Podcast #7 Remember the Past – To Live the Present


If you prefer to read rather than listen, here is a transcript of the podcast.
(Also available in PDF format.)
Note: portions of the text may be slightly edited for clarity in written form.

Dr. Jerry: Good morning. This is Dr. Gerry on this beautiful day. Doesn’t it make you fall in love with this planet again when we have a day like today? Dr. Gerry at the Psychotherapist Corner 1490 WGCH. What I thought I’d talk about this morning is why marriage counseling can help for a couple that’s run into some difficulties. And when couples are unhappy, very frequently they just either live out that unhappiness, or they start talking about divorce. And I’d like to give a wider understanding of really what marriage counseling can provide.

When I’ve spoken before about chimney cleaning, I was speaking about our individual need to understand ourselves. You know, one of the things that makes us particularly human is that we can understand ourselves. We don’t always like to and it’s not the easiest of tasks. But actually as I try to make clear in these shows so far, when we do have an understanding of some of the things that are propelling us, some of the actions we do which we don’t fully understand, we actually have a better sense of who we are and who we want to become. All too frequently it’s heard, even today, and it does surprise me somewhat…that if a person goes to therapy somehow they are sick or crazy or more specifically that they are weak or overly dependent. Now those kinds of thoughts really are just not only false, they’re just absurd. And actually they serve, frequently, defensive purposes.

Therapy is as necessary as education. It’s like saying, well I really taught my child to ready by age 8, so why does he have to go to further school? He can just read about the world. And he has a smart brain on him. It doesn’t work. Therapy is an integral part in our society, of living in this highly intense, focused financially pressured society that we all live in. If a person starts thinking like that, that somehow therapy is for the weak, or that I really understand myself, I don’t need to talk to anybody. That really, sadly, is a defense. And what it does is it condemns a person internally to just keep living out issues and feelings, which if they were able to bring them to the talking table, so to speak, they’d have more control over them.

So, again, the notion of individual therapy, the notion of marriage counseling, is not to go to someone and have him or her tell you what to do. That’s why when I do marriage counseling, when we do marriage counseling, my wife and I, we don’t give people tasks, we don’t tell them to do A, or B. We don’t tell them play make-believe and go out on Friday nights as if they’re not married and as if it’s a date. I’m not against any of that stuff. I just don’t think it works. I think it plays a bit too much on the surface of the issues. What I like to do and as I’ll talk briefly, is to try and help a couple understand what’s going on that they’ve suddenly run into tension and difficulty in their relationship. Therapy as you know, and couples counseling in particular, really demands, rather than weakness and dependency, it demands strength and honesty.

…Strength and honesty. It’s not for people who think they are just fine and everyone else is a bit off. And it’s only after a person or a couple decides to try talking their issues out, rather than living them out, do they understand where they’re coming from emotionally, and where they want to go with their life. Frankly, in my experience, I only think we have two choices. Sounds dramatic but I think it’s true. We either talk our issues out and get to understand our-self and the influences that have caused us to act one way or another, or, we live them out. And if we live them out and we don’t reflect on them, that’s one of the prime ingredients in suddenly becoming very defensive. As if our life is, we can’t question it. And yet, what makes us particularly human, if you think about it, is our capacity to question. That’s why we educate people, isn’t it?

We develop their capacity to ask questions about the world, about science, about everything from rocks to dirt to stars. Well, we’re in that mix also…. we have to ask questions about ourselves. Not nervously, not anxiously, not defensively, calmly. That’s really a road to a much happier life. Couples therapy, at least the approaches I’ve said that my wife and I employ, never means that we give you an assignment or we tell you what to do, or we point fingers.

The only formula I believe is the desire to be as honest as a person is able to be. Now that comes easy to the tongue, oh you should be honest. Let me tell you, being honest is difficult for everyone. Myself included. I don’t mean surface honestly; I don’t mean honesty about money or anything like that, but rather an internal honesty, that comes hard to us human beings. And that’s OK. We don’t have to be ashamed of it. We just have to know it … it’s kind of like driving. Everyone thinks they’re the best driver and that the other person got their license at Macy’s or something. Most people think that they know their past. Now to a certain extent, obviously they are correct. But all too frequently the emotional impact of how their life experiences have shaped their present responses are simply unknown. Let me repeat this because it’s important for individuals and for individual therapy.

