In my consulting practice, I come across situations where I believe my expertise is too shallow and I need a specialist – for example a psychologist – to help me.
But there have been times when I’ve brought in a psychologist and found that instead of helping, the psychologist was actually undermining my efforts.
For instance, one executive told me: “I told [the psychologist that] in this company, everyone builds his own army, and we fight a lot. ‘Then build your own army,’ he said.”
I was appalled. Here I am trying to build integration, and the psychologist is promoting disintegration.
After some thought, it occurred to me why the psychologist reacted the way he did. A psychologist focuses on the individual – on his/her mental health and ability to cope and solve his/her own problems. The assumption is that if the individual is mentally healthy and functioning, the system, comprising multiple such individuals, will function well, too.
Makes sense, no? If the components are no good, why would the system be any good? So, fix the components to fix the system.
But please note that a system is more than the parts that comprise it. There are interactions that need to be dealt with.
You can have a situation in which all the parties are mentally healthy and yet the system does not work, as happens in some marriages: The two spouses differ in their expectations of what each of them should be responsible for doing.
The psychologist and I developed our therapies out of different assumptions.
The psychologist’s focus is on the component, believing that if the components are healthy the system will be healthy. My focus is on the system; I believe that if the system works well, the happiness and behavior of each individual in that system will improve.
Treat the spouse or the marriage?
Recently I came to the insight that this assumption – that treating an individual will help the system in which this individual interacts – applies to marriage counseling, too.
Assume you have a wife who is very frustrated at not having a career. Being a mom and a wife is not gratifying enough; it does not provide for self-actualization. I find that this phenomenon is very common in modern society. In the past – at least in the traditional Sephardic culture in which I grew up – a wife had a role, a position, and usually a recognized status as a mother.
I remember being invited to dinner at the home of a CEO with a very traditional family. When we rang the bell, the door was opened by the CEO’s wife, who stood ready to greet him along with their two small children, who were nicely dressed, their faces washed and their hair combed. She kissed her husband, greeted me, and proceeded to present the kids to her husband, telling him how wonderful they were that day. It reminded me of an executive presenting her achievements to her partner.
I remember my mother. Her undisputed empire was the kitchen, and she took pride in the table she set for her guests and the food she had prepared, sometimes working on it for days. That was her “portfolio,” and the guests and family appreciated her labor. “Bendichas manus” (“Blessed are the hands who cooked all this”), we told her at every meal. “Bendichas bokas” (“Blessed are the mouths that eat it”), she would graciously reply.
One day, soon after I arrived in America, I was invited to a dinner. There was smoked salmon for the main course, and a great cake for dessert. I started to congratulate the lady of the house, telling her how wonderful her cooking and baking were, blessing her hands for preparing it … and then I stopped, because the guest next to me at the table was nudging me in the ribs with his elbow and whispering that I should shut up.
Later, I asked him why he’d stopped me from praising the hostess. “Because she didn’t cook any of it. You were embarrassing her. In America we buy it all.”
I believe that women have lost the identity and pride that once derived from being a homemaker. Today, status is awarded almost exclusively to those who earn money, and since many wives and mothers do not earn (on the contrary, they spend money), they feels like second-class citizens in the relationship.
Frustrated, a wife may decide to enter therapy.
And what might happen there?
The therapist will focus on her individual need for self-actualization. “Go out, go find what you want and what makes you happy,” the therapist will advise. Soon, the husband will start to notice increasing belligerence from his spouse – to the point that he will fight back by trying to reinforce her role as a wife and mother. Supported by the psychologist, she will stand firm, and in the end it is usually the woman who files for the divorce.
When I meet someone who is divorced or getting divorced, I always ask who pulled the trigger, and invariably the response is that it was the wife. And when I ask, “Was she in therapy?” in most cases the answer is “Yes.” (This observation is of well-to-do families.)
If your wife is going to therapy because you are having marital problems, because she is unhappy, because she is resentful of you having a career while her life is static and she feels she is marching in one place, because she resents your claiming extra authority to make financial decisions because you earned the money … get ready. She will start with therapy to deal with her frustrations, and eventually end by asking for a divorce.
Don’t let her go alone. Hire a family therapist who focuses on the “system “ – the family – rather than on the individual, and go together. Or else your marriage is doomed.
If she goes alone, she may have a better marriage the next time around, because she will be better prepared mentally – but it will be at the expense of your marriage now.