1. Relationship Imbalance - RonaldMah

Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist,
Consultant/Trainer/Author
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The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars, Dependency and Histrionics in Couples and Couple Therapy
Chapter 1: RELATIONSHIP IMBALANCE


**Author’s Note: Other than public figures or people identified in the media, all other persons in this book are either composites of individuals the author has worked with and/or have been given different names and had their personal identifying information altered to protect and respect their confidentiality.

YOU BEFORE ME
When the therapist asks what has been going on, Johann is initially silent.  He appears to be trying to restrain himself, but his eyes dart quickly at Minnie.  Minnie’s entire posture is submissive as if she is trying to blend into the fabric of the chair she is sitting on.  She casts her eyes downward sadly.  As the silence persists, Minnie sneaks a furtive glance at Johann.  Then she glances quickly at the therapist.  There is a desperate appeal in her eyes that the therapist interprets as a cry for help.  Finally, Johann sighs deeply and says in a gentle but tired tone, “All right, I’ll start… we’ve been together for a long time.  We started dating in college… twenty years ago.  I had enough of the party girls… I wanted to meet a nice girl.  Minnie was so sweet… and she still is very sweet, but she can be so… so over the top with her… sweetness.  She’s always super attentive but sometimes, I need a little space.”  Johann looks quickly at Minnie.  She is wringing her hands, eyes cast down, with a stricken look on her face.  “Damn it,” groans Johann, “This is what always happens.  If I have the smallest criticism… the tiniest complaint about anything, she acts like I’m torturing her.”  Minnie squeaks in a whisper, “I’m sorry.”  “Sorry?  Sorry?” snaps Johann, “What good is ‘sorry’ when you don’t ever change.  You couldn’t even let my socks be!  You sort them ‘for me’ even though I’ve told you I like them I put them in my drawer.  You leave them alone… for a while and then you ‘forget’ and then, you’re ‘sorry’… again!”   The therapist asks Minnie what Johann is talking about.  Minnie doesn’t respond to the urgency Johann has about her pattern of behavior with him.  She is either somewhat dense or very adept at avoiding the core issue.  His frustration, his needs, her sensitivity, her reaction, and their dynamics are ignored.  Instead she professes great apology yet is defensive about Johann’s socks.  “I’m so stupid.  I’m sorry.  I thought Johann has to look nice when he goes to work.  And, he’s in such a rush in the mornings getting ready.  I just thought that having his dark socks separated from his sports socks would be helpful.  I’m sorry.  I’ll fix it.  I’ll switch your socks back to their drawer.”  Johann replies, “I told you before to leave my socks alone… to leave my drawers alone.  They work for me the way I have them.”  Before the words are completely out of his mouth, Johann realizes that he has been co-opted again.  They’re talking “socks” instead of about Minnie and what she does to him.  Minnie glances quickly towards the therapist for approval and then implores forgiveness from Johann with her eyes.  

Johann rolls his eyes in disgust and defeat.  “It’s NOT about the god damn socks!  It’s about you!”  With growing resentment evident in his voice, Johann asks the therapist, “See what I have to deal with?”  The pattern of their interactions has been played out in front of the therapist.  They are out of balance.  Minnie has subverted Johann’s righteous indignation, by being meek and self-deprecating.  She does not meet his upset with any upset of her own.  She asks meekly for him to tell her what he wants her to do.  She’ll do what he asks.  She does not ask for Johann for anything.  Verbal compliance and apology works to disable him.  She seems to give and give without asking or getting anything reciprocal in response.  Yet somehow, Johann feels that he has been manipulated… outwitted again.  Johann has become increasingly more frustrated as he has become more aware that Minnie has defeated him again.  As frustration becomes anger and he snaps at Minnie and glowers at her, he knows he seems to be more and more of an asshole in front of the therapist.   If he continues to insist on his issues, when his wife is so deferential and beating up on herself, he looks like… he feels like a jerk.  Frustration and anger is further complicated with guilt.  Johann started to complain to the therapist about being in trap in the relationship.

ONLY ME
Brandon was in a different trap.  Brandon and Hunter have been dating for about half a year.  Despite a sense of being stuck in something off, Brandon is ready to take the big step.  However, he has not been able to get Hunter to commit to a monogamous relationship, much less engagement and eventually marriage.  Was their relationship stuck out of balance?  He felt he was much more into her than she was into him.  Brandon is a software engineer in an information technology startup that is moving towards an IPO (initial public offering) that should richly reward him for his involvement in building the business.  He is in his early thirties.  Hunter called herself an "actress/performer," but mainly she waits tables at a semi-fancy Italian restaurant.  Hunter won’t say how old she is, but although she acts “young” she is closer to reaching thirty than just leaving twenty.  Hunter lit up with a huge smile, a cheery hello, and an exuberant handshake in the waiting room when the therapist came out.  She made an entrance into the office with Brandon trailing behind.  Hunter immediately praised the décor of the office… and kept the conversation on décor, shifting it shortly to her decorating plans for her apartment.

