Slip Out The Back, Jack?

Developing a “Therapy is Cool” Mindset

Do you have some energy and interest when coming to your weekly couples therapy appointment, or do you feel a creeping sense of dread and wish you could magically slip out unnoticed? What is it that can make the difference when feeling one way or the other? One client recently realized that he had two different aspects of himself that might show up to couples therapy. There’s “Jack,” think sad face, and “Jake,” think happy face. These two representations are about two different mindsets he might have walking in the door to couples therapy. Of course these aspects could apply to a male or female partner. Here they are:

On the one hand, there is Jack who is uncomfortable with conflict of any kind. He thinks it is an automatic fail when his wife has negative feelings about him. He believes it’s his job to keep his wife from ever having negative feelings and if she does have any, it seems like there is a flashing danger signal that says, “Warning, clear the area! Get away from these feelings and fast!” Imagine how stressful that is for Jack! If his wife does have negative feelings, Jack thinks the best thing to do is to try to talk his wife out of negative feelings as quickly as possible. (How well do you think that goes over?!) If that doesn’t work, his second choice is to capitulate on any given point in order to keep the peace, even though privately, he will be fuming. If both of the above do not work, then solving the point as quickly as possible makes sense to Jack. Because, for gosh sakes, whatever you do, thinks Jack, do not and I repeat, do not, linger around in the feelings!

On the other hand we have Jake who brings the attitude that it is okay if his wife wants to express unhappy emotions, even if they involve him. If something bothered her, and she is expressing it with respect, it’s okay because she is saying something about herself. He has figured out that it’s not his job to make sure that his wife is happy at all times. He doesn’t have to panic or deny or fix anything. Whew, what a relief! This takes the pressure off of him from feeling responsible for her and allows him to get more interested in her as a separate person. He knows, that like her, it is helpful to calm himself down and get curious about what is going on with her. When it is her turn to share, he can listen, ask questions and let her know when he understands what is up. Plus, the therapist is there to throw in some assists if he is at a loss for words. Also, Jake knows that he gets to talk about what is important to him—good, bad or indifferent—and share it with his wife.

Of course there are reasons Jack might show up to couples therapy. Like maybe Jack never had relationships where it was okay to talk and listen. Maybe in the past, sharing his inner experience would have resulted in ridicule or worse so he had to hide his true self. Realizing this and choosing to persist with creating different kinds of relationships can be a part of claiming a new life in adulthood. It is a conscious, proactive process. The exciting thing is, the old rules may not apply anymore, making way for a whole new way of being in relationships. For Jack, it’s a matter of updating his internal files and trying out some new ways of interacting. Nerve-wracking? Perhaps. But also rewarding to be able to develop new abilities for autonomy and closeness.

Sometimes it is Jack who starts the therapy, and then eventually Jake takes over because developing a new mindset is a process. Depending on whether a person brings a Jack or Jake state of mind to couples therapy, the experience can be entirely different. Jack may want to slip out the back at first. If he hangs in there, Jake may start showing up for a whole new experience.