We began our work in the area of Harold's life that produced the most discomfort—his relationship with his wife. Unused to complaining about anything, he found it difficult to describe those aspects of their marriage that had proved noxious enough to lead him to adultery. I asked "What goes on between you that you find unpleasant?" "Sometimes she just explodes, starts to scream and yell, say terrible things about me, say awful things about the boys." In response to these outbursts he would literally hang his head and listen quietly, offering almost meek rejoinders in defense of the actions that seemed to enrage her. Swiftly, I learned that outside his own consultation room (where, with clients, he was active and forthright), Harold handled interpersonal anger by appearing to submit to the will of the other while remaining passively indecisive in hope of forcing the other person to make the critical decision. At the end of this particular session, as we began to unearth this long-standing pattern of behavior, he broadcast a wave of fatigue as if to tell me that he was a busy, hard-working colleague who found it rather difficult to think about these matters, and that I should really not press him so hard. I started the next session by reviewing this material, and we began to discuss his somewhat obsessional tendency to maintain control of all situations in which he might exhibit affect. Over the span of two further sessions I learned that within his family, it was a "tradition" that one never be seen as "emotional" or in any way out of control. He was a man dedicated to the premise that he had to do his best at all times. Harold missed the next two sessions.
During this phase of our work together, I recognized that Harold was a competent and successful colleague whose superior intelligence allowed him to recognize the patterns of behavior that needed attention in his clients and that his therapeutic style involved manoeuvers and suggestions that fostered change in those patterns. Using what I understood of his own techniques, I focused our attention on the patterns of behavior exhibited by his wife, and the patterns of behavior he had adopted in response to her. Although this form of therapeutic attention proved minimally threatening, at all times I worked to get Harold to label the emotions he felt during each part of the patterns we discussed. With some perplexity, he noted that as he became more able to focus on his feelings it became less necessary for him to use the pattern of indecision as a manipulation in his marriage. His wife, who had recently begun her own personal therapy, had invited him to join her for a few sessions; for the first time in their mutual lives, he "unloaded" on her and her therapist about the depth of his rage at her negativism. No one had ever spoken to her in this way before, and her therapist was genuinely unaware that she treated her husband and children in this manner. Xx began her personal therapy in earnest, and Harold suggested that we work on what he perceived as his core problem, "always wanting to have more fun." He described his failure to set limits for himself or others, his dislike of boredom and the tendency to replace it with overwork, and "the feeling that there must be more out there somewhere." He missed the next two sessions.
We began again after this hiatus, focusing on his habit of avoiding whatever produced intense emotion by yielding to any and all detours that appeared. He feared psychotherapy that might lead to "enlightenment," which he characterized as "life without passion," and told me that such a life would be a living death. After a few moments of reflection, Harold commented that since childhood he had always been afraid of death, and that the current manifestation of this fear led him to get up from the beach after about 20 minutes so he wouldn't have to "think too much." Embarrassed to say this to a colleague, he stopped for a moment, grew more serious, and said "I guess you think that means I don't like to have emotions, which is what drifts to the surface when you sit on the beach just thinking." It was his mother, we learned in subsequent sessions, who taught him that father ruled the house, and that it was wrong to complain. With even greater embarrassment, he related a story from graduate school in which he had become red-faced with anger at a professor, even while maintaining vocal calm. I noted that he had become so good at this trick of hiding his feelings that often I had no idea what was going on beneath his surface.
Suddenly, tears erupted from him, torrents of distress at the intensity of the shame he had swallowed and the degree to which he had denigrated himself rather than confront his parents about the patterns of living to which they subjected him. Now, in our sessions, he saw a family system of shaming within which his wife controlled everybody much in the manner of his mother. Patterns are tough to break, and he missed the next session. Now he concentrated our attention on the scorn with which his wife described him as "mushy" inside, on the fact that each of them saw the other as irrational when emotional, and that he had dichotomized his personal world into a system where his wife represented the world of his family of origin and his paramour a glimpse of the world of empathic attention never before available to him. He asked that we begin working twice a week in psychotherapy.