Case Studies

Case Studies

“I want to raise the level of happiness – people’s lives should be happy. There should be more space for that. In every session I try to lift the energy up. And a lot of people do fly out of here – they feel energized and uplifted. It doesn’t hold forever, but every time they leave, they hold onto more of their positive energy. And in the end, it should really change their perspective.

These anecdotal descriptions are based on client composites. They are designed to increase the understanding of these universal issues.

When Steven and Beth arrived in my office for their first appointment, they were arguing as they stepped in the door.  Stephen was whispering that Beth was always late and that he was sick of her affecting his life.  Beth was accusing him right back, saying that if he helped once in a while she would have no problem being on time.

Once the session began, Beth confessed to being overwhelmed and confused by Stephen’s behaviour. He was constantly critical, often cutting and hurtful. He refused to cooperate around household chores, and he was contemptuous of any suggestions that they might do something social together.  He no longer smiled, hugged, or kissed her, let alone had sex with her.  When she asked what was wrong, he responded angrily, reciting a long list of her shortcomings and flaws.  Exasperated, frightened, and sad, Beth had begun to throw accusations right back at him, until it seemed all their interactions were acrimonious.

Stephen described the history of their marriage. They had met in 2nd year of university and dated until they graduated.  Neither had had other significant relationships and each was fairly naïve sexually.  Both were thrilled to have a companion to participate more fully in campus life.  They became active in a number of organizations but never lost their reliance on each other.  It seemed natural that their partnership should continue when they both found jobs in the project management field, and they married 6 months after they started work.

Eight years in, Stephen got an opportunity to work on a big corporate project with a different company and he was excited by the changes in his work life.  He got a big jump in pay, he was part of a dynamic and social team, and he travel frequently to visit different project sites.

Beth was happy for him although it meant that he was away about one week each month.    She continued in her job, which was mildly interesting and not too demanding.  She still felt dependent on Stephen to be her companion socially, and when he was away she tended to spend her time alone at home, reading, watching TV, working in the garden, and trying out new recipes.

Stephen meantime was gaining confidence and acquiring a taste for more independence, particularly revelling in the fun of a close group of colleagues on the road with a generous expense account.  It was about a year into his new job that his behaviour at home began to change.

When we scheduled separate sessions, I was able to question Stephen more closely. It turned out that on one of his trips away, he had felt the interest of an attractive and single consultant.  As he saw more of her on the project, their connection developed, and he found himself totally in love for the first time in his life.  Exhilarated as he was for himself, he was horrified at what it meant for his marriage.  He didn’t know what to do.  He hated the thought of hurting Beth, after all that she had done to help him in his life.  He realized, however, that he could not continue to live in his marriage, now that he knew what a true partnership could be.

In his confusion and fear, Stephen began to criticize Beth as a way of justifying his change of heart.  He buried the good feelings that he had towards her, and blew up her shortcomings in his own mind to gain momentum to leave.  He felt he had to remind her constantly that he was unhappy, hoping she would tell him to leave.   Failing that, he wanted her to know just how terrible life was with her so that she could not argue against him leaving.  His campaign had lasted a year when they came to see me, and Beth had failed to get the point.  Instead, Beth had become emotionally devastated: the person she trusted most turned on her and nearly destroyed her sense of self.  And now, with her anger and criticism of him, she was turning into a person that he did not like.

Stephen’s actions are not uncommon to anyone who finds him or herself in this situation.  People justify their change of heart by denigrating the other, making an iron-clad case for their unhappiness so that their decision to leave will be seen as the only option.  They feel extremely guilty.  They worry about being the agent of emotional pain.  They would prefer to be told to leave rather than make that decision themselves, believing that this reduces the suffering of the other person.  They worry about how others will see them, fearing the judgment and blame that friends and family direct at the one who leaves.  They assume that, in the eyes of others, particularly their partner, their happiness undermines the validity of any genuine discontent they might have had in the relationship.  In all this worry and anxiety, the easiest way out seems to be to blame the other, making his or her inadequacies the reason for leaving.  Unfortunately, this causes acute suffering,  often to both parties.

