Linda: One of most empowering shifts that takes place in the couples counseling is when both members realize that what has been getting in their way of making progress is the idea that they had been attached to that their partner was the cause of their difficulty and they begin to take their part in the breakdown.
Here are some examples:
Brenda was a woman with a sharp tongue. Her partner Francisco does not give her feedback about how wounded he is when she lashes out at him. Brenda’s cutting tone of voice identifies her as the perpetrator of verbal violence, leaving Francisco the victim of what he called her “scorpion tongue”. When Francisco began to give Brenda consistent feedback about the offensive tone in her voice, and about the pain he was experiencing, she was truly sorry for wounding him. Said, I don’t want to be the bad guy here. Thank you for being brave enough to stand up to me and tell me when I’m being a bitch.” Brenda began to watch her tone of voice and unkind words in an effort to speak more respectfully to him.
Brad had a bad habit of making agreements that he did not keep. Paula didn’t tell him how low the level of trust had sunk to. Inside her own mind, she made excuses for him letting him off the hook by saying that he’s so busy with his demanding job that he can’t keep track of the agreements that he makes with her. Her trust in him fell lower with every broken agreement. Paula concluded that his word was so poor that there wasn’t any point in asking for what she wanted. In the meantime, her resentment was growing from doing more than her fair share. In this situation, Brad appears to be a perpetrator, irresponsible and dishonest chronically breaking his word. When Paula finally spoke up, Brad said “Why didn’t you tell me sooner. I don’t want you thinking I’m an inconsiderate, irresponsible flake that can’t be counted on”. Brad began to look more carefully to ascertain whether the agreements that he made with her he was fully prepared to complete.
Sissy stayed home with their two daughters when they were young. Now that they were both going to school, her husband Gerard was looking forward to his wife going back to work. When she didn’t seek employment, the burden of responsibility of earning all the money to support his family of four for eight years felt even more intense than in the years when the girls were not in school yet. At first glance, it might appear that Gerard was the victim of a selfish taker of a wife. But Gerard was certainly part of the system due to not letting Sissy know how exhausted he was and how desperately he wanted to be joined by her in providing material support for the family. As soon Gerard realized that he was getting in his own way by not speaking openly with Sissy, she went right out and found employment.
Marcus us worked all week and on the weekends, he relaxed with his buddies playing golf on both Saturday and Sunday. This had been going on for years. Evelyn was silently suffering with loneliness. She dreamed of a devoted family man who would delight in taking his wife and kids to the beach, on weekend getaways, would Bar-B-Q in the backyard. By the time she and Marcus came for counseling, she had almost entirely convinced herself that she had to leave the marriage. To Evelyn, it appeared that she was a victim of a selfish, self-centered man, and that she had to escape. When Evelyn broke her silence and revealed how unhappy she was, he was shocked. He had no idea that she had been so lonely that she was thinking seriously of leaving him. He pledged to keep a day of each weekend for family outings. When I spoke with Marcus last, he told me, “I’m so much happier now that I’m involved with my kid’s and wife’s lives. I didn’t even know what I was missing.”
In each of these four situations, at first glance, it may appear that there is a perpetrator and a victim. Of course, there are real perpetrators who will take as much as they can get for as long as they can get away with it. And if one partner brings their suffering to the other’s attention in a serious and honest way, and their partner is not motivated to make any changes, leaving such a dysfunctional relationship must become a real option to consider. But most couples’ challenges do not fall into such a severe category. What each of these four above situations have in common is the appearance of a perpetrator and a victim. By looking just, a little bit deeper, we can see the true nature of the co-conspiracy.
Francisco, Paula, Gerard, and Evelyn, at first glance, may appear to be helpless victims. With a deeper look, they all show up as important players in keeping each system going. When the so-called “victim” sees that they have options other than staying in the disadvantaged role, they begin to negotiate for their needs and the system shifts. When the so-called “victim” speaks in their own behalf, appealing to how the shift can end up benefiting their partner at the same time that they receive more of what they are longing for, the relationship takes a leap up in well-being. Such openness and honesty ultimately benefits both partners. Now I’d certainly call that a win-win situation.