By Laurie Kahn
I work with people with complex posttraumatic stress disorder; mostly people who have endured traumatic betrayals in their childhoods and are still struggling with the effects. The symptoms of PTSD are listed in the diagnostic manual, a kind of bible of the psychiatric field. Symptoms include flashbacks, severe startle responses and emotional numbing. However, that’s not what people talk about when they first come to therapy. They say they want to be able to love and be loved by someone, and that things aren’t going well.
Learning how to love is no trivial matter when what you have learned about love has been tarnished with the scars of abuse. As a child, if your parents or others who are entrusted to protect you hurt you; you believe that love and danger can walk hand in hand. If you witness violence between people who claim to love each other, love and violence become acceptable partners. As an adult, you then wander in the world unable to figure out who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. Love is elusive and confusing. You yearn for it; wondering if you will recognize it when it appears and if you will know how to do it.
Tony came to therapy believing his behavior might be putting his marriage in jeopardy. He described his childhood. “Yelling, hitting, and humiliating each other was part of our daily family routine. My mother would call my sister a stupid bitch and then resume a friendly phone conversation. My dad would tell us that family was what mattered above all else but we treated each other so poorly. I saw my parents in the kitchen screaming, pushing, and shoving each other. I recall the fear and disgust I felt when I watched my father hit my mother. Now, I yell at my kids and my wife and I hear those horrible words come out of my mouth and it’s not who I want to be.”
Tony asked if he could bring his wife Rachael to his next counseling session hoping he could repair his relationship with her.
As the session began, Rachael listed all the horrible things Tony would say to her when he was mad. She described how it would take her days to recover after one of Tony’s blow-ups.
Tony responded, “She makes it sound like I’m a monster, she thinks she’s so perfect and the all the problems we have are just about me.”
It didn’t take twenty years of experience as a therapist to predict that this conversation was not going to go well. I asked Tony, “What do you most wish Rachael understood about you?” Tony began to shift from an aggressive posture with jaws clenched to a more pensive expression. “I wish Rachael understood how much I love her.” I blew on the spark. “What do you love about her?” Looking more vulnerable he said. “I think she’s beautiful, she’s a wonderful mother, a good person, honest, smart, and I like that she stands up to me and won’t let me get away with treating her badly.”
Rachael met Tony’s eyes. The conversation softened. They spoke of the ways they felt lucky to have each other, and the kind of family they wanted to have with their children. I congratulated them on being able to shift from anger to kindness. At the end of the session I told Tony “If you want to protect this relationship, no matter how mad you are at Rachael you may not call her a bitch.” He solemnly nodded as if this new information might be useful.
What Tony had known of love had left him maimed in his most important relationships. He had learned in his family that when you love someone you can say anything you want, without any regard for the impact it has. It was as if his family hurled hand grenades at one another, leaving self esteem and trust in the wreckage.
The next week Tony returned to my office: “I keep thinking about the story you told me,” “What story?” I wondered. “The one about love,” he said. I couldn’t recall ever talking about love. Tony, noticed my blank look, and was kind enough to continue; “You told me that there was tension between your daughter and Michael when you first started dating him. You were concerned about their relationship. As time passed you mentioned to your future father-in-law that you thought there was some progress in their relationship. Your father-in-law asked you what had given you such optimism. You told him that they were having more open conflicts and that they weren’t being so careful to always be on their best behavior. Your father-in-law paused, “That’s funny”, he said, ” I thought you were always supposed to be on your best behavior with your family. “
I did recall telling Tony that story. Michael’s family believed that the best, most loving, most thoughtful part of yourself should be reserved for your family. They believed that the relationships with your family were sacred.
With tears in his eyes, Tony looked up at me. “That’s what I want to be able teach my children.”