Beth was deeply hurt and began to hate Stephen for the damage he was inflicting on her.  Stephen, who had not wanted to hurt Beth at all, was now equally horrified that she was retaliating so strongly.  Although he secretly had the love and support of his new partner, he was still upset that Beth, who had been so sweet and appreciative of him, was now as contemptuous of him as he had been of her.  However, he couldn’t imagine how to conduct himself differently and still be able to leave.

Leaving with love is a new and difficult path to navigate.  The pitfalls are many but the rewards are huge. Leaving with love involves keeping the positive alive in a relationship at the same time it’s taking on a whole new configuration and meaning.

It begins with the leaver not criticizing his partner but trying to put reasons in a context of personal change.  This means not blaming the other but taking responsibility for choosing a new direction.  This involves some real soul searching to know what is shaping needs and choices that have changed over time with growth and learning.

In the natural unfolding of life we all begin to think for ourselves rather than simply following along with a set of expectations that were laid down for us.  It is not unreasonable that we would change our sense of self over the years.  At 25, many of us are still relatively unformed in terms of knowing ourselves, particularly if we have not taken the time to examine our lives.  We haven’t accumulated enough life experience to know much about the true workings of the world.  We are dependent on understanding the significant issues primarily from what others have told us.

The period from 25 to 35 is one of tremendous growth and learning.  Most people get a job, become involved in a significant love relationship, live with a partner, maybe get married and start a family.  Many of these parts of adult life have been romanticized, and 10 or 15 years in, we have a different outlook on what appeared to be such a good thing early on.  Some find that they have not picked a career that is well suited to their developing interests or needs.  Others find they have picked a companion who has not cultivated similar interests and has grown in a different direction.  Still others realize that they have chosen friends and partners at a time of low self-esteem and that they have outgrown these friends in aspiration, or ambition, or depth of interest.  Watching Saturday night hockey with the guys and a case of 24, which was perfection at one time, may no longer an activity of choice when the choices are expanded.

This is important information and it must be well understood and described so that both parties know what has changed.  It is not true that the choice was wrong when it was made, but it might not be right in the current circumstances.

Relationship cannot be a lifelong sentence to be lived out regardless of personal fulfillment and meaning.  Change is a reality of life and we will do better in the long run if we understand the reasons for the change.  This is the first step in leaving with love. Predictably, it is met with great distress and opposition.  At this point, the responsibility is more on the person leaving to stay calm and clear, and not to give in to retaliating when the accusations and emotional fallout are heaped upon him.  Any news of change is extremely threatening to the other, and the reaction is full of fear, usually taking the form of anger.

The best way to deal with the outbursts is to imagine one’s own reaction if the situation were reversed.  Keeping that front and centre helps one to find patience and compassion instead of anger at the horrible things being said.  Accusations and counter accusations create much of the terrible damage between a separating couple.  In the early stages of separation, calmness seems not to make any difference, or achieve any progress, but it keeps more damage from being done.  What happens at this early stage sets the tone for all that follows.   If it deteriorates at the beginning, it is unlikely to do anything but get worse as each side becomes more entrenched.  It is not necessary to destroy the other person in order to leave, no matter how badly they may be behaving at this early stage.

It’s important for the one doing the leaving to repeat the qualities and ways of being that he has valued in the other.  This may spark a violent outburst of anger or grief but it is really helpful to persist.  Conveying that the other is still valued, still special, and that the time together was important is both truthful and sustaining later on.  In response, the wounded partner may drip with anger and sarcasm about just how much he is valued or appreciated, but persistence helps the message get through.  One does not have to hate the other to leave.  The person left doesn’t want to be hurt and does want to believe in his own importance.   Behind the screaming, anger, tears, or withdrawal there is a deep need to believe that he is still special, still important to the other.  And, surprisingly, the person leaving also needs to know that he has value and that the time shared will always be important even though it has come to an end in this form.  This requires superhuman patience and compassion.

Anyone in this position needs to draw on all sources of mental and emotional strength and calm.  Even the reactions of others, who are giving form to their own anger and upset, can be extremely destabilizing.  Friends bring their own unresolved feelings to the situation and their support, which is well intentioned, is often loaded with emotional baggage which is confusing and detrimental.  Most will advise being more aggressive and less conciliatory.  Usually such actions will cause the situation to deteriorate even further.  Finding the grace and the wherewithal to remain calm and supportive, drawing on the finest part of yourself, is the best way through.

