John and Susan: A Case Example
John and Susan have been married for 7 years. They have two children, aged 5 and 3. John is a computer technician and Susan has been a homemaker since the birth of their first child. They live in a nice neighbourhood in one of the suburbs of a big city in Canada.
John and Susan were introduced to each other in college. They fell in love immediately and after dating for about four months, moved in together. They got married a year later. John liked Susan’s openness and sensitivity. He used to describe her as a “free spirit”, someone who could do the wildest thing on a whim. He loved her spontaneity and genuineness. Susan admired John’s brain and the way he made her laugh. She felt safe with him and believed he was very dependable. In the beginning of their relationship they got along really well and were very happy.
The first time they both started feeling that the relationship was not working well was after the birth of their first child. Initially, both wanted to have a baby and both were thrilled when their first daughter, Charlotte, was born. However, in the months following the birth they started arguing a lot about small things. Soon after, they started blaming one another for various things. Susan blamed John for not taking on a fair share of the baby’s care and house chores, and John blamed Susan for criticizing him and for always nagging him about “stupid little things”. Things had gotten so bad that they started thinking about separating. However, they still wanted to give it a try and in an attempt to mend things, they went away on a holiday, only to discover a couple of weeks after their return that Susan was pregnant again. At first they were both overwhelmed by the news, but then they talked it through and agreed that it had probably been a sign that they should stick together and raise their family. The next few months went fairly well. Susan felt that John was taking care of her and making sure she was comfortable and safe. Susan was mostly in a good mood and tried to minimize her requests from John. Things were looking up.
However, shortly after the birth of their son, Sean, they started fighting again. The tension in the house was getting worse every day. They were both very tired and drained. Susan was feeling overwhelmed with taking care of two children and she felt abandoned by John. She started begging him to come home early, or not to go to work at all. For his part, John was working more hours than ever. He often missed dinner and when he did not, he would often say he was exhausted and go to bed immediately after dinner. The bitterness and anger in the relationship grew more and more until John told Susan one day that he had rented an apartment, and was moving out. Susan was devastated. Even though she was very unhappy in the relationship, she did not expect that John would leave her. She was desperate and begged him to reconsider. They came to therapy as a “last resort”.
In therapy, it became clear that both Susan and John were not taking care of their own needs. They were both exhausted and were feeling completely tied down. Neither of them, especially Susan, was getting any breathers. One of the first things that Susan and John learned in therapy was to give each other some space and enable each other to take care of themselves. They have worked out a plan whereby each of them gets some time for themselves, 3 times a week. After 3 sessions, the fighting has diminished but the couple was still feeling alienated from one another.
In the next few sessions, we uncovered Susan and John’s cycle. It looked somewhat like this: Susan or John would make a comment about the kids, the house or a chore that needed to be done. The partner would react to it resentfully and would make a nasty remark. John would tend to withdraw and avoid Susan by going to bed or taking off. Susan would get irritated and pursue John, wanting to settle the matter on the spot. John would withdraw even further and would not speak to Susan, sometimes for days. At some point Susan would withdraw as well and they would not speak to each other for a few days, until one of them would mention something trivial to the other and they would start talking again.
In therapy, Susan and John were able to identify their insecurities about the relationship. Susan’s pursuit of John was motivated by her fear of abandonment; she feared he would leave her and was worried that if they did not resolve their differences immediately, he would leave. Each time John left the room or the house she interpreted it as him leaving her and would get even more desperate. John was withdrawing and avoiding Susan because he could not take the conflict. It was just “too much” for him. It meant that they were not getting along and that indeed there would be no alternative but to split up. John admitted that he dreaded a split up too. Susan and John learned that both had deep feelings for each other, and that both valued their relationship and wanted to stay together. Susan learned to give John some space and not pursue him when he was asking for a time-out. John learned to give Susan a sign that meant that he was not leaving her but just taking a time-out. With time, they also learned to listen to each other in a way that validated each other’s feelings, thoughts, hopes and wishes. They learned to work out their differences in a respectful and non-defensive way. Possibly, the most important thing they learned was that they had the tools, the ability and the desire to make their relationship a safe and comforting place, a sort of “safe haven” that couples can create for themselves and for their families.