m partial and we can’t resolve it, I’d need to refer you to a therapist I trust.”
Steve looked me in the eyes. “I don’t think there’s a problem. I’d tell you if I did. I think you’ve been fair to both of us, but I wanted to know how you’d deal with criticism.”
“I grew up on criticism.” I smiled at him. “How’d I do?”
Steve pointed to Carey and then himself. “You’ve asked us both to grow right from the start. We’re both responded.” He raised his eyebrows slightly. “I appreciate you being straight-forward about confronting me. I’m inclined to attack when I feel threatened.”
“I feel criticized easily,” said Carey, “and criticism kills my love.”
“Years ago I was analyzed in training to become a psychoanalyst. I’d been lying on a couch five days week for a few months. My analyst asked me, ‘How can I say something to you that you won’t take as a criticism?’ I thought about it for a moment. I answered, ‘You can’t, and furthermore I take that question as a criticism!’ I laughed, knowing I was being provocative. However, his question woke me up. He intended to help me. I misinterpreted his comments as criticisms. I was my own worst enemy.”
“Both my parents were critical so I shut up,” Carey said. Her shoulders drooped.
“My parents left me,” Steve said. “Leaving me was the ultimate rejection. Pot relieves my pain.”
“Makes sense to me,” I said. “No one wants to feel unworthy. Drugs and alcohol dull our shame. The irony is, when we become dependent on them, they increase our shame.”
Steve nodded as they rose to leave. He glanced at me and said, “Sad but true.”
They left, but paused momentarily looking into the hallway mirror. They took each other’s hand and smiled.