Do Opposites Attract? Lessons from Couples Therapy

Jun 22, 2014 12:39 am | Mirel Goldstein

Carla and David had been coming to see me for couples therapy over the course of several months, when we found ourselves at a major impasse regarding Carla’s complaints about David’s lack of responsibility and follow-through. Carla was extremely organized and liked a high level of structure in all aspects of their lives, whether it came to keeping the house clean on a rigid schedule, going to sleep exactly on time every night, or planning out her week exactly, including the amount of time that she would spend on “relaxation” or “fun”. David was the exact opposite. He liked to feel “free”and keep things open-ended, and viewed his ability to be flexible as an asset.

It was clear to me that David valued his wife’s ability to reign in his “free-spiritedness” and provide organization for the family, while Carla valued her husband’s carefree attitude and ability to relax and adapt to things as they came up. This was not clear to them, however. Carla could not see that she valued aspects of her husband’s free spirit, and David could not admit that there were advantages to having some structure and accountability at times, even if this limited some of his autonomy.

The impasse intensified as David found himself trying to decide whether he should take a new job that had been offered to him. The new job would require a much longer commute and some on-call time, which would make it harder for Carla to know exactly how much time he would have for her and the family in a given week, as well as exactly what time he would be home for dinner each night. David wanted to make the change, preferring the novelty of a new job to the sense of boredom he had developed for his regular, steady job of the past several years. Carla was terrified, feeling that her already-too-free husband was going to be even less dependable and accountable to her and the family.

At first, we tried looking at how they were communicating with each other, as a way of trying to get through the impasse and to some agreement or compromise position. This seemed to go nowhere. I tried to help David appreciate Carla’s need for dependability and predictability and the effect that this new job would have on her feelings of security. I also tried to help Carla see how David had a need for novelty and would often be more predictable when he felt that his needs for freedom and flexibility, as well as independence, were being met to some degree even in the context of being married with a family. But neither could seem to appreciate the other’s position.

At this point, not knowing what else to do about the current job issue, I decided to take a different approach. I asked David what it would feel like to give up his freedom for the sake of his marriage, as well as how he would feel if he were to go back to feeling totally free (as he felt when he was single), but lose Carla and his family in the process. He began to get in touch with feelings of loss, and also how scary and lonely it would be to be “free” all the time without the safety and sense of connection that Carla’s organization provided for him. He was able to admit for the first time that he valued Carla’s ability to keep things organized and “reign him in” somewhat, something that made it easier for him to get things done and follow-through on tasks, even though he sometimes resented this as well.

I also asked Carla to think of a time in her own life when she might have wished to be free of responsibility, or to be able to relax some of the rigid rules and high standards that she constantly held herself to. At first, Carla could not come up with any examples of this. But I didn’t give up, and encouraged her to keep thinking about it. Finally, Carla began to get in touch with some memories from her early childhood- memories that she hadn’t thought about in a long time- when her parents were so preoccupied with their own troubled marriage that they barely paid any attention to her, and how she learned to be her own parent and make her own rules for herself- so she could get her homework done, go to bed on time, etc. even when the adults in her life weren’t paying any attention to her, or providing any structure or limits for her. Carla began to cry as she suddenly realized just how much she also wished that she could be free at times, like David, and have someone else to count on for structure s0 she could “let go” and relax.

At this point, it no longer seemed to matter whether David would take the new job or not- he appreciated that Carla would hold him accountable either way, and help him stay focused and maintain balance. And Carla appreciated that David could help her become a little freer and relaxed, with his carefree nature. We could all see by now that what had seemed to be an impossible conflict that had brought them into the couples therapy, had actually turned into an opportunity for growth.