As I turn on my computer to log in for the first session with Leanne and Chris, before anyone says a word, I notice right away how tight her mouth is and sad her eyes are. I notice Chris settles uncomfortably into his chair, it was clear to see how unsure he felt about our first appointment.
The questions I ask are designed to get to the heart of the matter, so right away I discover there are two young children observing Mom and Dad yelling at each other or stonewalling mixed into family life.
I begin the session by asking Leanne to describe her parents.
“Tell me about your mom, Leanne”, I ask warmly to set them both at ease.
I made a mental note to start off with Leanne, so that Chris could see how factual the family history questions are.
Leanne tightened right away. “My mom … um, well she was distant, distracted, I guess and often seemed sad. She wasn’t really emotionally available to my younger brother and I.”
I nod and then ask “What do you know about your mom’s experience with her parents ?“
I’m seeking to understand the why behind mom’s distance, what held her attention away from her daughter or when did sadness begin to feel so familiar.
Leanne responded as if connecting to dots for the first time: “My grandmother was depressed and had severe migraines for most of my mom’s childhood, in bed a lot, the room needed to be dark, all the kids had to be quiet. My grandpa worked for the airforce and was often gone for a few weeks at a time”
As I map out Leanne’s family, I ask next about her dad.
The first smile came to Leanne as she shared: “My Dad worked all the time. He owned his own business and he travelled quite a bit with it. As a girl, it was pretty much my mom and I.”
Next I wanted to explore what was going on in their marriage. “What are your primary complaints in your marriage, Leanne?”
“Well, she looks nervously at Chris, it feels like I can never reach him, like something else always has his attention. His work comes first and since the kids came along, I feel like I’m very last on his list.”
Just 3 questions in, its clear to see that what Leanne wanted as a little girl has now found its way to live out in her marriage with Chris. Instead of gathering a list of complaints that each spouse has for the other, my questions are all about family history so that I can understand how the pattern of loving and the pattern of conflict actually matches their inner imprint of love. With this deeper understanding, we can then create sustainable change.
When it came to Chris, now looking much more relaxed likely because he now knew what to expect. I turned my attention to him: “I’d love to hear a bit about your family now, Chris. Tell me a bit about your Mom.”
Chris took a big exhale and then said “My Mom was incredibly loving, mostly to us kids. My Dad was quick to anger and often unpredictable so I guess she moved her love and attention over to us. She leaned on me most of all and once I got to my teens, I felt more like I was taking Dad’s place, the one she could count on, you know ?”
When I heard Chris say this, I’m aware of an all too common pattern for growing boys in situations like this, having to choose between Mom and Dad and inevitably becoming inundated by his Mom’s needs. Adult needs can not be held by a growing child, it burdens them and they end up feeling like this is all just too much for me.
“Chris, what would you like to see change in your relationship?”
He’s on a roll now and openly shares: “It feels like Leanne always wants more from me, more than I can give, I often end up feeling like what I do give is never quite enough. It’s a terrible feeling, yet somehow familiar – I just want to get away from it.”
How Chris felt with his mom as a boy is an all too similar feeling in his marriage to Leanne.
When time is taken to map out the current relationship based on what went on in the past new perspectives open right up. Well over 70% of what goes in between couples comes from their family of origin. So that really means that the majority of the problems in the relationship have nothing to do with the couple.
When we begin to explore why we need what we do in our loving connections, something outside of our patterned ways can emerge.
For Leanne and Chris, I’m confident they can now live with more compassion and understanding in their marriage as they both realize how their past experiences and natural needs they each had as a child, influence how they show up with each other. The experiential exercise that we share together in the session solidify these learnings so that in the moment they have a new reference point to navigate the stressors of everyday life.