Ever start a difficult conversation with your spouse feeling clear as a bell at the beginning and then find yourself muddled and confused by the end? It’s a phenomenon I see almost daily in my work with couples.
Tracy and Charles had been married 18 years when they came in to see me. They were both feeling disconnected and they found themselves fighting more and more of late. They were both feeling on the hopeless side and wondered if they were going to make it. In their first session they told me about their most recent argument.
Tracy had just initiated a conversation about what to do about a serious issue with one of their 3 children, when the little one came in and interrupted them. When she left 2 minutes later, Charles, a busy executive, looked at his watch and told Tracy he needed to go do some work upstairs in his office. He got up and left the room. Tracy was incensed, and she followed him to point out what he’d just done. Charles “didn’t get it” and began explaining to her why he had to go upstairs. He had a vacation to plan for the 2 of them, and he had something to research for his mother.
She had already been thinking about how Charles would either “forget” about a lot of their talks, or how he “wouldn’t get it” when she’d explain an issue over and over and over. It was like a slow drip torture. Tracy felt both angry and crazy – a tough combination.
When she confronted him about his “forgetfulness” this time (he “forgot” they were having an important discussion), Charles – predictably – “didn’t get it”. She left the conversation – like she left many of them – feeling confused and frustrated, not having any idea where it had gone awry.
Tracy had tried to stay on topic, but Charles just kept repeating and adding detail to explain why he’d had to go upstairs…It was getting late…He had to get up early to make it to the gym…He really wanted to work on planning their vacation because in his very busy executive life there was very little fun to look forward to. He kept emphasizing that this was the only fun thing in his day, and that it was a vacation for the two of them for Christ sake! He didn’t say it but what he was communicating was what- more-do-you-want-from-me?
No matter how much Tracy tried to make him understand, he just “couldn’t see it”. Before she knew it she was arguing about everything from how he managed his time to how his busy schedule wasn’t her problem to how little fun he was having in his life. It wasn’t too long before Tracy was screaming at Charles about how she didn’t even WANT to go on the vacation with him!
Tracy was angry, but at this point, she was also lost and confused. Having grown up in a family who “didn’t get” that her mother was a raging alcoholic, Tracy was prone to thinking that perhaps her perceptions were incorrect – that perhaps she was just making too much of things. Should she feel bad for him? She knew how busy he was and how hard he worked. Was she being a “bitch”? But this happened so often!
Among systems therapists, this common pattern in marriage is known as the family projection process with a rigid triangulation pattern complicated by the invisible, emotional, multi-generational transmission progression. Among lay people it’s known as picking fly shit out of pepper.
Picking fly shit out of pepper means getting lost in a sea of little flecks while either missing or ignoring the big, stinking, mountain-of-a-pile of shit no one wants to deal with. With just the flick of a wand, Charles would move their conversations away from personal accountability into a sea of oblivion. His ability to dodge personal responsibility came easily to him. It was automatic, in fact. He didn’t have to think about it. When Tracy began to think about it – about what was really happening between them – things began to change.
In our first session, Tracy began to wonder, Why does he seem to “get it” at work but not at home? Charles held a high paying job that required he remember and understand complicated relationship dynamics. He was in charge of 90 employees and several complicated contracts. If he was this “forgetful” or thick minded at work he’d never have been able to keep his job! It didn’t make sense. Tracy started wondering in a new way what was going on.
Very quickly, she was able to shift from the misery of not trusting her own perceptions to taking them seriously by measuring them against the facts – facts like how Charles had to be sophisticated at work but could be a dunce at home. The more she reflected, the more facts emerged.
The systematic ways in which her family of origin trained her not to know what she knew became apparent. Her father played dumb and so did her sibs. When confronted directly, they got defensive, used guilt, and then gave her the silent treatment. Tracy was stunned when she saw clearly that Charles was doing the same thing.
The big, stinking, mountain-of-a-pile of shit had now been revealed. No more picking fly shit out of pepper. Tracy boldly got herself together and determinedly worked to not go blind to what was right in front of her. The clock had finally run out for Charles. The tables had turned. She wanted Charles to get his “shit” together and she wasn’t going to stick around for anything less.
Well…does Charles “get it”? Can Tracy maintain her sight AND a calm center? Do Tracy and Charles make it together? Stay tuned for Picking Fly Shit out of Pepper Part Two to find out!