Core Desired Relationship Goals, Part Deux
I recently met a married couple named Craig and Kathryn. Kathryn is a self-described Type-A control freak. She told me she is "addicted to perfection," and I believed her. From her head to her toes, her outer appearance was flawless, unruffled and completely in control. Her husband appeared equally well-coiffed, although I could tell he was ill at ease. When he made a lighthearted joke as he entered the room, Kathryn shot him a death glare. "Cut it out," she hissed. "Be serious."
Ah-ha, I thought. We might have some issues here.
"What brings you to my office?" I asked, after offering them both something to drink. Craig asked for coffee, but Kathryn shook her head. "No, we aren't drinking caffeine, remember? He will have decaf tea, if you have any. Just water for me, no ice and a little lemon."
I tried to keep from raising my eyebrows. Craig looked like he could use something much stronger than decaf tea...or coffee, for that matter.
"It's 12:03," announced Kathryn, "I only have 45 minutes until I need to leave here and go to lunch with a new client. So let's get right to it."
Kathryn interrupted me. "Craig never wants to have sex. He claims he isn't cheating, but what kind of grown man doesn't want to have sex with his wife? Give me a break."
"Let's slow down a little," I said, as Craig looked at his shoes intently. "First of all, lots of men don't want to have sex, for a variety of reasons, and there is nothing wrong or abnormal about that."
"I do want to have sex!" said Craig.
"Not when I ask you!" accused Kathryn.
"You don't ask me!" complained Craig. "You tell me!" Turning to me, he said, "She gives me a to-do list every day with all the things I need to get done. Sometimes, she puts sex on there, right under the grocery store and the meeting at the kids' school."
"So what?" asked Kathryn. "All the experts say to schedule sex. Don't you, Dr. Berman?"
"Well, yes, scheduling sex can be a good—
"See, I told you," Kathryn interrupted. "And that's not the only thing. He's always undermining me with the twins. I tell them to do something and he comes along and lets them off the hook."
"She's too hard on them," said Craig, giving me a plaintive look. "She runs the house like a drill sergeant. They are only six years old."
"Six-year-olds can make their beds!"
"Sure, but without a single wrinkle? Give me a break, Kath," groaned Craig. "She wants the house to look a museum. I don't know why. We never have friends over. She says they make a mess."
Kathryn's cell phone started ringing. I took the moment to leap into the conversation. As she silenced her phone, I asked her, "Kathryn, why is it important for you to have such a clean house? Why do you need the beds not to have a single wrinkle?"
"Because," she said, speaking slowly, as if I was a child, "That is the right way to do it."
"Who told you that?" I asked.
"I don't know...the world? My parents? What kind of question is that? It's obvious. No one had to tell me," she said, clearly struggling with the question and annoyed with me for asking it.
"What do you want your kids to learn from you? What lesson are you imparting when it comes to the bed-making?" I asked.
"That they need to be responsible and work hard," she said.
"That is a lesson that could be learned from making the bed. But what lesson is learned from them being told there can't be a single wrinkle on the bed or they are in trouble?"
She paused and got a little red-faced. "To do it right the first time!"
"What happens in life if you don't do something right the first time?"
She looked at me like I was stupid. "You fail."
"Who told you that? Who told you a six-year-old has to be perfect at a new skill or she is a failure?"
Craig mouthed the words, "Dad." Kathryn looked down, "My dad, I guess. He was in the Army. I always tell Craig he has no idea what a drill sergeant really is."
"I can't help it. I just want to be perfect. Is that a crime?" she asked.
"How do you want to feel?" I asked.
"Perfect!" she said again, annoyed.
"Perfect isn't a feeling. How do you want to feel?"
"Perfect," she said, again, flatly.
I just looked at her. In that moment, I was able to see all the pain she was carrying, the pain that had been her portion in her life since before she was able to walk. "Not good enough, not good enough" was the constant refrain she must have heard growing up. What a burden to place on a little girl. No wonder the woman sitting before me today felt like she couldn't leave the house until every hair was in place and every wrinkle was ironed out of her shirt. No wonder she couldn't give and receive Quantum Love to her family. She couldn't even give it to herself.
I took a moment to ground myself and open my heart, and sent loving energy to her. "You are good enough. You are worthy. You are so worthy," I thought, looking at her without changing my expression or saying a word.
Her facial expression changed a little. I kept sending the energy, breathing in and out, and letting the silence grow in the room. Craig stopped staring at his shoes and started looking at Kathryn.
Suddenly, she was crying. "I want to feel loved, Dr. Berman. I want to feel loved and I want my kids to feel loved. I want my husband to love me. I want us to have passionate sex like we used to. I just want to have a happy family."
"What are you doing in your life to help you feel that way?"
"Huh?" she asked, frowning. "I don't know. Just trying to stay on top of everything. Going to work, keeping the house clean. Trying to make sure the kids do good in school."
"How does that make you feel loved? How does that make your family feel loved?"
"I don't know!" she said, exasperated. "They will feel loved later when they look back as successful adults. They will see the sacrifices I made for them to have a good life. They will understand why I yell all the time. They will understand why the house has to be clean and why work comes first."
"I want to challenge you a little on that belief,” I said, quietly. “Is it possible they might not understand that at all?"
"What the hell do you want me to do?" she snapped. "Have a messy house? Let the kids run wild? Let Craig sleep in and skip the gym? How would that make my life better?"
"Is your house really clean right now?" I asked.
"Of course," she said, almost offended.
"Are you happy?"
She glared at me.
"Listen," I said, "I don't care if your house is clean or messy. I think that's a symptom of a much larger issue. You are running yourself ragged trying to make your life perfect. You want your kids to be perfect and your husband to be perfect. Why is that? It's because a long, long time ago, someone—someone who was very, very wrong—taught you that being perfect is the way to get love. It's the way to get protection. It's the way to be safe and valued."
She looked at me.
"I'm telling you that person was wrong. You are already loved. At your core, all you are is love. And you have love all around you. My guess is Craig and your kids love you more than anything. And it's not because you make your bed without any wrinkles. It's not because your kitchen floor is so clean it sparkles. It's because you are worthy of their love and you are deserving of love. It's your birthright. And they are trying to give it to you. But every day you hand it to back, saying 'I am not good enough yet, I have to do more work before I deserve this.' How heartbreaking."
She seemed to hear me. Craig started rubbing her back. The energy of the room felt calm for the first time since she walked in. I could hear her breathing.
I began, "When you make your to-do list tomorrow—
"I can still make a to-do list?" she asked, eagerly.
I laughed. "Of course. But when you make your list, make sure you are thinking about how you want to feel. How you want Craig to feel, your twins to feel. You can still be Type-A if you want! But if your energy comes from a place of love, rather than a place of self-hatred, I bet you will find that your happiness (and your success) doubles."
"What about the sex?" Craig asked.
"We have to talk about that next time," I said, "Kathryn is going to be late for her meeting!"
"Oh, s#@t!" she exclaimed, grabbing her bag and leaping out of her seat.
"See you next time!" I called out.
I was barely finished talking before she was out the door. Baby steps, I thought, smiling, sending one last wave of positive energy to her retreating back.
Laura Berman, PhD, is a sex and relationship educator and therapist. Her latest book is Quantum Love: Use Your Body’s Atomic Energy to Create the Relationship You Desire.