Anastasia, 6 pounds 11 ounces, was born 36 hours after her mother, Marianne, received word that her own mother, had died suddenly of an undiagnosed circulatory disease. The shock provoked the onset of labor, three weeks before full term. The baby was forced to stay in the hospital for five days following delivery, due to a high bilirubin count. She received ultra-violet treatment, and on the sixth day, was cleared for discharge by Dr. Mellandio, the hospital’s chief obstetrician. When the doctor said, “Everything is perfect now,” Marianne burst into tears. Losing her mother amplified the postpartum depression that had taken hold.
Marianne’s husband, Patrick, had been with her throughout the hospital stay, just as he had been during the birth of their first child, Ryan. They had been married for four years, and were each in their late thirties. The couple had prepared a crib festooned in pink cut-out illustrations of smiling animals and colorful shapes. These hung on the walls and seemed to mock Marianne’s limp, gray expression. Her appetite vanished, and her sleep was fitful. She sat by the window for hours at a time, rocking her newborn and sobbing intermittently.
Months later, in their first couples session, Marianne said, “I never experienced or imagined anything like this feeling. I felt so alone. I did my best to reach out to Patrick, but he was oblivious, preoccupied with other things.”
Patrick explained that when she returned from the hospital, he knew Marianne was ‘somewhere else.’ “I held down the fort while she recovered, doing everything so that she could heal.” He went on to describe how he shopped, cooked, cleaned, laundered and attended to Ryan. He imagined that he was tending to his wife with the kind of care he would hope to receive from her if he was the one in need. What he did not take into account was the question of whether this was the kind of care she wanted from him.
He felt it his duty to problem- solve by enacting solutions, not questions. Questioning himself about his solutions, to him, seemed pointless. But Marianne laid out the reasons that she had felt abandoned and betrayed by him. It never occurred to him that she could feel neglected by his careful attention to the details of the care he gave her.
Marianne’s suffering was extreme; it exceeded anything that she ever felt before. This created a desperation that she was ashamed to share. She feared that her neediness would make her seem weak to Patrick. And she was embarrassed to let him know this. The longer he took to provide the support she really needed—no matter what else he did—the greater her resentment grew, and she felt increasingly isolated and hopeless.
As the depression continued, her mood cast a shadow of disapproval over their interactions. He responded by avoiding conversation about feelings. Bitterness permeated whatever they did together. Patrick’s responses became sharper and more caustic until they were bickering constantly. This is how it was when they showed up at my office to work on their relationship.
Marianne shared a dream she had had the day before their first session. She said, “I dreamed I was some kind half-fish, half-human, like a mermaid, swimming around in a monstrously huge glass tank. The glass was light green, like an old glass Coke bottle, and it gave everything a kind of sickly tinge. I was in something like the Coney Island aquarium, where they had sharks and other ocean creatures in other big tanks. I was on exhibit, and people streamed by, some pointing fingers and gawking, but most just glancing at me, then moving on. Outside the glass, I saw people’s mouths move, but heard nothing. Time passed in slow motion, I swam in circles, up to the glass and then turned abruptly, going back and forth between the walls of the tank, kind of like pacing in the water. At one point, I tried to scream and bubbles came out of my mouth but no words. Nobody noticed. Then I spotted Patrick. I rammed the glass to get his attention. He looked toward me, then turned back away. He was preoccupied with something. He wasn’t looking for me and hadn’t kept track of what might have happened to me. I was bewildered and terrified at my metamorphosis, but he didn’t even seem curious. I then had a realization that the tank was filled up with my tears. Somehow I realized that the more I cried, the more impossible it was going to be to get free. And then I woke up with a very angry feeling.”
The meaning of the dream seemed clear to me, but Patrick gave it little importance. “It’s interesting, sure. But it’s a dream. It’s not reality.”
I responded, “Certainly it isn’t reality. Marianne isn’t a mermaid and you didn’t walk by a tank where she was on exhibition. But what if we entertain the possibility that there’s a message within the dream that might convey her inner feelings in a way that could be useful? Do you think a conversation about the dream might help Marianne to unpack her feelings and might help you both begin to understand one another better?”
Patrick said, “Possibly, but why use a dream? Why can’t she just say what she means?”
Marianne turned to Patrick and said, “I realize you take care of all the chores around the apartment and that is something. But what I wanted and needed was for you to come to me, sit with me, talk to me, ask me what I was going through, press me for details and help me to understand that things would get better. I felt hopeless, and I wanted your support in feeling hopeful again. The dream shows me in a cage, like a prison. That’s how I felt. You never seemed to get that. I was totally alone in that. I wanted and needed you to draw me out and let me tell you how lost and alone I felt. Once I knew that you could grasp where I was, then I wouldn’t feel quite as lost, knowing you had gone that distance to join me. That would be the only way I could feel less lost and alone. Instead, I went through it by myself. You stayed away from me, spending all your time doing chores. You never approached me emotionally, and it made me feel like a leper.”
Patrick seemed moved hearing this. “I’m sorry that I didn’t understand this sooner. I don’t want you to feel this way. Not at all. I put in a lot of effort trying to help you feel cared for. This is not what I wanted. Can you see that?” Patrick had begun to tear up. He looked very uncomfortable and put his hands over his eyes and leaned forward to obscure the fact that he was crying.
It was Marianne’s turn to soften. There was still a lot of conversation to process but this moment provided a breakthrough that helped each partner feel that working on the relationship might be possible, that healing was a possibility.
A crucial aspect of communication often involves listening for what is not said. I’m not talking about mind reading. I’m talking about knowing your partner well enough so that, in certain situations, you can ‘fill in the blank’ and make an accurate assessment of what they need, while keeping in mind that they may not be able to articulate it for themselves.
I welcome comments questions and such. Do you have a hunch about where I’m headed here? Let me know! The person who comes closest to the mark will receive a copy of both of my current books.