Monday, July 31, 2006

Counseling Session II Roundup

Monday night was our second appointment with the marriage counselor.

Franco is still dead, and I am still angry and hurt over my mother.

We started off by talking about the homework assignment, which was an Imago analysis of our relationships with our caretakers. She had each of us talk about the thoughts that went through our minds when we where completing the worksheets, and then she asked for some clarifications on some of the things that we highlighted. She noted that my wife seemed to have bigger issues with her father, and that I had bigger issues with my mother. The expression on the therapist's face as she noted that about me seemed to indicate that my word choices were pretty clear.

She then had us do our first Imago dialogue. Those of you who are familiar with computer network protocols could think of this as the conversational equivalent of TCP/IP, communication with checksums. Each time a message is received by the recipient, the recipient tries to make sure that the meaning of the sender's message was preserved upon hearing.

The dialogue was a role playing exercise where each of us took on the role of the parent we had the biggest problems with acting as the recipient of that message. The sender was to tell the parent what life was like living with them and then what were the biggest frustrations.

I went first, with my wife assuming the role of my mom. I started describing how she was largely unavailable to me, be it that she was at work, out playing volleyball, or hanging out at the tavern with her friends afterwards. I said that it was frustrating that she wasn't there to comfort me when I was having troubles making friendships with my classmates. Instead she told me to be tough because it didn't matter what the kids said or thought of me. I felt like she put high expectations on me academically and made me feel like if I wasn't her perfect son that I wouldn't be loved. Even though I have an awareness of these things, I still fall apart when I express them. By the time I was finished, I had been through three or four tissues.

While getting that out into the open may not have been something new to me, the exchange did highlight something very important. Part of the dialog is the recipient trying to repeat back the points of the statement to make sure that the recipient understood.

She could barely recall the things I had been saying. Because of this, the therapist had me go over the stuff again. It took four iterations to get past this point. We finally made our way to the validation part, and hearing her say that my feelings were indeed valid brought out another flood of tears. The therapist had my wife hold my hand, and that helped me regain composure.

Next it was my turn to play her father. Her complaints were much simpler. She said that I (her dad) was inflexible and controlling. I seemed to view her requests of help as a burden. I sought to get out of those requests by trying to get other people, usually other parents, to do the work for me. She said it frustrated her I would ask her for money that she earned on her job, making her feel like the family would fall apart if she didn't give me the money. I was able to summarize all of these things on the first try, execpet for one aspect of the money issue, where I assumed he was saying certain things to make her feel bad. Her reaction was fairly emotionless. She said she didn't feel the pain of her frustrations because she had gotten past that years ago.

I believe that the dialogues we had yielded something very important that I've never been able to identify. She usually accuses me of not listening to her. However, in the dialogues above, she had to struggle to recall what I had said. In many cases, she turned things around so that they lost their meaning. I was able to recap her points with good accuracy. If there is a problem with our communication, it's most likely because she isn't registering the messages well.

The therapist noted that the exercise might be more difficult for someone who isn't an auditory learner. She speculated that my wife's learning style might be kinesthetic, and that is true because usually I have to teach her something by walking her through it. It would also explain why my attempts to communicate with her make her eyes glaze over. I told the therapist it probably didn't help that I was "pathologically verbose".

The therapist also pointed out something I think I've discussed in this space a few posts back. When my wife says that my frustrations with the lack of intimacy are just me being insecure, she is sending me the same kind of signal that my mother sent to me when I tried to seek comfort for my pain. The feelings weren't valid, and thee was something wrong with me for having felt that way in the first place.

The therapist also noted how my wife might see in me things that I provided that she didn't get from her father -- someone who would do things for her and provide financial security.

We moved on to discussing love languages. My wife has opted to go the audio book route but has yet to make a trip to the book store to get it, so she was somewhat new to this stuff. I've tried talking with her about it after completing segments of Chapman's book, so she wasn't totally in the dark. We worked through a ranking of our primary love languages and guessed which languages were our our spouse's. We were pretty much right on in our guesses. Her love languages, in order of primacy, are:

  1. Acts of Service

  2. Quality Time

  3. Receiving Gifts

  4. Words of Affirmation

  5. Physical Touch

mine are:

  1. Physical Touch

  2. Words of Affirmation

  3. Quality Time

  4. Acts of Service

  5. Receiving Gifts

The polarization is quite stark.