This does not preclude continuing to move forward with new plans.  Persistence with the changes that are necessary, while explaining as clearly and gently as possible (even when every word is hurled back) is the way through.    Even though the reassurances may be rejected, they are accumulating in the other and the leaver can know that he has done everything in his power to rework things in the best possible way with the very least amount of damage.  This is the leaver’s responsibility, and if he lives up to it then he can move forward knowing he has done the best he can.

Stephen, after understanding his unconscious motivation in being so harsh and critical with Beth, stopped. He did try to explain his changed perspective and new direction in life.  It was almost unbearable for Beth to hear and she found it extremely threatening.  Although she was really angry with Stephen for causing such a nightmare for her, deep down she began to realize that she had not taken responsibility for her own work life and used it as an impetus for her own personal growth.  She had neglected to take opportunities to increase her expertise and her self confidence, rationalizing this by saying that she preferred a simple life.  She was aware that she was envious of the changes and adventures Stephen was having.

As support, Stephen encouraged Beth to volunteer to be the social co-ordinator at work and promised that he would help her with this even when he was gone.  He reminded her of the qualities that had drawn him to her and pointed out how other people valued them as well.  Rather than damaging her self-esteem every day, he became her supporter and coach.  With his repetition and sincerity Beth started to recover some sense of herself, although she was still extremely afraid and angry.  She did reach out to others and volunteer for the position at work.  Although it was hard, she asked Stephen for advice and support as she became more involved.  Stephen gave her requests the utmost priority, and gradually their interactions became more friendly.  A real breakthrough came when Beth phoned Stephen to report that her event after work for the start of the summer had been described as the best ever.  She thanked him for helping her realize her potential in this area.

The difficulty between them is not completely over, but they’re returning to some of the easy rapport they had in the early years together.  Both feel relieved that they have managed to hold on to a recognition of how far they had come together during their marriage, and there is more acceptance on Beth’s part that it was time for them to head in new directions but with a friendship intact. Leaving with love isn’t easy, but it’s great to see them learning how it’s done.

"STEVEN AND BETH"Leaving with Love

Jasmine is looking around her bedroom in dismay.  Peter’s side of the bed is piled high with books, papers, magazines, His night table is jumbled with several watches, an alarm clock, a clock radio and an i-pod.  The floor on his side is covered with boxes of books, a collection of antique toys, and a pile of clothes, some old coffee mugs, and several pairs of old shoes.  The mess is overwhelming.  Some days she wants to cry, some days she hates him and wants to leave, and every day she wonders how such a lovely guy when she had met him and fallen in love could be destroying her life with all this mess and debris.

The entire house is filled with things that she considers garbage, useless, redundant, and dangerous.  “Let’s just throw all of this stuff out”, she pleads with him.  “I’ll do it, you can go out.  I need to get rid of all this junk!”  The answer is always the same.  “I’ll get around to it, don’t worry so much.  If you loved me you would try to understand that I need to do it myself and take my time!”  They had fought over this too many times to keep track of.  She had cried, screamed, pleaded, offered to pay for someone else to do it, suggested therapy, offered to go with him to therapy, threatened divorce, sulked, and withdrawn.

Peter obviously has a fear of letting go.  He can’t throw out the papers and magazines and books because he hasn’t finished reading them.   He worries that there might be something interesting in piles still unread, something that might be important to him.  Jasmine would say that he couldn’t read the stuff already accumulated in his lifetime and more keeps coming in.  He can’t throw out the old clothes because he might need them sometime.  He can’t let go of the coffee mugs because his young nephews gave them to him and he doesn’t want to lose the memory of them at that early age.

Peter is holding on to all these things because of the sense of security it gives him.  He lives in a world of negative possibilities–what if he needs this, what if he misses that, what if he never sees them again, what if he forgets?  He holds on to everything that comes into his life so that he will never have to face a time when one of the what if’s comes to be and he doesn’t have the immediate solution.

