If I’ve witnessed it once I’ve witnessed it a few hundred times during my years counseling couples. One partner reacts as if his or her self worth has been decimated by words or actions originating from his/her partner. It is curious and perplexing to observe, in many of these instances, that any criticism or judgment is often undetectable.
This article discusses the imperceptible shifts that can take place between partners when one partner ceases to use/value his/her autonomous self in relating to his/her partner’s communications—then blames the partner for feeling worthless in an emotional crisis. Such a crisis is borne of disappointed expectations shaped by invalid and unreliable lessons given by past caregivers. To illustrate this theme I offer a clinical illustration. The spouses are composites of patients I have worked with over the years.
Sheila had reached a crisis in our couples work with her husband, Jim. She was, in the estimation of both her husband and myself, re-living apprehensions that Jim would abandon her. This fear of abandonment stemmed from her father, who joined Alcoholics Anonymous, divorced Sheila’s mother, and, for all intents and purposes, discarded his hats as husband and father in one fell swoop. Why were these apprehensions coming to the fore when they did, and why couldn’t Sheila see them for what they were? They shaped her feeling that she was at the mercy of a phantom attack, at the hands of her husband.
Sheila’s father had, prior to his AA recovery activities, submitted to his wife’s wishes to dominate him. Likewise, Jim had permitted his wife, Sheila, to dominate him before and during a period of time in which he was unemployed and depressed. Now Jim was employed and growing in self respect as a direct consequence of individual psychotherapy sessions with me. His burgeoning comfort in standing up to Sheila’s efforts to control him had stimulated Sheila’s unconscious associations to her father’s leaving. Sheila was in denial that her mind was trying to fit a round peg of the current circumstances into a round hole of her past recollections. She was uncomfortable with not knowing what the future held for them, as trusting herself to adapt accordingly was more responsibility than she bargained for.
The most glaring symptom of devaluing herself was that Sheila had ceased to ask questions or actively clarify with Jim what he was saying and doing and what he intended by his words and actions. Anything incongruent with what she believed to be true, based on her own perceptions, were dismissed. Sheila had her husband all figured out. Yet, it seemed pretty obvious to Jim and myself that whomever Sheila was relating to was not the Jim he and I understood him to be. Sheila had lapsed into mindreading; however, the only mind she was relating to were parts of her own inner world, now projected onto her husband. She had confused this “inner husband” with the husband in the room.
Sheila’s unconscious mind increasingly took a stranglehold on how she perceived reality and constructed meaning. Jim grew in self assurance and increasingly presented himself as the master of his own ship, not to be controlled. Sheila became passive, in order not to rock the boat and drive her husband away, as she feared her mother had done with her father. It was as if Sheila progressively became passive as if to say “please don’t leave me with mom.” During Sheila’s childhood she and her father found in each other solace and comfort as both shared the experience of having been bullied by Sheila’s mother. Sheila had learned early in life that weakness and vulnerability invited exploitation. The more she identified with the little girl who feared abandonment the more she denied her weaknesses and vulnerabilities that inhibited her self assertiveness.
These recollections were not accessible for discussion, as Sheila’s capacities to make space, observe herself, think about her feelings and reflect on them, had temporarily disappeared. During childhood her mother had not tolerated Sheila’s strivings toward autonomy. These strivings were considered to be disrespectful and an attack on her mother’s self worth. In Sheila’s confusion between the past and the present, she denied her anxieties. These anxieties were of the possibility that she might be manipulated by myself and her husband, as she had been by her mother, and to a lesser degree by her father—who recruited Sheila to join him and covertly defy her mother through acts of omission.
Sheila’s defenses against anxiety became less mature as she sought to defend against the threat of her husband leaving her. Adults behaving like children are less likely to be left by disgruntled spouses than adults behaving like adults. Such is the power of guilt. Sheila, with little if any awareness of her evolving emotional crisis, began to idealize what she had learned to expect as a little girl.
To escape her terrifying weaknesses and vulnerabilities Sheila identified with the recollected mother of her inner world. This way Sheila could feel close to her mother, experience her support, forgive her transgressions, and invest herself with the authority she felt was slipping from her grasp, as the passivity reminiscent of a childhood organized around pleasing her parents took hold of her. This unconscious metamorphosis meant creating and exploiting an experience of being wronged, in order to justify making demands of her husband. Cast in her mother’s perfect self-image, Sheila became the architect of her own victimization, deny responsibility for the consequences of her actions. She blamed the actors cast in her historical enactment, held a grudge, and then, demanded that justice be served. All that was needed was a pretext for this morality play to be repeated.
Sheila victimized herself at the hands of Jim’s brother, Tom, who was not to be trusted or relied upon to be respectful and considerate. Unfortunately, in this case, neither Sheila nor Jim actively processed what might happen and how they might feel in doing business with Tom. However, Jim was able to accept responsibility for his decision and separate himself from his brother’s unjustified, disrespectful, and inconsiderate actions. Sheila could and would not.
