Exquisite Unions: The Immaculate Misconception

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[An excerpt from The Patient Who Cured His Therapist: And Other Stories of Unconventional Therapy by Psychology Tomorrow's Editor-in-Chief Stanley Siegel]

EXQUISITE UNIONS

Bakowski-2True love may be just exactly as our most saccharine, violin-accompanied, Disney-animated fantasies envision it; and the more cynical members of the psychotherapeutic community ought to hear – at least once, anyway – the chord that the image never fails to strike in us.

People are not drawn to each other exclusively for selfish reasons – say, to satisfy personal longings, serve insatiable libidos, or even to perpetuate their genetic components through reciprocal altruism – although all these goals fit into the love equation. But as a species we also share a fundamental need to respect, honor, and give; to complement weaknesses with strengths; to teach; to be loyal; to achieve harmony and balance and then share its comforts.

As the stories in this section attest, behavior that appears to be selfish often emerges as self-sacrificial when examined in the lights of a more positive premise. What appears to be a problem turns out to be a beautiful and generous bond, and, in fact, not a problem at all but a solution.

Sometimes the solution is sacred, as in “The Immaculate Misconception,” wherein a couple sacrifices their sexuality, for their spirituality, or “Final AIDS,” in which a gay couple heroically serves each other’s greatest needs, one in the, present, one in the past. Sometimes the solutions appear comparatively bizarre, as in “Double Cross.” And sometimes they are painfully typical, as in “Jingle Jangle,” a story in which a repetitive fight keeps a family true to the histones of its members.

The undying marvel is that we continue to find each other, to consciously and subconsciously discover the characteristics, gifts, and needs in each other that we can draw from in what appears to be an indomitable need to positively influence our reality.

THE IMMACULATE MISCONCEPTION

According to conventional assumptions, tradition therapy takes time. Either the therapist only gradually discems the real issues behind the “patient’s” apparent problems, or the “patient” is slow or reluctant to shift her focus from the security of her old problems to the uncertainties of change.

I maintain, however, that therapy can be as sudden and powerful a thunderbolt as a death or a birth in the family, immediately changing every participant’s life forever. I cannot say how frequently the opportunity may arise for such therapeutic explosiveness, but I can attest to the fact that such opportunities do arise. I have seized and capitalized on them, as I did in the case of Steve and Nancy Bembridge, when I also violated the unwritten code of therapeutic neutrality by thrusting myself – bodily, as it turned out – into their perceived problem.

Long Island, 1976

I glanced briefly at the slip of paper identifying the Bernbridge couple. I knew that an adoption agency had referred them to me. The agency had denied their application to adopt, but I had no idea why.

Opening my office door to greet them, I was struck instantly by the image they presented against the soothing but bland backdrop of our fairly large, mostly beige waiting room. They were seated together-fiercely together-in the middle of a long wooden, pew-like bench. They seemed to be joined-Krazy-Glued-at the hips, thighs, and triceps.

Mrs. Bembridge wore a black blouse and a white skirt; her husband wore a white shirt and black slacks. A perfect checkerboard pattern. I wondered if they realized.

They rose together. He was taller than she. They seemed uncomfortable, but then, almost everybody does in the initial encounter. We shook hands.

After introducing myself, I motioned them to enter the office. They strode through the door together, made for the couch opposite my chair, and sank together into the middle of the too-soft sofa. The cushions on either side of them billowed, pressing them even closer together than before, if that were possible.

I tried not to stare. I was caught somewhere between awe and admiration, at the moment focusing perhaps all too much on awe. If I can exaggerate the image only slightly, they presented a picture of Siamese penguins, dwarfed by a huge white, glacial background.

I gazed at them as if they were in a painting, and the picture triggered thoughts about my own background. For much of my youth, and throughout my undergraduate days, I had wanted to be a painter. In looking back at my sculptures and paintings from those days, I notice that all my work focused almost exclusively on the space between people, the proximity or distance between them. Artists call the space between people or objects “negative space,” although it always captured my eye the same way other elements of a picture did.

