When I worked in Family Based, I gained a lot of experience working with dysfunctional families. I worked with families from all different walks of life.
I have started focusing in on relationships because I feel strongly that you have to have a strong foundation before you can build anything. I want to share with you one session with one family that opened my eyes to the self-destruction couples can engage in and the repercussions it causes.
We walked into the home on a beautiful sunny day. After knocking on the door, someone yells from the back of the house, “It’s open!” We walked in and the first room you are in is the living room.
A big wood burning fireplace was the feature of the room.
Hung above the mantel was a large framed family photograph, the kind you get taken by a professional photographer. Everyone was wearing jeans and a white shirt. Our client was about 7 years old in the photo and now she is 17. Both Mom and Dad seemed happy in the picture.
It felt ironic studying their faces in the photograph because I knew the emotional state of the family members now.
The dogs who normally get sent to the basement when we are there were scurrying around our feet nervously excited for some pets before they get sent away. We were asked to come early that day so that Mom and Dad could have a session together before the kids got home from school.
Their daughter had been the symptom bearer for their relationship failure for years and she was now old enough that she was causing a lot of problems at school, which is how we got involved. She was getting suspended almost daily, but never to the point of getting sent home, just to a different in-school suspension room.
My experiences with younger kids taught me that when stuff was going on at home, they wanted to be sent home. Older kids were usually the opposite. The daughter had gotten suspended again at school and her parents had finally come to the place where they acknowledged that they needed to be on the same page.
So there we sat.
A breeze flew in and lifted my hair as the curtains billowed around me.
I giggled nervously because it felt like we were welcomed statues in the home. My partner and I exchanged glances as the feeling in the room shifted between calm and extremely tense. I had no idea what was coming next.
Usually, we had to fight to get the television sound to be turned down in that room. As I stared at my reflection in powerless television, I tried to think through a game plan.
We heard shuffling in the kitchen and my partner got up to see who was in there. As he stood, the front screen door flew open and the Dad stormed into the home.
Then, the hurricane, or…maybe a tornado? Semantics.
I do not remember the content of the argument that suddenly erupted nor did I feel like I even had the bearings to manage the emotions in the room.
Both parents were yelling at the tops of their lungs.
My ears started ringing due to the pure juxtaposition between the dead silence we experienced to the unforeseen war taking place. Both my partner and I stood up and went to the kitchen where they both were.
Something about the roast that should have been in the oven by now and “lazy you know what” and “there is no money” were all swirling around me. After exchanging slightly panicked glances, my partner finally raised his voice and shouted, “ENOUGH! Can we please sit down and talk because we have no idea what is going on?”
Mom agreed and lead us into the living room. She quickly got mad at the dogs for being there and sent them downstairs. Dad stayed at the kitchen table, within ear and eye shot of the sofa where I sat. “He cut off my phone.
He fucking cut off my phone.”
The mom started sobbing and said she applied for a waitressing job, but that her husband didn’t want her to work there because she may get hit on. “I cut off her phone because she shouldn’t be allowed to talk to whoever she wants to.”
I again encouraged him to come into the room where we were and he proceeded to talk in the kitchen about how money is so tight, but that his wife won’t work.
She shredded the tissue in her hands and she nervously explained to him that she tried to get a job. He got up, walked past us and went to his truck. He came back in and started fussing around in the kitchen. He got mad that there was no more soda left and the mom started yelling back.
The tornado was back just in time as our client walked in the front door with her headphones wrapped around her neck.
She surveyed the room with her eyes, locked eyes with me and mouthed,
I shrugged my shoulders and invited her to sit down next to me.
As she started to sit, her Mom asked her, “What the hell is your problem?”
I looked at the mom and reminded her, “You are in an argument with your husband, not your daughter.” I looked at the girl who rolled her eyes back at me and I asked her how her day was. I knew how stupid that question must have felt to her, but I suddenly felt flush with anger.
I was angry for her.
Being a teenager is hard enough, but this is what you walk home to? Her father never acknowledged her presence and flew past her with the keys to the truck yelling, “I guess I will get my own goddamn soda.”
The mom started to cry and the teenager attempted to console her saying, “Dad’s a jerk sometimes.” The mom yelled at her for talking poorly about her dad and the teenager, rightfully so, left the room.
I only have one word to describe the session:
These two parents have let their relationship become destructive not only to themselves but to their children too. Sadly, their relationship has become such a source of emotional distress that they cannot see past it.
Power plays are being pulled every few seconds during their conversations in a desperate attempt for one of them to feel better. Major power plays like turning off someone’s phone is a sign of abuse. Their words, their actions, their nonverbal cues were all teetering on the edge of abuse.
What is incredibly sad is that there are children who should never be involved in such aggression and anxiety. I was a grown adult trained in crisis prevention and I felt incredibly uncomfortable even before the fighting commenced.
A piece of why I have begun this mission to spread the word about mental health is because very little can be salvaged by the time we get called into situations like this. The utter destructiveness between this couple has seeped into their children’s thoughts and feelings too.
Children are not responsible for their grown ups’ feelings, ever.
Children are not the caretaker of adults, ever.
Relationships turn sour sometimes and the biggest lesson I learned from this family is that the sourness needs to be recognized the second it happens. The very second power becomes an issue in a relationship, therapy needs to happen.
I believe that picking the right mate for your life is a very difficult thing to do and happenstance will not carry a relationship through the ups and downs of life. When the money is really tight, when kids get in trouble, when the car breaks down, you need to have a VERY solid foundation with your partner. Nothing else will get you through the curveballs of life if you do not have a solid foundation, even if that is just in yourself.
Please, trust what I am saying as this is all but one of the many destructive observations I have made as a therapist.