The Self-Sustaining Function of Sin (Part 3)
[Earl D. Bland, Psy.D., is our blogger for the month of March. Earl is a licensed psychologist, professor of psychology, and Dean of the School of Behavioral Sciences and Counseling at MidAmerica Nazarene University where he teaches undergraduate and graduate students along with coordinating the Spiritual Formation & Counseling emphasis. In addition, Earl teaches at the Greater Kansas City Psychoanalytic Institute and the Brookhaven Institute for Psychoanalysis and Christian Theology. Earl is the editor (with Brad Strawn) of Christianity and Psychoanalysis: A New Conversation, published by IVP (2014).]
John came to see me in a rather conflicted state, he wanted to talk about how to improve his relationships with his wife, but admittedly did not want to be seeing a psychologist. As is often the case when the husband of a couple is the first one to call for psychotherapy John’s wife had given him an ultimatum – either get help or get out. It really wasn’t a subtle suggestion either, after 20 years of marriage she was about done. The marriage had deteriorated to the point where most interactions were business like and brief – a chilling emotional wariness hung in the air pocked by periodic outbursts of contempt and anger. The rest of the marriage consisted of tactical avoidance, each choosing to be somewhere else when the other was at home. Work, family, church, and friends all took up time that allowed each to justify the façade of a functioning Christian couple. John was loath to leave his wife, not because he particularly liked her, but he did not want the “embarrassment” of a divorce and he was concerned about the impact on his children (both in college) and the financial hit he would take.
In the initial sessions John was careful to portray himself in a positive light. He was a good provider, a steady presence with his kids and a deeply spiritual man, concerned about following God’s will for his life. John would talk about how he loved his wife deeply, “I love her even though I don’t always like her.” He wanted to find out how he could be a better husband, despite his “occasional” selfish behavior and tendency to miss things that were important to her like birthdays, etc. Moments later, however, he would attack her character with complaints about her demandingness and lack of care for him. He complained that she was ungrateful and flighty; she expected way too much of him and most women would love to have it as good as she did.
I spent several sessions getting to know John, in the initial stage of the work he seemed to just want to dump his feelings for the week. John shared that he was the 3rd of 4 children. His home life was stable for the most part although he was never able to feel completely himself. His father was a hard driving Boeing line foreman who had little patience or affection for his children or John’s mother. He remembers lots of verbal battles growing up followed by days of cold silence. He tried to stay away from the house as much as possible, admittedly lonely, but unable to stand the tears of his mother, which he judged as evidence of weakness, nor the tyranny of his father, whom he both despised and admired. John decided early on that he could only count on himself; emotional needs for affection, connection, or dependence were unacknowledged and sealed away.
As we talked it became evident that John wasn’t really interested in solutions to help smooth out his marriage. He would occasionally ask me directly for my opinion, and before I could respond he would come up with his own answer, usually one that consisted of his wife needing to be more submissive or him needing to show more leadership in the home. John appreciated it when I empathized with the difficulty he experienced in his marriage and wondered why his wife couldn’t understand him. However, he would quickly become silent or mocking if I empathized with any emotions that signaled weakness, and he had difficulty receiving feedback from me, especially if it differed from what he felt was right. I started to feel that if I didn’t say things that mirrored John exactly he would get angry and at times he would belittle our work together. He would chastise my talk of feelings as evidence of psychobabble, get defensive if I ever sympathized with his wife’s perspective, and questioned my Christianity if I happened to have a different perspective on any number of value issues.
As we continued to work together I began to solidify two reactions to John. On the one had I enjoyed him immensely, he was engaging and bright, on the other hand I felt increasingly hemmed in. I felt if I didn’t say exactly what he wanted me to say in regards to his life and marriage I would be criticized or ignored. I was beginning to feel just like his wife, I liked John, but not sure I wanted to continue seeing him. Further, I started to identify with a distant part of John, the young boy who just wanted freedom to be himself. I wanted to share what I thought without fear of retribution. Moreover, I could sense feelings of anger, sometimes I wanted to avoid my sessions with John and it was becoming harder to tolerate his criticism of his wife without becoming silent and the desire to confront his selfish judgmentalism.
In psychoanalytic terms this is often referred to as a type of enactment, the client and the therapist begin to repeat, often unconsciously, scenes and relational patterns that recapitulate the client’s life or past. In next week’s blog I will share how this relates to our notion of self-sustaining sin and treatment strategies that allow for a shift in relating.