The prospect of one of these possibilities materializing is governing Peter’s life and now Jasmine’s.  He doesn’t realize that in trying to be prepared for future possibilities he is sacrificing his present life.  He and Jasmine spend a great deal of their free time arguing about his mess, trying to organize it, or navigating around it.  All social activities at home take on a nightmarish quality as they try to move the stuff to less obvious areas of the house and present a front of normalcy to their guests.   Most of his holiday time and weekends are devoted to ineffectually trying to get on top of the accumulation or avoiding it

Peter tends to become depressed when he is forced to confront the issues with the house.  This removes him even further from living in the present as he begins to retreat to watching television and not dealing with anything.  He also feels guilty if he chooses to enjoy something because he is aware that in Jasmine’s eyes he should be dealing with his mess.

Peter’s initial impulse, to be prepared for possibilities in the future, was positive.  It is becoming a monstrous weight which is slowly sinking his life.  It is robbing him of the very self esteem that he was trying to support by being proactive around the future.

One thing that would help Peter is dealing with his current situation is to realize his good intention in the beginning.  He wanted to do the right thing for himself.  He didn’t want to be unprepared, careless with opportunities or with the things that he had.  However, the intention and the reality are so opposed that the disconnect between the two might help him break out of his morass.  He hardly has a life any more so preparation for the future becomes meaningless.  Trying to do the right thing or be a good person is irrelevant if he is barely living at all and avoiding most activity because he can’t deal with the most pressing requirement.  Realizing the impossibility of living in the realm of possibility might just allow Peter to let go and actually live a life in the present free of the buffer of stuff that protects him from a possible negative future.

"PETER" Hoarding

Roberta’s brother called to ask for “a little favour.” Could she take a birthday gift to his old college pal in Whistler when she went on her ski holiday?  Roberta agreed reluctantly.  In her experience family requests had a way of backfiring.

Sure enough, her brother called the day before her departure to ask if she could pick the gift up, as his car was in for repair.  This meant an hour-long trip to Sam’s place and back at a time when she was frantically trying to tie up loose ends.

It got worse. Sam had wrapped the package for maximum protection, turning a smallish item into a much larger one. And he insisted she take it in her carry-on, because it was fragile.  She looked at the package in dismay.  She only had a small carry-on bag and needed it for the few things she wanted for the flight.  When she explained this, and that the gift would be safer in her hard-sided suitcase, he angrily told her to forget it—he’d courier it, despite the cost.

Roberta felt caught once again in the old family dynamic:  if she said yes to a request—and there were a lot of them, from Sam, from their brother Eli, from their widowed mother—somehow it turned into trouble. If she said no, that became trouble of a different sort. No wonder, as the years went by, she sought to avoid family interactions of any kind.

This social reluctance really became a real problem when it infected her marriage. Her husband was gregarious and had many friends and business acquaintances.  His marketing work involved many social occasions at which he wanted her presence.  Despite her good intentions, she dreaded such socializing and found it difficult and awkward.  She often felt that things had gone badly, despite her husband’s reassurances to the contrary.  Because socializing was so important to him, both personally and professionally, she felt she needed to change something in herself.

How, Roberta asked me, could she become more like her husband? Why couldn’t she enjoy these social gatherings in the whole-hearted way that he did?

We talked about her family. Even when she tried to do what was asked of her, it was usually not good enough. After Christmas, Roberta’s mother thanked her for arranging the new digital cable service, but blamed Roberta for her endless troubles with the new multi-function remote. Eli asked if she’d look after his dog for the weekend, then reacted bitterly when she declined because of her husband’s allergies. Their disappointment with her was always clearly expressed. If she pleased her family, it usually meant giving up something that was important to her. If she chose herself, she had to deal with the emotional fallout.

No wonder she often suffered headaches or an upset stomach. These minor medical issues provoked further problems, as she would be accused of deliberately not joining in the conversation, of not eating enough, of leaving a family meal too soon. Gradually she had come to view all social gatherings, not just those involving family, with anxiety and low-grade tension.

