Elephants in the Room

Today was another day of family therapy. I talked to C about it this morning and told him I was planning to raise the issue of the break up of my marriage to Ls father, without waiting for it to ‘come up’. I felt strongly that at the heart of Ls reluctance to deal with difficult emotions and feelings might be that she learned to suppress and control emotions, having seen how destructive they can be, and to see her role as being the good girl, the one who worries about and looks after others. C grimaced and said it would be better if he didn’t come with us and I agreed.

K and I arrive at the unit. S, Ls father, is already there. I offered him a lift, but he is going to see a friend afterwards. I am secretly relieved. If this is a difficult session, the drive home afterwards could be tough. We wait and make small talk and then L appears and we are ready to go. We enter the room and take our seats, drawing back the curtains across the mirror behind which are a team of therapists. We start with the niceties, how was last week, a brief diversion about Derren Brown and his outrageous dabbling with people’s minds. Then, what do we want this week. S wants to go behind the screen, to observe how the therapists view us. Then me. I say that I think we should talk about the break up, and offer my theory on whether this has impacted on Ls ability to handle emotions. I look at L and K, wondering if they think, Oh no, not this. But they don’t. To be fair, they don’t look overjoyed either.

This is how it works. K and L sit in a corner behind an imaginary screen. They are to observe S and I talking about the break up, but not be present, so to speak. The therapist asks us questions. First of all about whether we are divorced. We aren’t, but this is in no way due to ambivalence, but due to the need for divorce lessening once we had divided assets and bought new homes. If divorce were free, we would be divorced in a heartbeat. We describe the break up over two years, during which we lived in the same house. I tell how one morning in January 2003 I realised I didnt want to be married to S any more. That I didn’t love him and I wanted our marriage to be over. But at the same time, I couldn’t bear the thought of my young children growing up in a ‘broken’ home. How it seemed unfair to do that to them. And how it all became worse when I fell in love with C, who was a colleague at the time.

Then, what did we do well in the break up. I try to be specific in being generous. S is much broader in his generosity. I am a great mum, a great cook and I kept the house really clean, everything you would expect from a mother. I bristle inwardly. I then offer the view that we did really bad things too. We argued and behaved badly in front of the three children. We each fell apart emotionally and stopped caring who knew it. For a long time, we stopped being the adults and became like histrionic teenagers. When we weren’t arguing, we wept over our children and told them how hard it was for us. In my head, S did this more than me, but I may be biased. I describe how we effectively competed for our children’s love, for them to take our side.

It is S’s turn to speak. He states that at the risk of being sanctimonious, his conscience is clear. He did nothing wrong. I know this tone and this speech. He is the good guy, whose wife left him. None of it was his fault. I was at fault, I was the guilty party. While also saying he is a ‘huge admirer’ of mine, he subtly signals that he was an innocent victim and so much of a good guy, that he can still say positive things about me.

We change places. S and I go behind the ‘screen’ and listen to K and L. They respond differently. L is pleased to have gaps in the story filled in, but was anxious in case someone became upset or a row broke out. She tells how she wanted us to get back together, how she felt strongly a mum and dad should be together. K explains she doesn’t really know whether we handled things well, but she just wanted us to separate and do it quickly, how it dragged on for ages and seemed interminable. They are then asked about the competition, the sense of who is right and who is wrong. They both respond the same way. This seems to be their strongest memory. They describe the sense of wanting to reassure their father they loved him, by making him presents and how upset he was when I went out with C. That they felt on red alert about showing favouritism to one parent over another.

S and I come back to the therapist. I venture the view that in this period our roles became entrenched. I was the good mum, who unfortunately fell in love with someone else, S the victim, who was upset and needed to be looked afterwards. S responds with another paean of praise to me, with a huge BUT at the end. He doesn’t agree we need to talk about this stuff. He thinks that people agonise about their problems enough and we should just get on with life. I am angry. If I said what I wanted to say, it would be to tell him that we are here to help our daughter and the whole bloody point of therapy, is to talk about this stuff. That I am sick to the back teeth with his endless air of suffering, of being ‘a good bloke’ who was deserted by his errant wife and did nothing wrong, but can still say nice things about her. I say nothing.

At the end of the session, the therapist asks us to think of the elephants in the room. What is it we are not saying? I think, there are a whole herd of elephants. We are so civil, so polite, when actually I feel nothing like that. But to shout and argue could distress L, so I hold back. And there are several specific big elephants in the room. On the way home I speak to K about one. It is really hard. And I think, deserves a whole blog post of its own. I am just not sure if I am brave enough to write it.

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