Cruel Conversations and the Couples Who Have Them: Boston Sex Therapist on Becoming Curious About a Destructive Pattern
Posted on March 4, 2015 by Aline Zoldbrod
by Aline Zoldbrod, Ph.D. Psychologist, Marriage and Couples Therapist, and Certified Sex Therapist
I was watching the movie Le Weekend with Lindsay Duncan and Jim Broadbent the other day. From the perspective of a Boston sex therapist, this movie is a busman’s holiday. Two Brits going to Paris for an anniversary celebration. The two characters were well educated. He was a professor, she a teacher. They had been together for many decades. They were dependent on each other. He had had an affair 15 years ago. She would have nothing to do with him sexually, and he was literally crawling on the rug in a Paris hotel, on his hands and knees, just pleading with her to let him sniff her. It was never totally clear which came first the chicken or the egg, whether she had stopped being sexual with him because of the affair, or whether he had had the affair because she was so closed off sexually. At one point, she literally pushed him down in the street, and he hurt himself. Then he got up and walked on with her, acting like it was perfectly normal. She apologized, but still. This is abuse.
When watching a movie of people who do love each other but are intermittently cruel, though, the couples therapist can relinquish her therapy chair (with its wheels so she can get in good and close and stop this negative nonsense) and her good intentions and her interventions and just watch. So I did. It is an interesting and captivating movie, with that ambiguity which is more common in foreign films. No happy endings, tied with a bow, like box office hits in the U.S. But it is terribly hard for me to watch a movie like this.
This movie sets me to thinking about how a couple (like the ones I see in my office) gets into a pattern of treating each other cruelly. I’m not sure that this phenomenon exists except where at least one of the partners has been raised in a family where they were emotionally abused by a parent of somewhat –or truly–higher than average intelligence. Or they witnessed this behavior between their parents, while they stood there, helpless and probably fearful or frozen. I believe that you have to be taught to be verbally cruel. One time someone I know treated me like this, and I swear, this woman was in a dissociative state when she did it.
I’m not talking about normal anger or hostility or hurt in a relationship. That never surprises me, and there is nothing wrong with expressing those emotions. We do teach children, rightfully, that instead of hitting or pulling hair, they should “use their words.” And you should, when you are upset. You should use your words, but not use them with the vengeance of a sword.
It must be a defense, when you start this pattern in your adult relationship. To get out of the horrible feelings this kind of verbal abuse stirred up in you as a child, you had to make excuses, to normalize it. You now have to value the well-spoken slicing and the dicing– More accurately, you have to value being the slicer and the dicer. In the relationships I am talking about, this hostile verbal fencing is in some ways highly valued, as if it were a game. You have to be quick witted to do it, and you have to be bold. You have to have grown up with it, so that it feels normal. You must have had to watch while your parents jousted this way, feeling helpless. You must have had to decide which one you’d like to be, the victim or the victimizer.
Most often, in the courting stage, you did not talk to your partner like this. You were on your best behavior. You knew better than to show this side of you in the beginning. And maybe you did not feel the anger or hurt when you were in love/lust. Then, as you two became an item, an intertwined and mutually dependent couple, perhaps it began to feel frightening to be so close to another person. (Susan Johnson talks about some angry and hurt behaviors as an “attachment cry.” You need to be close to the other person, and they let you down, and instead of talking about your vulnerable feelings, you attack.)
I’m hoping you can become curious about why you behave like this, if you do. Does it feel good to be smart enough to joust this way? Does it make you feel superior? What do you suppose it would it feel like to give this witty hostility up and to just be sad and disappointed by your partner and to talk to them about it like anyone in the street could? Can you open yourself up to see the deep, old pain that is being acted out in this way? No one who is truly happy treats the people they love like this.
If you know I’m describing your behavior, get help and learn how sex therapy in Boston may work for you. I would applaud your bravery.
Aline Zoldbrod Ph.D. is a Boston based sex therapist and psychologist and the author of the award winning book SexSmart: How Your Childhood Shaped Your Sexual Life and What to Do About It (1998). You can find out more at http://www.SexSmart.com.