Whether we want to forget it or not, our past, particularly what we no longer remember does shape our present experiences. How we respond to ourselves, our mates, our fellow workers, our children. When I say it affects us, I don’t mean we’re totally determined by it. But the father who may have a lot of demands on his son to get involved in certain sports, or not to get involved; or the wife who is suspicious that her husband is always going to abandon her or have an affair. Many times what we’ve experienced, is that although such fears can be based somewhat in the present, they have very deep roots that the person simply doesn’t recognize. Most of us harbor lots of reactions about talking about ourselves, and talking about our personal histories. And I understand that. That’s one reason why therapy and couples therapy in particular is totally confidential.

To talk about things we feel we have to keep quiet about, things we might be ashamed of…. a parents physical abuse or a parents alcoholic abuse for example. Most couples find it very difficult and maybe it takes them a couple of sessions before they can say, for example, when I grew up, my father or my mother was an alcoholic. Or, in the case of say a father who was always working. Who may have provided a wonderful lifestyle but who was never around for his children. Those facts, although one can appreciate perhaps the lifestyle that one provided, if you don’t look back and reexamine how that was experienced, emotionally, growing up, you are liable to live out a lot unconscious expectations with your wife or your husband, depending on the situation.

More then that, we hide from ourselves a lot of leftover hurt from our childhood experiences. That’s just the nature of who we are, we hide from ourselves. We can easily deny any anger and/or fear that we are bad for having it. Or worse, we tell ourselves that we should just grow up and let that childhood stuff go. Now here’s the paradox. Of course we should grow up and let the childhood stuff go. I don’t have any argument with that. My point is that’s precisely the goal of therapy… people will come and say, you know what Dr. Gerry, why should I talk about that stuff? It’s over with, I can’t do anything about it, let’s forget it and my response is, I agree with you, let’s forget it. Paradoxically, the only way to forget it, is to talk about it. I know it sounds funny, it is funny, but it’s also true.

That’s the only way we usefully forget it. Therapy is like a special ceremony, so to speak, if you allow me to use this analogy…that we can put the past to rest….that we can bury the past, and that’s the hardest thing sometimes for us human beings to do. The past is not buried by forgetting it, the past is buried by our remembering it, talking about it, understanding it and then saying, “OK, now let it be.” To a certain extent, we know this, when it comes to mourning. When someone we love dies, we revisit him or her many many times in our mind. We may visit the places they lived, we may revisit their favorite flowerbed or their favorite restaurant even. And it takes a while actually, we think it takes about two years, before a person can revisit someone close to them who’s died, and then let them die internally. That doesn’t mean forget them. It just makes them let them die, come to terms that we no longer have them.

So, we don’t want to tell another man or a woman particularly our thoughts, our fantasies, particularly sometimes our sexual fantasies. We human beings act strangely, as if our sexual fantasies are somehow unique to us. And yet, in point of fact, whenever, in my 38 years experience, I have never heard a unique sexual fantasy in all those years. We’re all in the same boat. There’s one thing to be modest and discreet….something our present media could learn I think…it’s one thing to be modest and discreet, it’s another thing to feel one has to hide one’s sexual fantasies, particularly if they’re interfering with one’s relationship.

Only when we allow ourselves to talk about what’s inside us, can we find out how human we are. And how our life and our psychological experiences unite us, rather than separate us. I’ve worked with many, many people who came in rather isolated. They were not able to connect with their fellow workers, with members of the opposite sex, very limited relationships with people of their own sex, accomplished people. And it’s only as they’re able to find their humanity, their common humanity that they automatically connect with someone else. As I’ve mentioned many times here. Human pain, having difficulty, conflicts are either experienced as a prison or ultimately experienced as a bridge. We can lock all that stuff inside of us, and have a strong external face, or always be smiling as if the world, as if we’re always supposed to be terribly happy about everything. Or, we can revisit that place inside of ourselves, and in talking about it, we actually can, it now becomes a bridge. And the result is that one is able to say …. I now understand my fellow man much more. I’m less likely to be judgmental; I’m less likely to feel isolated.

The goal of any dynamic therapy is actually to help people to grow up on the inside. It’s very important to remember that our emotional history is doomed to repeat itself and to live itself out in the present unless we know it. And the talking cure, I’ve used that term before, the talking cure. the term actually goes back to Freud, one of his patients. I think I’ve mentioned that…one of his patients said, oh this is really a talking cure, isn’t it? …a talking cure is one that may be used to figure out how to help ourselves put the past to rest. I think it’s worth repeating since so many people misunderstand why anyone should, along with their present problems, bother to talk about their past. And again, I know I’m focusing on this but this is I think the biggest resistance to coming to therapy. The truth is only when we understand and work through whatever leftover issues we have, can we let them be.