During our sessions, Roberta came to see that her anxiety around her husband’s friends and colleagues grew out of the difficulties with her family. Even the most pleasant, successful social events made her anxious.  Once she realized that her husband’s friends and colleagues didn’t make the same sort of demands on her—did not have the power to turn a seemingly minor request into a quagmire of guilt and bad feeling, the way her family did—her anxiety began to dissolve.

In every social situation, she realized, she automatically braced herself for the inevitable moment when she would end up disappointing others, or feeling compromised. The trick was to make a distinction between her family and other people. Not everyone would be angry, or hurt, and try to make her feel guilty, if she said no to a request or declined an invitation.

Roberta just needed to recognize that she had a freedom in her dealings with others that she did not have with her family. This helped her feel less stressed if she was asked to join in, or help out, or make plans.  Her family’s reactions, she saw, were manipulative and excessive. She became better at saying no to them, and ignoring their negativity.

Keeping family and friends separate in her mind was hard work at first, but well worth the effort. It allowed her to open up socially in much the same way that her husband did so naturally. The last time I saw her, she spent most of the session describing  the new friends she’d made and telling me how much she was enjoying them.

"ROBERTA"Family Dynamics

Alison and Bruno, a couple in their early 40s, had been married for 14 years and had a 12-year-old daughter, Sara. Bruno’s software company, which he’d founded in graduate school, had become immensely profitable, and he’d moved his family into a big house in an elite part of Toronto. Increasingly, he and Alison found themselves at odds over how to spend their money, particularly when it came to Sara. Bruno suggested they seek outside help, hoping to find common ground in the parenting of their daughter.

Bruno’s parents were solidly middle-class people whose own parents were Italian. The second of three children, Bruno had grown up happily in southwestern Ontario,  leaving home to attend university.  He’d had summer jobs since he was 12, and had saved enough to pay his own tuition.

Alison, the younger of two daughters, had grown up in Rosedale, attended private school in Switzerland, and traveled widely. So had her sister, but the two girls were drastically different.  Studious, kind and rather shy, Alison loved animals and wore her privileged life discreetly. Her sister, on the other hand, felt entitled and could be obnoxious and demanding, She had an insatiable desire for the finer things, got a car at age 16, and had her own luxury apartment in first-year university—all at her parents’ expense. She had no qualms about making a scene when she didn’t get what she wanted.  Alison was frequently embarrassed, and attributed her sister’s character and behaviour to their parents’ indulgence.

As a result, Alison carefully limited their financial expenditures on Sara. Bruno, on the other hand, wanted Sara to have the best—all the things his own family couldn’t afford when he was growing up—and he didn’t understand why Alison believed Sara would inevitably end up like Alison’s sister.  They argued over birthday gifts, clothing allowance, even private tennis lessons. Alison agreed that they needed help.

I encouraged Alison to remember her sister at 10, and to compare her daughter to her sister in very specific ways. “Actually,” Alison said, after we’d gone through that exercise, “Sara’s much more like I was at that age—reserved and quiet and polite. She works hard at school, and she’s a thoughtful child.” Sara was very keen on sports—just like Alison’s sister—and on skiing in particular. Bruno wanted to buy her the best equipment and take her to Whistler at Christmas for expert instruction. He suggested they join one of the private ski clubs north of the city, and buy a condo nearby. Alison agreed that Sara would probably thrive, but worried that her daughter would turn into a mini version of her sister: spoiled, indulged, unmotivated.

It didn’t take long for Bruno and Alison to work out a way to bring skiing into their lives.  They’d rent a condo in ski country, and they’d all take lessons together. Each month they’d sit down and evaluate Sara’s growth in confidence, expertise and choice of friends. If they found that she was not healthily engaged in club activities, wasn’t committed to improving, or they didn’t like the direction her social life was taking, they would reconsider.

Alison had always been drawn to Bruno’s unpretentious “normalcy” and work ethic and wanted Sara to be that way, too.  Bruno felt reassured that Alison was increasingly able to see Sara as she really was, not as the inevitable clone of her sister. Resolving the skiing issue took pressure out of other financial and parenting decisions, and gave them a template for how to think about such things.

The last time we spoke, Bruno had embraced the sport as well, and the whole family was planning a winter trip to reconnect with Bruno’s working-class relatives in northern Italy—an area that also happened to offer excellent skiing.