Giving The Love That Heals: A Guide for Parents
By Harville Hendrix, Ph.D.
The dominant theme of Stephen's healing work was coming to terms with the judgmental voice of his father. Unfortunately, this critical inner voice was matched perfectly by his wife's external criticism of him. Susan needed continual reassurance of Stephen's love. Because she had trouble asking for anything directly, her requests took the form of indirect pleas for more material things. She asked for jewelry, a new car, a private school for the kids, the "right kind of house." Stephen felt many of these requests were beyond his means, and his inability to provide them triggered guilt and fear of failure. Figuring he couldn't win, he did essentially nothing to honor her requests, emotionally or materially. What an elegant vicious cycle this couple was constructing.
As a child, Stephen had needed praise for his real accomplishments. It is not surprising that what he needed now was for Susan to acknowledge the results of his real-world hard work, instead of giving him the message that he wasn't doing enough.
With some coaching, they started making behavior-change requests of each other. This process, which we've discussed in Chapter 6, replaces criticism with requests for changes in behavior that are specific and achievable. So direct an approach was hard for Susan at first, but it was just what she needed to do. After awhile, she reported that she felt good about being able to ask directly for what she needed-more time and attention. She wanted Stephen to pick a time once a month for a romantic rendezvous, which she even offered to plan. Stephen, in his turn, asked her to tell him once a day that she appreciated all the hard work he did for the family. She agreed, but they both knew that in order for Susan to offer appreciation freely, she had to become more secure in his love. They agreed to give each other the gifts they both really wanted. This was a beginning of the healing process.
Another area they decided to work on was Stephen's workaholism, was a classic Type A personality who worked even when he didn't have to, competing without awareness against others and against the clock. Vacations always included business phone calls and messages over his portable fax machine. Although he could manage the romantic trysts he and Susan were beginning to enjoy, relaxation in general was very difficult for him. Using the dialogue process, Susan stated to Stephen that she understood his need to work and that she wanted him to work as much as he wanted to, but only when he wanted to. After mirroring this back to her, Stephen was able to share with her a personal fantasy that offered relief from his workaholism. He dreamed of being alone, away from everyone else, free from responsibilities, in a place where the food was free, and he could eat and sleep whenever he wanted to. This is not an unusual fantasy for someone as driven as Stephen.
Susan validated the spirit of his fantasy by telling him that she understood how someone who worked as hard as he would need private time. She offered to guard his privacy at home and help him plan other times when he could be "off duty." Over the course of several months they began to act this fantasy out. Stephen took time off from work spontaneously in order to surprise Susan for lunch. Occasionally he would take an afternoon off to spend some time alone, then call Susan and invite her to a movie.
As Stephen began to loosen his grip on Susan and the boys, she was gradually able to relax her financial demands on him. Instead of exacting continual proof of his love, she tried to express concern for him, telling him more often how proud she was of him.
Although she had trouble understanding it at first, she finally came to see that Stephen's drive to succeed really covered feelings of inadequacy. He worked hard, partly because he was afraid of disapproval. A breakthrough came one Saturday afternoon when he was able to let Susan cut his hair while his boys looked on, laughing and having fun. The way he told the story, his wife was attending to his needs, he didn't have to do anything, and the boys were enjoying the whole process.
But Susan needed some healing as well. She was encouraged to practice direct communication and direct competition. When she got in touch again with the simple pleasure of trying to win at something, she could begin to feel comfortable asserting herself. It took time, but eventually she and Stephen learned to play tennis together. Stephen usually won, but from the beginning he was impressed not only with Susan's game, but also with her attitude Stephen was able to relax his need to win, and they actually played for pleasure, often making their own "special ground rules" to add to the fun. Enjoying tennis helped Susan learn to support Andy when he played soccer. She could enjoy the game and be fully committed to the outcome at the same time. This was a real victory!
Answering the Needs of the Child
Susan and Stephen had reengaged. And it was their reconnection to each other that began the healing process that benefited their sons. Susan would always be the peacekeeper, but she was willing to accept healthy competition as part of a healthy household. More important, she was able to support Andy instead of hold on to him as he put himself in situations that tested his personal power and his competence.
In the end, Andy played on the soccer team and took piano lessons. Both of his parents felt sure that these were his choices. He still practiced reading with his mother, but he also took turns sounding out words with his father. And he was proud of getting himself dressed in the morning, button by button. Finally, as Susan and Stephen recommitted to their partnership in marriage, Andy learned that while Susan would always be his mother, she would also always be Daddy's wife. His oedipal defeat was certain, and the marriage, the family's core, was preserved. The marriage grew in power, and the children were strengthened by knowing their parents were committed to each other and to them.