Perhaps because I was born with vision in one eye only, I view the world differently. For me, negative space always was just as real as so-called positive space, showing what separated us from each other as well as what drew us near. The consciousness of imagery, and that specific focus as well, stayed with me and became a prominent part of my inner machinery for examining relationships-but never so graphically as when I gazed at the Bembridges.

I thus began sort of distractedly, even amateurishly. “So, why have you come to see me?”

Nancy Bembridge answered tersely and distinctly: “We were referred by an adoption agency,” she said. “We wanted to adopt a baby, and we went to see them about it, and they said no.” Then she demurred, saying, “Well, nobody actually gets turned down that quickly by an agency. It’s just that they said that maybe we should see someone instead.”
I still had no clue. “Why would they refuse to give you a baby?” I asked. “I mean, if that’s what they were saying.”

“Well, it isn’t because we don’t have a nice home,” she said with convincing certainty. “We have a nice home, okay? With a big yard, three bedrooms, a guest room, and a room for a child. We have a good income, more than enough. I work. Steven works. And we come from good backgrounds, both of us. We both grew up in the church, so there’s no problem in the background. And we both have our health. No medical problems. We have a dog …”

She continued, but talking more to Steven than to me, which was fine because, on the surface anyway, I was already pretty much convinced, and her behavior allowed me to gaze longer at this painting they presented. When she paused, searching for more items for the litany, I interrupted:

”That’s a lot of good reasons for them to give you a baby. How did they explain why they wouldn’t give you a baby?”

“Well,” she said carefully, staring into her husband’s eyes with a strangely powerful expression of combined devotion and resignation, “we’ve been married six years, and we haven’t had sexual intercourse. And I guess they don’t like that.”

She looked down. A heartbreaking expression of shame crossed her face. His expression suddenly mirrored hers.

For a second I had to check my reaction.

I had been and still was fascinated by the way their bodies were welded together. The shock of their confession was mitigated by an equally sudden recognition of the message in their imagery. Of course they didn’t engage in sexual intercourse. They were stuck together, hip to hip. Unless humans were reinvented wearing their reproductive apparatus like sidearms, procreation would be impossible. These two had not left each other’s side long enough to allow their genitalia the courtesy of even a polite introduction. They were fused.

I realized that where I normally see the space between people, I had seen fusion, and the fusion was their solution to some problem. I didn’t know the problem yet, but recognizing their solution triggered a whole new program of thoughts and ideas-about melding, about clinging, about the good and bad results of varying degrees of separation. What was their sexual abstention a solution to?

And what would happen if somebody or something found its way between them? Would they then be forced to reveal what they were so desperately protecting?

I knew that somehow I had to understand the meaning of their fusion. I decided to take a huge risk-to challenge it directly.

“Adopt me,” I said brightly, as if I had suddenly discovered the solutions to everyone’s problems, theirs and mine. I rose.

They had made sure there would be no room for a child to exist between them. There was no room for anything at all between them, not air, not the initial separation required to initiate sexual intercourse, not anything. I wanted to see what would happen if something or someone did appear between them. How would the picture change? This was radical intervention by any standards, mainly because of its suddenness, partly because of my very personal intrusion, but an action measured to equal the intensity of the situation.

I moved toward the couch. “You want a child to love?” I asked. “Then I’ll be your baby.” As I approached them, Steven eyed me with the widened pupils of a squirrel encountering cats.

Together they froze. Some flicker in their stunned expression, some punctuation in their body language, still reassured me that I was probing the right place, and with precisely the right instrument. It was as if I couldn’t see, but I knew where I was going.