Within fifteen minutes, it became clear to the therapist that Hunter loved being a performer and is probably histrionic.  The therapist’s attention- that is, anyone’s attention just filled her up with energy.  In the session, Hunter eagerly described in great detail the new performance art piece that she is doing in a small club in San Francisco.  Whenever the therapist’s attention moved away from Hunter, she seemed to lose interest in the interchanges.  She even looked off around the room instead of keeping eye contact on the therapist or Brandon.  Her body language indicated disconnection whenever she was not attended to.  When the therapist interacted with Brandon, Hunter would attempt to bring the conversation and attention back to her in any way possible.  Being loud, funny…grandiose facial, hand, and body gestures worked well to draw the attention to her.  Hunter acted as if Brandon is competing for the attention of the therapist.  When the therapist spoke, it was acceptable only to the extent the communication was directed towards or about her.  However, if the therapist spoke to Brandon or Brandon is speaking, Hunter became uncomfortable having lost being the focus of conversation.   It may be okay for a short period if Brandon was talking about the Hunter, but it became intolerable to her if the therapist got Brandon to talk about his own experiences.  Even when cutting off Brandon’s words, Hunter did it in a charming manner that obscured the fact that it was an interruption.  Not only was there significant relationship imbalance between them in substantial emotional ways, Hunter skewed the conversational balance heavily towards her.

Hunter and whoever- for now, that meant Brandon.  Hunter really mattered to Brandon.  That was almost perfect for Hunter, because that was how she felt too- only Hunter really mattered to Hunter.  Johann on the other hand, wanted to matter to Minnie.  And, Minnie mattered to him.  However, Johann mattered too much to Minnie.  The relationship was not particularly Minnie and Johann.  More often it was either Johann or Minnie.  And turned out to be usually Johann and not Minnie getting needs met.  That was not only how Minnie often experienced their relationship, but also how she formed it.  Minnie compulsively catered to Johann including often against his desire and to his displeasure.  Flamboyant Hunter and demure Minnie seem to be polar opposites: Hunter declaring “me, me, me, me… look at me!” and Minnie deferring “you, you, you… not undeserving me.”  However, Hunter with histrionic personality disorder and Minnie with dependent personality disorder may have very similar core issues that drive their highly disparate characterological styles.  Examining each personality disorder and then, comparing how they manifest in relationships can offer guidance to the therapist working with a couple with one or the other personality disorder.  Both personalities can be very appealing and attractive to a partner, but over the longer haul of a committed relationship, they can drive the partner crazy.  And, if the therapist is unprepared, frustrate self and therapy.  They put pressure on the partner for reciprocally characteristic performance that challenges ones core sense of self.

ALWAYS THE BAD GUY
Brandon always had to be audience to Hunter’s histrionics.  In contrast to Minnie and Johann’s dynamics, Hunter needed to be the sun, the moon, and the stars to him… to everyone!  Brandon was not only not the sun, the moon, and the stars reciprocally to Hunter, but he seemed only important as cosmic matter to help fill her.  Hunter was like a black hole in space, drawing in all the attention and energy around her.  Brandon settled for a role of sidekick, second banana, and appreciative but benign spectator to the Hunter show.  On the other hand, Johann became the unwilling source of worth and purpose for Minnie.  In contrast to Hunter wanting to be the focus of attention, Minnie not only did not desire or strive for that adulation, but made her partner Johann the center of her universe… whether he wanted to be or not!  Minnie made Johann the sun, the moon, and the stars while dismissing herself.  If Johann sought some balance in their relationship, Minnie redirected the energy towards him nevertheless.  Yet, Minnie was very demanding that her needs would be met.  Those needs essentially were to be reassured that she was okay.  Although, Johann was the center of her world, he sensed it was not really about him.  And if he needed to appropriately focus on himself- that is, be selfish rather than soothe her or if he confronted Minnie on her neediness, he looked bad to the rest of the world… and to himself.  “I’m always the bad guy!  She makes me feel like a jerk when she does that.  But then she keeps on doing the same stuff anyway!  I’ve told her a dozen times, to let me ‘organize’ my clothes.  It may not seem organized to her… or to you, but it works for me.  My family just loves her, and they tell me I’m unreasonable!  She has MY family on her side!  Look… I love Minnie.  She’s a great mother.  She’s been incredibly supportive of me.  We’ve been through so much together.  Minnie has been behind me every step of the way.  But… she needs to have a life of her own.  It can’t be all about me.  Before, she kept herself busy with the kids, but they’re older now and don’t need their mom like before.  They’re more independent and making their own lives more and more.  She’s always put us…me first, but I need some space.  If I do anything, she’s in my business.  Sometimes, I want something for myself… I want to do something- go shopping, watch some sports with some friends… but she’s all over me.  When I tell her I’m ok to do something… that I don’t need her ‘helping’ me… that her ‘help’ isn’t helpful, she gets all messed up.  She pouts.  And all I get for a couple of days is either the silent treatment or I get punished by her suffering.”   Johann looks from the therapist to Minnie.  “Look,” pointing at Minnie who is teary and shrinking into her chair, “see, there she is suffering… punishing me for complaining about her!”

ADDRESS:
433 Estudillo Ave., #305
San Leandro, CA 94577-4915
Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, MFT32136
CONTACT INFORMATION:
phone: (510) 614-5641
fax: (510) 889-6553
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