Independence in life equates radical dependence


I wanted to compliment you on today’s article (tinyurl.com/kgryauc). I especially liked Tony Gaskins’ quote: “You teach people how to treat you by what you allow, what you stop and what behavior you reinforce.”

Your comment on Selfhood reminded me of Leo Buscaglia. Remember him? I enjoyed his book so much. He was the first person I remember to introduce me to that term.

I am 66 years of age and have been married 12 years. My husband retired three years ago and has become very sedentary, content to absorb himself with napping and TV watching. He worked 50 years in the banking business/business loans and is 74 years old. He might be depressed, but Gaskins’ quote prompted me to ask myself how I may have contributed to his lack of interest by how I “put up with” his behavior.

It really has become a problem in our marriage, and I have begun to open discussions about it, but his response is that he enjoys watching TV. I have asked him if he will go to counseling, and he has never been and does not intend to. Do you think it would be beneficial for me to go to counseling without him?

— D.B., Las Vegas

Ah, Leo Buscaglia! I’ll always remember him as a pioneer in our modern day. He presented (and practiced) the idea of love as a teachable skill. That is, not merely a feeling and more than a philosophical ideal. And, you’re right, he spoke of selfhood! This is all the more astonishing when you consider he had no training (academic or otherwise) in the field of psychology. I’m saying he essentially intuited what modern psychology calls “differentiation” (the work of selfhood.) He knew individual “love skills” (that is, the capacity to love with depth, constancy and fidelity) were quite dependent on that individual’s development of self.

Cliche but inarguable: You can’t give away what you don’t possess.

And now your husband is retired. You witness inertia. He is sedentary. Uninspired. Bravo for you that you can pause and examine yourself in this “family system.” That is, you are asking how it is you might “contribute” to your husband’s behavior. I think that’s wisdom. I think that’s love. I wish I could transplant your maturity into a lot of parents and spouses I meet. When we find ourselves noticing a “problem” or a “disappointment” in someone we love, it’s often the case we bear some complicity in what we are beholding.

Maybe that’s what they mean when they say, “When you point your finger at someone, there are three fingers pointing back at you!” Maybe that’s what Jesus means when he says, “Judge not, lest ye be judged.” He’s not prohibiting us making critical observations about relationships. He’s merely saying that, sooner or later, we will be a part of the critical observation we are making! Jesus: The original Bowenian therapist!

OK, that’s an inside joke for therapists who read my column. On the other hand, if you liked Buscaglia, you’ll love Murray Bowen! Now there’s a guy whose passion is the work of selfhood!

Yes, I think it could be beneficial for you to go to counseling without him. But let’s define “beneficial.”

Competent counseling (therapy) could help you examine your role in the malaise you are observing in the marriage. Competent counseling can always help us in the next step of our differentiation (a lifelong process). But …

When Spouse A flatly refuses — indignantly, defiantly, or passively — to join Spouse B in examining (and growing and healing) the marriage, and Spouse B nonetheless marches forward in individual counseling desiring that same end, the chances increase that what Spouse B will chiefly accomplish in individual counseling is that he/she will learn to be more of an individual!

I’m saying that individual therapy as a strategy for improving marriage sometimes works.

But other times, it can accelerate the divide. Marriage is for growing vulnerability, intimacy and interdependence. It’s not for people whose greatest value is independence.

Or, as Amir Levine says in his book “Attached,” the most independent life we can have will come when we find at least one person upon whom we can radically depend.

So, yes, I think individual counseling is a good thing. But my prejudice would be that you would announce your intention clearly to your husband, not to mention the hazards about which he is either ignorant or cavalier.

I think of this as a move of good faith on your part. Not to mention fair warning.

Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). His columns also appear on Sundays in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Contact him at 702-227-4165 or skalas@reviewjournal.com.