The therapist went on to talk about this difference and how couples need to speak to each other's love languages. We then spent some time talking about how to put that into practice. We got into a discussion over how my wife and I interact after I get home from work.

She said that she tried to greet me when I got home and have conversations with me at the dinner table about my day, but I usually wasn't enthusaiastic. She said I was more interested in reading something at the dinner table like the newspaper, and that she needed some adult conversation after a day with the kids, then admitting that she did get a lot of adult conversation with her best friend via frequent phone calls during the day.

I said that when I get home, it's after a stressful 40 minute commute, followed by the kids storming me for attention. I tend to them first because they can't wait. By the time I reach the table, I am in dire need of decompression. Moreover, since I help with feeding the kids, and our 3 year old needs to be badgered to eat quite a bit, that isn't a good environment to carry on adult conversation.

I said that I would stop turning to reading as a way to isolate myself mentally and be more present at dinner time. The therapist agreed that I might need time to adjust, so she recommended that my wife postpone most of the talking until after we had finished eating. Instead, sit down at the couch together and be close, giving each other undivided attention. My wife was skeptical that the kids would give us that kind of space. I said that we'll just let our 3 year old play with some Play Doh during that time because it keeps her occupied so well, and we could put on a baby video for the 18 month old. I thought it sounded reasonable.

The therapist also suggested that my wife change the nature of the conversation from "what happened today" to "how are you feeling" to be more in tune with what's going on inside. That was one channel by which she could offer me validation.

I took some time to talk further about the issue of sexuality in our marriage. I said that while I understood that we spoke different primary love languages, I didn't think that my wife understood a key difference between her need for Acts of Service and my need for Physical Touch as expressed through emotionally connected sex.

I pointed to the example of unloading the minivan for her on Sunday afternoon, which is something I volunteered to do with eagerness because I thought that would speak to her language. I said that expressing love that way was very well defined. I just had to keep moving the bags from the van to whereever she wanted them until there were nore more bags to move. She didn't have to particpate in getting that need fulfilled. She could be off in the house doing something else.

With making love, it is very different. I likened it to moving a large piece of furniture, where two people are required to lift and carry. Her just being there in bed with me as some sort of vessel of pleasure wasn't enough. I needed her to be open with me, to be equally involved in the act, allowing herself to be pleasured by me, and to be present emotionally. That wasn't the kind of sex she was offering when she resisted foreplay and just laid there. It was very hard for me to remain aroused with that kind of setting.

I also said that the bonding of loving sex was important to me, and that I thought society as a whole recognized that because of the exclusivity of marital vows. We can delegate any number of roles in a marriage to other people, but we put this fence around sex because there is this notion that it is so special. In order for me to be secure and satisfied with our marriage, she would need to learn to speak more loudly to my love language.

Getting that out into the open was a huge release for me because someone other than my wife was able to hear it and treated it as a reasonable expectation.

I can't remember the exact situation during this last part of the conversation, but my wife was talking about my expectations, and she admitted for the first time that she's got issues of some sort. She didn't say what they might be, or whether she would be willing to work on them as an individual. I refuse to let her treat those issues as an immutable quantity that I will just have to accep. She will need to face them down and decide whether she can ever be truly available to me as a wife and lover.

On the ride home, I asked my wife if she had any additional thoughts on what we had just been through. She said she didn't have any. I asked her what she thought of the therapist and the sessions we had so far. All I got was an "OK" and that it was probably too early to tell.

I noted that from the Imago dialoge it was clear what our disappoitnments with our parents were and that we got some insights into what we were looking for as spouses. I asked her whether she thought that those unmet needs with her father weighed heavily in what she sought out from me to get her own love needs met. She said she wasn't sure.

It also reminded me a call I heard a couple of months ago on a radio advice show. A woman had called in saying that she was having trouble being intimate with her husband. The conversation moved into a discussion of how her father was largely absent from her life in childhood and how her search for a mate might have been more of a search for a father like figure who would give her the things she didn't get as a child. Because she viewed her husband so much like a father, she couldn't bring herself to be sexual with him because that's not something you do with daddy. Maybe that's one possible explanation of why she has closed off her sexuality to me.

Our next appointment is the Tuesday of next week in the late afternoon.
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