When Jim’s brother, Tom, tried to help them buy a kitchen appliance through his company ,but could not deliver the model Sheila desired, she bought it elsewhere with Jim’s blessings. Tom was, at first, accepting of this disappointment after doing what he could to help his sister-in-law and close a deal for himself. Later, however, he disparaged his sister-in-law to the rest of his family as having selfishly used him. This was Tom being Tom. Sheila told Jim that, until Tom apologized (which was unlikely to happen as Tom milked the role of victim as readily as Sheila did), she would not attend any of his family’s functions under any circumstances.
Sheila’s self-worth, at this point, was completely invested in the idealized wish that her husband would come to her rescue and choose her over his family—unlike how her father had chosen his AA fellowship over his mother and herself. It was Sheila’s turn to turn the tables and step into the shoes of her mother, whose sense of entitlement was entirely linked to real and/or imagined experiences of being treated unfairly and unjustly. The need to rely on such leverage was evidence of how undeserving Sheila felt. Sheila’s mother was not one to forgive and move on. Now Sheila, the self-styled victim who, under ordinary circumstances still felt like a hostage of her mother’s demands to be pleased at Sheila’s expense, now felt empowered to collect her emotional debts with interest. Many of the unpaid debts I’m referring to were for sacrificing herself at the hands of both parents, which had nothing to do with what Jim owed her under any circumstances.
Getting what Sheila demanded was unreasonable, unrealistic, disrespectful, and inconsiderate of Jim and yet she pursued her agenda with a desperate vengeance. Jim was compassionate and empathetic towards his wife and validated her perception that his brother had done her wrong. However, she was putting him in the middle between herself and his entire family by asking him to choose. Sheila would not listen to reason and would not consider Jim’s desire to attend his brother, Harvey’s, birthday party at which Tom would be in attendance. She would not listen and process any proposals that respected and considered both of them, including Jim putting his family on notice that if anything was said during the event that might potentially embarrass Sheila, they would leave immediately.
A life’s worth of accumulated rage, hatred, vengeance, and anger was bubbling to the surface for Sheila and she was not inclined to look at, think about, nor try to understand what piece of history was being enacted here. Jim told Sheila that her position was not acceptable to him, and Sheila looked as if Jim had just taken an ice pick to the heart of her worth as a human being. When I asked Sheila to take some deep breaths, step back and reflect on what she just heard that was so wounding to her, Sheila accused me of abandoning her and left in a huff. Jim wound up staying with me in individual psychotherapy and Sheila was supported to find another therapist for herself.
This vignette illustrates how unsubstantiated, yet idealized, expectations can precipitate an identity crisis. And that, when disappointed, can leave the author of such expectations with the experience of his/her self-worth having collapsed. Nothing is left. When Sheila could not replay history with her wished-for “happy ending,” in a moment of gratifying vindication, she gifted her husband and myself her feelings of worthlessness and uselessness by disconnecting from both of us and walking out—like her father had on she and her mother. She temporarily rid herself of needing either of us. By not getting what she demanded, Sheila had nothing to show for her complete and utter sacrifice and self-devaluation except to exact revenge.
Sheila desperately tried to get the outside world to conform her internal expectations, based on history. Sheila regressed to a stage of magical thinking, desperate to be all-knowing and all-powerful in the face of apprehensions that, should her husband not dance to her tune, she would be left feeling as useless and worthless as the day her father left her. Her idealized expectations were all she had left to protect herself from what she imagined would be a fatal wound to her self-worth. This bright and competent adult had become fearful of annihilation, as if her valued identity was inextricably tied to enacting history with a different outcome. From the perspective of Sheila’s inner child, what she got or didn’t get is what she deserved, and what she deserved put the final nail in the coffin condemning her to be punished as a bad little girl. Her badness was nothing more than the fear and dread of what her unconscious hostilities toward her parents had done, and might continue to do, to kill off love and concern for her as a separate person. She had never learned to own and use these feelings constructively, as her recollections were rich with lessons that her mother would attack her if she asserted herself and her father would behave as if he had been killed off.
This article discusses the mechanisms by which one spouse may experience another spouse as having the power and authority to attack and rob him/herself of their self-worth. The alleged victim is, in truth, a victim of his/her own complete identification with idealized, unprocessed, archaic, and illogical expectations which, when they are not validated, are experienced as an annihilation. These are cases of complete absence of malice on the part of the accused. Implicit in the disappearance of autonomous thought processes is the temporary disappearance of capacities to regulate self-esteem. Thus, the alleged victim who is emptied of self-worth in obligatory self-sacrifice to the falsely idealized partner, and whose value depends on controlling how the partner responds, feels like nothing when his expectations are frustrated and disappointed. A false dichotomy is set up between being all-knowing and all-powerful, and being powerless, useless, and worthless.
© Copyright 2009 by Mitchell Milch. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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