Can we let the past be the past, rather than constantly overshadowing the present? When a husband or the wife, who may in a fit of anger, says to their spouse, “oh you’re just like your mother,” or “oh you’re just like your father.” A spouse can get very defensive and angry and shouts back. Well, of course, a sentence like hat can be used to just express anger…. But, not infrequently, a sentence like that really has a grain of truth. If a person could understand it, realize it, they might have a little more freedom…their marriage might be saved. I think I mentioned last week, for example, a man whose parents have gotten divorced while he was a young person….he was left home with his mother; a mother who very frequently, in our society, had to go out to work …such a person will usually bring many feelings into his adult marriage.

If he had, if a young say teenager, had to emotionally take care of his mother. If, maybe, he had to do some housework or cooking, if dad was absent, maybe he’s home every other weekend, but emotionally absent. All these experiences are important to understanding why he might develop a very self-protective attitude that he would bring to his marriage. That the wife would experience as him being closed off and non communicative and he would experience as simply protecting himself. Because he had to learn somewhere between 12 and 18 that, that’s what he had to do, since he was thrown into a kind of emotional washing machine, and he had to protect himself.

As I’ve mentioned before, sometimes a mother or father, who is alcoholic, or just not able, or sometimes not willing to hold down a steady job, in that situation a child is going to feel constantly tossed and turned. And it’s very hard for someone, as a child, to understand what’s going on. And what they will do, very frequently a child will do, is simply deny it, give themselves a strong upper lip, and get through it. And is that admirable? Of course it is. But is it going to have consequences? Yes it is going to have consequences. And those are the consequences that affect people in their relationships. Children expect to be taken care of, they want to be taken care of. And when a parent’s needs interfere with that need, although the child might adapt to the situation, they might stay home or help with the housework, or go along with the situation, it always leaves unresolved issues. It has to.

Even in a household where there is no divorce but where a mother or a father doesn’t give the kind of sensible love and caring, I don’t mean gifts, I just mean sensible love and caring a child expects, in that circumstances as well, a child collects a lot of feelings and simply buries them. But what we bury, does not, for the most part, stay underground. What we bury from our emotions or our memories collects, like soot in the chimney. And unless we clean it out, it will, whether we know it or not, affect our lives. It will affect the fire of our lives. Whether or not we clean it out. So let me leave you with that thought for a minute. We’re going to have an interruption. Not interruption, break. Excuse me. And I’ll be back in just a minute or so. [Commercial Interruption 00:17:05]

Let me continue with what we were talking about. As we’re growing up we have many difficult experiences, and actually even if they’re not so difficult, human beings simply develop what we call defenses. And defenses develop because we have no other choice usually at that particular moment in our life, with our emotion and intellectual understanding.

Not infrequently when a couple is having difficulty or one or other of the spouses will show a defense, will use a defense of projection. I’m going to just talk now briefly about a few of the defenses that we human beings use. That is when a person finds fault with those around them. Constantly projecting one’s fear of being deficient for example, onto others, whom they experience as deficient or uncaring…very, very common defense and yet very hard to capture. Because the person will say, “no you don’t understand, he does this, he does that, or she does this or she does that.” And they’re just not able to see how what they’re complaining about in someone else is truly present in them…very difficult defense to get a hold of. Only by remembering one’s own parent’s actions, their way of handling problems and issues, can a person get an understanding of such a psychological maneuver. Sometimes a person simply claims not to remember their growing up years. I’ve had many patients who would, with honesty, initially say; “well I don’t remember anything before I was 15.” And that’s nearly almost impossible. If someone tells me that, it doesn’t indicate bad will. It just indicates, I suspect, they had a lot of pain and difficulty and that they just pushed it away.

Again, there’s nothing wrong with pushing it away, except if we really could just push it away and it doesn’t have any effect on us, good for us. The point is, it does have an eff3ect on us. Patients will sometimes say to me, “well those years really don’t matter at all.” Sometimes a person will ignore the hurt they feel at the hands of a self-preoccupied father, or mother. or even an older sibling. They ignore such life experiences although they frequently are living part of them out with their own wives, or children. Now, what’s very important when I said before that we’re not interested in giving people directives of formulas, because they don’t work. That may work for a little while but they really don’t work in the long run. I want to make another thing clear. When we talk about parents with defenses, or parents we had, even alcoholic parents we’re not talking about blaming anyone.