”I had a terrible childhood,” I said, pressing, moving closer, aiming directly at the nonexistent space between them, determined to pry it open. “I don’t remember anything nice about it. My mommy and daddy didn’t want me around. They never kissed me. They never hugged me. All they did was scream at me all the time. I missed being a baby. I want to be a baby somebody wants!”

I literally burrowed between them, shouldering my way into the non-space. I should probably point out here that I am slight of build. I accomplished the burrowing without any complicating difficulties, although it must have looked bizarre.

“You want a baby?” I said when I’d pried them apart. “I’ll be your baby.

“Mommy?” I nestled in Nancy’s shoulder. “Daddy?” I turned and murmured plaintively, summoning an expression as close as I could conjure to a puppy’s.

“Mommy?” I asked, returning my gaze to Nancy. “Give me a kiss, Mommy. Show me how you want to love your baby, Mommy.”

Nancy began to weep. Steven was taut as harp strings.

I turned and leaned on his shoulder. “Hug me, Daddy, please? Please …?”

Steven’s reaction was violent. He leaned forward, fists clenched, knuckles pressed into his forehead. “How can you do this?” he demanded angrily. “We came here for help! I never heard of such a thing! You push yourself… your problems… you throw your problems at us? This is unheard of! This is unbelievable! It’s ridiculous! You… you… God damn!”

He stood and stomped toward the door. Nancy rose and followed, as if tethered. Steven was shouting as he grasped the doorknob. He clenched it, twisted it menacingly, and howled again, “We came here for help!”

There have been moments in my life when I wished I were not so slight and unthreatening, moments when I wished I could rise from my theater seat to a full six-foot-six height and stare down a potential antagonist, but this was not one of them. As outrageous as it may now seem, I pulled my knees and curled myself to become as small as possible: I cocked my head sideways to a nearly coquettish angle and keened in my softest, most supplicant voice:

“You’re abandoning me,” I chirped. “You haven’t even adopted me yet, and you’re abandoning me!”

The room spun on my word choice.

The Bembridges became statues. The echo of abandoning me hung like smoke trapped inside a jar. The solemnity was terrifying. After heart-stopping seconds, Steven’s face contorted.

His upper body shuddered once, trembled, and he crumbled into sobs. Somehow Abandoning me was key.

Nancy looked at me. I rose respectfully and stood. She escorted her husband back to the couch. They returned to their welded position. Steven composed himself. For a few long moments we said nothing. The moment for magic was over and the work about to begin. I waited for one of them to speak.

Eventually, Steven started:

“As a baby, I was left on the steps of a church. St. Leonard’s Church. In a basket. Obviously, I don’t know much about it. I don’t remember much of what I learned, except that it was a basket. Wicker. Not a cardboard box.” He hesitated. “It doesn’t matter. The details don’t matter.” He hesitated again. “It had a blanket, the basket. A blue blanket. Nuns at the orphanage always told me that it was a blue blanket and that it was wrapped tightly around me. I was left in the fall, but they said on a warm day. The nuns took care of me into high school.”

Steven sat erect on the couch, hands on his knees, eyes cast downward, occasionally glancing up and into Nancy’s eyes. I bit into my forefinger, thinking about the details that didn’t matter: a basket, not a cardboard box; a blue blanket, for a son; and wrapped around him on an autumn day that was warm. Each detail suggested that his mother had loved him despite what she had done: abandoned him.

“I was lucky,” he insisted. “I was taught how to live a good life, and I got a good start. Lucky. I mean it, too. I had a place to live, some work to do, a school to go to, someone who cared, someone who made you do your work-your homework, your work in the yard, whatever.

They cared enough about you to make sure you grew up right, ate your meals, and did your jobs. Everyone always says, ‘Poor orphans!’ but I got a good education, someone who cared, a bed, three meals a day, the chance to grow up without a struggle; and I got a good start in life.” Despite Steven’s gratitude his underlying sorrow was obvious.

“How was it,” I interrupted, “that you and Nancy met?”

