“Definition of a victim: a person to whom life happens.” ~ Peter McWilliams
Learned helplessness or pessimism is a real and debilitating issue in life. As a green therapist still working on my Masters degree in Marriage and Family Therapy, at Brigham Young University, there was so much to learn about change in relationships. But one thing I was certain of was that marriages were sacred and that I would do all I could to help them succeed.I remember one couple especially well. Let’s call them Jane and Nate Taylor. They had been married for 2 or 3 years after she had become pregnant while they were dating. Unfortunately Jane did not feel that she was in love with Nate and regretted making the decision to marry under those circumstances. On the other hand Nate was in love with Jane and was doing all he could to keep his rocky marriage together, including instigating therapy with me. From the outside looking in, it seemed like she had made a good choice. She married the father of her child, who was kind, had a good job, and was invested in making her happy. They also had the same religious values. But the more he tried to make her happy, the more she felt like a victim of her circumstances and was embittered more towards him. The only strands holding the marriage together were her beliefs about the sanctity of marriage and the decision she had made, and just enough concern for Nate’s well being that she was reluctant to pull the trigger on the divorce, knowing that it would destroy him emotionally.
With few tools in my clinical tool belt I approached the case with the theory that through acts of service and good communication the relationship could be jump started. Sounds like a winner doesn’t it?
On about our fourth session, my colleagues and professor were observing and supervising my clinical work from behind the one-way mirror. Part way through the session we were interrupted by the ringing of the phone on the wall. My “Team” was calling in with an interesting request. They wanted to trade places with us and have us watch and listen to them!
Nervously, I described to my couple what the team was asking for, and when they agreed, we took our place in the observation booth. A lively discussion ensued. One classmate wondered out loud why Jane would feel so confined and unhappy given that her husband was so solicitous of her. Another colleague questioned whether I cared more for saving the marriage than Jane and Nate did. Finally after several other ideas were explored, my supervising professor spoke up. “I don’t think that Jane ever “chose” Nate.” she said. “I wonder how Jane would feel if she could wipe the slate clean and start this relationship over as if there was no marriage, no pressure because of an unborn child, and just find out if she even chooses Nate.” My inexperienced classmates went uncommonly silent in the therapy room, and on my side of the mirror, a great tension filled the space and felt as if the unspeakable had just been spoken.
Fortunately I had a few minutes to compose myself and gather my thoughts before we were back in the therapy room to finish our session. Nate was stunned by what had just happened. I’m sure he thought “I have been doing all I can to keep my wife happy in the marriage, and in one sentence she has been given permission to walk away by a woman I hardly know!”The expression on Jane’s face told a different story, however. Hope started to light her eyes for the first time, as she reflected on what had been said. “You know, they were right. I never really made a decision that you are to be my husband.” she said. “I feel like I need to find out if you are the right one for me.” Nate could hardly conceal the pain he felt, but out of love for her he slowly nodded in support.
When I didn’t hear from them over the next couple of months, I began to fear the worst. Then one afternoon I got a call from Jane. She shared that she had asked for a separation to have some time alone before they started dating again. This time Jane did not feel compelled to move forward. Nate gave her the space and time she needed and they slowly began to establish their relationship, this time without a feeling of compulsion by external factors.She had gone through the process herself, of prayer, consideration, dating him again, and then ultimately she had fallen in love with Nate for real. Emphatically she shared that she had now chosen him to be her husband and they didn’t need my services anymore. Viewing her marriage with hope and optimism had saved the marriage.
Optimism can change the world, so why not our own little lives? Optimism is a sense of the power we have to influence and thus create our own life, despite our circumstances. It usually comes as we are taught that we control much of the happiness and success we have in life. And the beauty of this character trait is…it can be learned! That thought should infuse us all with at least a glimmer of hope and enthusiasm.
To your Family’s Optimism and Happiness!