Case study 9 – John and Jane – the couple from hell
Piglet sidled up to Pooh, “Pooh?” asked Piglet.
“Yes”, answered Pooh, taking Piglet’s hand.
“Oh nothing”, said Piglet, ” I just wanted to be sure of you.”
‘We need help because you won’t listen’, said Jane.
‘We need help because you won’t admit you need help’, John replies.
It is not obvious but like Piglet and Pooh above, this is John and Jane’s method of being sure of each other.
Of course it doesn’t work to bring them closer but neither does it separate them despite the threats.
John brings Jane to the session following one of her frequent threats to leave. John runs a disability service and is part of a remote area volunteer fire fighting team out of Brisbane. He’s good in a crisis. Jane is a high school teacher and runs an organic cosmetics and vegan makeup business from home, employing a couple of friends. She can organise anything.
They live in a beautiful house with beautiful friends, and ‘not so beautiful neighbours’. To all the world they appear the ideal couple who have everything. They rarely if ever display the vicious undertow in their relationship.
Their previous attempts to get help had just replayed the competitive, finger pointing control issues that had dogged the relationship for years. ‘It’s your fault we fight,’ she says. ‘Oh so you’re blameless are you!?’ he says, and so on. They warn me before our first sessions, ‘we they are the couple from hell, your worst nightmare.’
They were in a lot of trouble. They had become polarized into the extremes of role driven behaviour and the ‘I’m right, you’re wrong’ and the stonewalling of a lose-lose competitive argument.
Jane’s every approach to get him to change seemed to him a move of the goal posts. One day it was ‘sit down and show some curiosity about my life’. Another day it was ‘you don’t have any friends and you need them’. In a sense, having already threatened to leave the relationship a number of times, she was waiting for him to accept her decision when he failed her next test.
Incompetent individual or couple’s therapy in those circumstances might have turned a retrievable situation into another power struggle that the therapist bought into.
All her complaints frustrated his attempts to comply with the immediate request, and to remedy the bigger issues that had decided the fate of their relationship in her mind. He placated, built fire breaks around the issues rather than confront them. He stonewalled by default. This all drove her mad.
It stifled spontaneity and honesty. And any partner threatened with abandonment will feel too scared to say or do anything that might prove to be the wrong thing when faced with the partner’s next move of the goal post. John froze up. Jane gave up. They kept busy and cold. Then they’d start again. It was a familiar cycle.
One of her complaints was that he was too rigid. ‘Damned if I do damned if I don’t’ he said. ‘None of the impossible situations I deal with daily in disability made me feel so bad’, he added despairingly.
So he came to therapy bruised and angry. She came triumphant, as if to the headmaster of her high school implying, ‘it’s now your problem so fix him’. She had read all the books. In the first session both behaved in a completely undignified manner and neither would own their own stuff.
My initial job was to name this as a crazy-making power struggle. That took about three sessions for them to recognize it, momentarily. It was an important moment.
Then I had my work cut out affirming the deep love and commitment they clearly showed each other but in a negative way, whilst confronting them with taking responsibility for how they were responding to each other.
I had to coach them to think and act like people who usually get treated well by their partners. That is no easy task with such an entrenched pattern. Both pull for the therapist to take their side against the other. The art is to take both sides and to skilfully err on the side of a healthy relationship.
The demon dance of a negative interaction pattern was their problem.
Both had contributed to the mess with predictable, separation engendering behaviours in an otherwise functional relationship. They were parents; had many friends; had the support of their extended family; no money troubles, good health, intelligence, love and commitment.
Like many a similar couple, Jane and John were perceived by their friends as blessed. They were pillars of strength in their friendship and community networks.
How is this possible?
It’s more than just window dressing.
Their private selves and their anguished marriage were not shared openly among friends. The vicious repartee was understood by their older kids as George and Martha – from the play “Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf’. I assume the kids hated being in the audience. Their parents knew their behaviour was too shameful to share among their friends.
On top of that feeling of shame and disgust, what they thought they did in their relationship and what they actually did were two different things.
My job was to get them to understand each other’s version of their marriage, to see it as two almost unrelated movies. This of course threatened the adrenalin rush of their power struggle and they didn’t like it.
They both wanted help and resisted it at the same time. Something like a drowning person who climbs onto the life guard and pushes them under water – except they were each other’s saviour and tormentor.
I am glad to say they came good but I often think of them as the couple from hell – they so badly wanted me to side with one of them against the other that at times I felt like saying something stronger than: ‘you guys are brilliant at negative teamwork just give me a hand here and try to stop coercing me onto your depleted team’.