Nor should any competent therapist be interested in pinning the tail on the donkey, so to speak. That’s not what we’re about, that’s not what real therapy is about. Every human being comes, as I said, with his personal history and his reaction to that history. And that’s true of one’s parents as it is of oneself. One of the goals of life, I think, is to learn from our experiences and not to just past them on. I’ve spoken about creating our lives, when I’ve spoken about being alive. I’ve thinking about to own our personal life by confronting and resolving what is painful, difficult, or embarrassing. Projecting is very hard to get a hold of; denial is very hard to get a hold of.

The wife or the husband who will say to their spouse, “you don’t understand, I’m really very unhappy here, you keep doing A, B, and C. A, B and C.” and the husband or spouse who then says, “but don’t you understand A, B, and C is necessary, that’s who I am and I’m really doing it for all these motives.” In that kind of situation you have an impasse. And it’s only in that kind of an impasses that really talking with someone, can help both parties see where they’re coming from, and perhaps there are other scripts around that they’re not aware of. Very frequently one or other spouse in the marriage really doesn’t recognize the importance of what may have gone on in their own childhood. They’ll have surface knowledge. They can know where they grew up and what their father and mother did, etc, etc. But unless they talk out what happened to them, in the presence of their spouse, now, they will not convey very important aspects of themselves. Why is that important?

I don’t mean it’s important because if we join up what I said last week, one way we have of getting along with each other is when we’re able to put ourselves in each other’s shoes. And the technical term for that is “cross identification.” You will be surprised to find out, and we’ve been surprised over many, many years, that couples can truly love each other and have lived together for many years and don’t really have a deep emotional understanding of what happened to each others spouse and how it affected them growing up. Once they have that knowledge, suddenly they’re able to put themselves in their spouse’s shoes, so to speak, and a lot of the surface tension is resolved. Why? Because they now understand it, if you understand something you don’t have to just constantly react to it.. Big difference. Understanding help us handle the situation, not constantly react to it.

How can anyone really make a decision, either to stay in a marriage, or to leave marriage, unless they know who they are living with, unless they have this kind of knowledge? People make this kind of decision all the time and frankly it escapes me. Our divorce rate is somewhere between 50%-60%. And I’m not against divorce per se, but there is something really, really off, that it’s such a high degree.

What I’m saying here is that it’s very possible to live with someone, to react to their actions, and to be convinced that one knows them at a deep level and yet not really to have an emotional understanding of them. Very frequently all the anger and frustration and hurt that can come from a decision, and the decision either to stay, or to divorce, is just accepted, rather than confronted – with some attempt to look into the issues. That is for each spouse to say something like …let me examine this situation a little bit, let me not be defensive, as if I suddenly find out that I’ve been defensive, I’ve lost my self worth.

Exactly wrong. If I find out that I’ve been living in denial for a coupe of years, I’m embarrassed. I might even be a little humiliated. But once I get through those surface feelings, I realize I now have much more freedom. I don’t have to defend my action as if I’ve lost self worth. And I think a lot of resistance to therapy comes from that. That people feel they’re going to compromise their self worth if they suddenly realize that they’ve been doing things not fully in their own awareness. Each couple in a marriage situation brings, as I’ve said, their memories of either their mother or father, to the present marriage table. They’re either modeling their own behavior and what they experienced, or in some cases, desperately trying to act totally different.

All of which, as I’ve said, is perfectly understandable. But when difficulties and strain become an everyday occurrence it’s worthwhile to think about the possibility that one might be imitating a certain aspect of ones’ parents’ behavior and simultaneously be perfectly oblivious to that fact. That may seem hard to accept, but I assure you it is more than an everyday occurrence, particularly if we had a parent who we had ambivalent relationships with. Many times the last thing we want to see in ourselves is oh my gosh, I’m just like my dad. Wow. I can’t believe that. You’re wrong. You’re wrong, I’m right. I’m not like my dad at all. And it takes a little while; hopefully it only takes a little while, before a person can say, “ I didn’t know that.”

I’m going to speak about this a little more next week. Some of the issues, well actually, I won’t get into it in too much detail right now…but some of the issues I want to talk about next week, is, what are some of the defenses that we’ve heard of and how can we handle these defenses in a way that makes us feel that we’re in control of our life? That we’re not humiliated by self-knowledge, so that we’ can be more open to life. You know, I started the show this morning saying, wasn’t it a beautiful day. Doesn’t it make you just love this blue, green planet that we live on?

We’ve got to love ourselves on a deep level and when we can do that and we know who we are, we can bring love to those around us. And frankly without sounding maudlin or simplistic about this, isn’t that really the goal of life? So, have a great week. This is Dr. Gerry in the psychotherapist corner. We’ll see you next week.

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