“We met at a party,” he answered, his head rising and his face slowly yielding to a smile. He extended his arms the way a bishop might, acknowledging the affection of a throng of disciples.

“I saw it right away,” he said. “She was everything I imagined a woman could be. Meeting her, knowing her, getting to know her, falling in love. I thought I’d found everything I’d missed. In her I found everything I lost. I got it all back.”

He gazed at her beatifically. She stared back in rapt adoration. ”I never loved a woman before,” he said, his eyes still locked on hers. “She was … perfect. All of a sudden I didn’t even have to think, and she was there. If I wanted to go for a walk, she would say, ‘I have an idea: let’s go for a walk.’ If I just wanted to lay my head on her shoulder, she was there. If she wanted to go shopping, it was at a time I was in the mood to go shopping. If she asked, ‘Do you love me?’ she asked at exactly the time I was thinking, ‘I love her so much!’ If I felt like I wanted a sandwich, she would say, ‘You want a sandwich?’ Plus, we liked the same TV shows, you know? Hawaii Five-0, The Flying Nun, Dragnet. We went to bed at the same time-ten-thirty. We got up at the same time-eight. She liked blue and hated orange, you know? Bologna and American cheese on Wonder Bread, with Miracle Whip. Can you believe it? With tomato soup? For lunch? Now, how many people like that?” We chuckled.

“She seemed to know everything about me before I told her. She’s always been just … just about everything you could ask for. Just about… perfect.”

I let ten seconds hang, and then asked Nancy: “What about you, Nancy? What about when you met Steven?”

“Oh, it was really a dance,” she said, sighing. “At the high school. The spring formal.” She looked directly at Steven.

“He was a perfect dancer.”

“What did you tell him about yourself?”

“Well, that I kind of grew up by myself. That was the most important part. So I was ready, you know, for responsibility. Mom and Dad both worked all day, and that meant somebody had to take care of the house. And that was me. I’m the oldest, so I got used to running things. You know: three young kids, my brothers and sisters. Before I knew anything else, I knew how to get everything fixed up so that they could go off to school and get back home without any problems.”

Every evening, she said, her mother returned home from work before her father, but exhausted most of the time, and so she relied on Nancy to help the other kids with homework, baths, dinner, nurturing, encouragement, not to mention ironing, dusting, and general cleaning. “Sometimes,” said Nancy, “I felt as if the whole house would fall apart if I wasn’t there. We-the kids-would make the meal and clean up, and Mom would go sit in the front room and then go to bed. The whole family’d go to Mass on Sunday, of course, but not until after I got the kids dressed. And we’d run back afterward to make dinner. I cooked. My sister helped set the table. Dad and Mom took a nap in the afternoon. Church and dinner were the only times each week they were with the family.

“Then they were grown, the kids,” she said with finality.

“So, when I met Steven, he was so, like, comfortable. It was so easy to fix things for him. He appreciated things so much. You could do the wash, and he would say, ‘Thank you.’ Or, you know, make a dinner or whatever. He was just so sweet. Whatever I did for him, just fold the towels the right way or whatever. It’s always been so good to be with him.

“You know, the work is not so different from the kids,” she said. “The laundry’s the same, the meals, the house, the dusting and things, but he just appreciates it so much. It’s just so comfortable with him. He cares. I take care of him, and he cares so much. Even after eight years he still says, ‘Thank you’ after every meal. Seriously, he says, ’Thank you,’ after every meal.”

She paused. She grinned at him and looked down, blushing.

I sat in wonderment at what they had accomplished. It was not the first time I had encountered people whose unique needs served each other with so perfect a fit, but I continue to marvel that they always seem to gravitate toward and eventually discover each other. What appeared to be a problem-what would be defined by most people as a problem, and what was defined as a problem by the adoption agency – was actually their solution, and a heroic one at that. I was amazed, and I wanted to tell them that and why; but also I was aware that in telling them, in pointing out what they had accomplished, I would be delivering the very tool that could change their perfect solution. Knowing what they had done would enable them to choose to undo it.

