Tales from the Therapist's Couch

'She was incredulous that her husband had chosen a "mouse-like woman, a plain-Jane" in preference to her'
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Sometimes in therapeutic work change seeps in gently, imperceptibly eroding habits that are preventing a life from being lived more fully. But often there is a point in the analytic process when the possibility for change feels like a tangible presence.

Sometimes in therapeutic work change seeps in gently, imperceptibly eroding habits that are preventing a life from being lived more fully. But often there is a point in the analytic process when the possibility for change feels like a tangible presence.

At this point, there is often a painful conflict between the old and new, an awareness that well-worn habits need to be discarded to allow root room for the new, but that embracing change is a risk that feels agonisingly difficult. Time and again, I have noticed that when people are stuck at this emotional crossroads, change is facilitated by an external event that somehow crystallises the impasse. Let me give an example.

A woman has been coming to therapy for about 18 months. Her initial reasons for doing so were to deal with the tidal wave of fury that erupted when her husband told her that he was leaving her for another woman.

For months she was so riled by the injustice of being abandoned that there wasn't much room for any grief. She was incredulous that she, of all people, had been left, and even more aghast that her husband had chosen a "mouse-like, very much a plain-Jane" in preference to her.

As she talked about her life I began to understand why the idea of being abandoned for the "very ordinary" made her so indignant. From her earliest memories, her mother had showered her with accolades that marked her out as extraordinary. Blessed with both good looks and a bright mind, she played the piano from an early age and was frequently "presented" as something of a musical prodigy.

Her reaction to this was mixed. At one level she relished the glorified fuss, but she also ached somewhere inside at having to always come up with the goods in order to secure love in her mother's eyes.

For a long while this sense of being "extraordinary" remained unchallenged. She went to a top university and assumed the slightly arrogant airs of someone who takes it for granted that their natural habitat is the top of the tree. Her husband, a "gifted musician", fitted the "cut above average" mould. They married, had two children, and life trundled on as intended. Until the day heleft her.

I ask her whether she had had any inkling that this might happen. She says she is baffled by her husband's reasons for going. "He just kept saying that he didn't feel known or loved as a person, and felt I only saw the successful musician in him, not the ordinary, fallible man." I say I am reminded of our talks about her own mother, how she needed to be "extraordinary" in order to feel loved, and wonder if some of this has been transferred onto her marriage. For the first time in our work together, there is a long and very poignant silence.

Over time, it becomes possible to look clearly at the damage caused by her mother's demand for the extraordinary, and the way it had become repeated within her own marriage. Any such "superiority complex" is always a defence against feelings of inadequacy, and for both mother and daughter, feeling a cut above average was a way of hiding from emotional insecurity and difficulties with intimacy. Neither my patient, nor her mother, was easily able to show ordinary vulnerability.

It was around this time that my patient described the event that was to have such an impact on her hunger for change. It fittingly took place in a very ordinary setting, the women's changing rooms at a local swimming pool. My patient had recently begun the habit of an early morning swim, and was changing back into her clothes when she became aware of laughter between some other women who were chatting nearby.

Swamped by both a longing to be part of this human liveliness and a lonely feeling of inadequacy, my patient found herself full of critical thoughts about these unknown women. Recognising this as her all too usual habit of warding off insecurity with superiority, she forced herself to remember the hunger for intimacy that their laughter had initially triggered. And then, for the first time she took the huge risk of turning towards the group in order to join in. "I so wanted," she told me, "to have a place in the wonderfully ordinary." And, in time, she did.

Elizabeth Meakins is a psychoanalytic psychotherapist in private practice. None of the clinical material above refers to specific cases

elizabeth.meakins@blueyonder.co.uk

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