I paused for a moment and said with near reverence, “It’s very difficult for me to put into words the respect I feel for both of you and for the extraordinary union you have created. Yours appears to be a higher order of marriage than the norm. I know you have been made to feel wrong for having been married all these years without consummating the marriage, but I think you have been misunderstood. Your needs, each of you, are unique, given your unusual histories. Your way of satisfying them is also unique. Most people would not have had the strength to take care of each other and protect each other, in the face of convention, the way you have.”

They had sacrificed their sexuality to serve each other’s needs. How could I say that?

I looked at Steven. “As you said yourself,” I told him, ”in Nancy you have regained everything that you lost, found everything you longed for. Clearly, and it must be clear to you, she is more than a woman to you, more than a wife. She is also a mother. In fact, a Madonna. You have found the woman who, if she had nothing else in the world, if she had no hope, would have managed to find a blue blanket and a basket for you, and wrapped you tight, and put you on the steps of the best place on the best day. I don’t know how you found her. I mean, it’s almost a miracle.

But here you are. I’ll bet sometimes you don’t believe it yourself, right?”

Steven shrugged and grinned in agreement. I looked at Nancy. ”And you found in Steven a child of your own, a son you could care for in exactly the ways you learned in your own family, exactly the ways that made you feel important and needed and fulfilled. Plus, he gives you love openly and willingly in return for your care. He is your perfect child.

You have what parents ache for, long for, and never feel that they get: appreciation for their devotion. Look at what you’ve made here! This is a beautiful, totally unselfish ar­ rangement. Your love for each other transcends the way we usually think of marriage.

”I understand why you would not have intercourse in this marriage. It would be a violation of the sacred pact you have made with each other. It would jeopardize everything. Steven, if you were to have sex with Nancy, it would di­minish her. She would become an ordinary woman, less than your Madonna, and you would be in danger of losing once again everything you had regained. Similarly, Nancy, if you had sex with Steven, he would become an ordinary man, and you would lose the perfect son you have found, the child who needs you so much and so appreciates you and loves you for caring for him. In a very real and impor­ tant way, given the nature of your relationship, making love with him would amount to incest.

”Would a child change your arrangement profoundly? Irrevocably? Certainly. Maybe that is another reason why you haven’t risked creating a child. Think of it this way: you have been acting in the best interests of your relationship and of each other. When it’s no longer in your best interests to act that way, maybe you will change your arrangement, whatever the risks.”

There followed a church-like silence. The paradox was clear; so was the dilemma of change. The price of change would rest squarely on their shoulders.

We shook hands with a quiet, firm enthusiasm, knowing that in a microscopic, fleeting way, we had grown fond of each other, would never forget each other, were forever al­ tered by our meeting. I said, “Listen, you are generous and caring people. You know that, I know that. I’m proud  to have met you. Call anytime, if you decide to. My best to you.”

They left, just as glued together as they had arrived.

Two years later, I received a birth announcement in the mail for Gerald Steven Bembridge. I had a bizarre reaction to the card, which I still have. I keep it as a symbol, another reminder of the cliche that things are not always what they seem. My initial burst of joy – a natural reaction at the news of a birth – was cut short by the image of how much room Nancy and Steven Bembridge had had between them. None. Where would a child fit into these lives?

Given what they had told me about their backgrounds and life together, it struck me that they had changed their arrangement drastically, and I wondered what the conse­quences would be. Maybe, once they had accepted them­ selves and stopped feeling guilty or negative, they had felt better prepared to change. But maybe they were yielding again to such outside pressure as they felt to be acceptable.

For them, I thought, a baby really was a mixed blessing, and I did not know whether they would be able to deal with it.

Nor did I ever hear from them again.

POSTSCRIPT

The process of coupling generally begins with a courtship in which partners display their talents and strengths in an effort to attract each other. Gradually, they solidify the relationship by revealing their fears and weaknesses and ap­ pealing to each other’s compassion and desire to be needed-always with the risk of rejection and abandon­ment.

In the case of  the Bembridges, this theme acted as the centerpiece of their relationship, exaggerated by opposite but complementary histories and decidedly unconventional histories at that. They so feared abandonment that they were willing, and proved able, to sacrifice the most powerful and urgent means of communicating their feelings-sexual intercourse – to protect themselves from the realization of their worst fears. Not yet knowing that, I began with the simple premise that we cannot judge without knowing the context. Behavior so unusual and self-sacrificial as theirs must have stemmed from an equally unusual and powerful set of circumstances.

My two interventions – wedging  myself  between  them, first, and then accusing Steven of abandoning me – might seem to have come out of the blue, but they did not. That is not to say that my responses were calculated or that a model for them could be found in any textbook I had read. Arising from a state of such intense concentration, my ac­tions are often as much the result of intuition as they are of clinical experience, and I too am taking a risk. With the Bembridges, I was listening to their words and simultane­ously absorbing whole paragraphs of their non-verbal communication: the imagery in their adherence to each other, their identical though inverted mode of dress, their stories of intense mutuality. All of it strongly suggested a fear of separation, an inability to be apart. Those undeniable sug­gestions steered me into a mental process that included my imagining what it would mean to me to be in that situation and what in my personal and professional experiences seemed most comparable to their experience.

I was led to two conclusions: first, that a couple so glued to each other had to have organized themselves around a fear of abandonment; and, secondly, that words alone would not be enough to dislodge them from the stronghold they had created.

Despite my own fear of taking a radical action, an action comparable to performing risky surgery, I knew my response had to measure up to their extreme situation. I knew my action would be unconventional. I could only hope that their reaction would be to reveal the meaning of their di­lemma in some more obvious way. I drew upon my own memories of fears of abandonment – we all have suffered varying degrees of panic over the possibility of being abandoned - and, however minor my experiences had been by comparison to the Bembridges, they turned out to be in the right category. Once dramatized, the dilemma unfolded. Did they really want a third party in their exquisitely balanced arrangement? Could they balance their desire for a family life against their fears of disruption and abandonment? Only they could answer; only they could decide. Either way, there would be consequences, and they either would cope with the consequences or perhaps return. Children are a mixed blessing for any couple, because of the range of the joy and sorrows in raising a child. Here, the balance of the relation­ship, joys and sorrows notwithstanding, would be threat­ ened by the mere presence of a child. For the Bembridges, this one session  made that  recognition dramatically stark. We parted recognizing the dilemma and knowing that their responsibility was to make a decision.

Over the years, I have come to believe that the length of therapy depends on the time it takes to identify or redefine a problem. The rate at which I proceed depends on a num­ber of variables: my ability to understand the context of the problem, the stubbornness of the reality that the family con­structs around the problem-symptom to maintain stability, and the time it takes for all of us to construct a new definition that allows the family to solve the underlying problem without the original symptom as a centerpiece-assuming they choose to face whatever consequences that would en­tail. They may, after all, choose to keep the symptom rather than face the unknown consequences.

Like with a family physician, I may have periodic involve­ ment with a family over an extended time. When they reach a particular impasse, the family may choose to return for a consultation in an attempt to understand the dilemmas that help maintain the new impasse. I prefer this model of therapy to other, long-term models that require continuous, regularly scheduled involvement.

Of  course, when there is great suffering and pain or a severe developmental delay because a family is at an im­passe for a long time, they may benefit from ongoing support and guidance as the consequences of change unfold. In those cases I stay with the clients and help them to develop guideposts to refer to when the therapy ends. But in most cases, the family that summons the creativity to organize a problem-solution combination requiring therapy in the first place will continue to act creatively in its own in­ terests,  whenever therapy ends.

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