My and Hilly’s first session of couples therapy seemed to be going well; we’d already covered the issue of my irritability, for example. The session continued:
GEORGE: Why even bring that up? I don’t think there’s any reason to say I’ve yelled at my cat. I mean, you got me: I’m guilty. And you’ve seen what that cat can do.
GEORGE: I need a refuge, I don’t know—don’t I get uncomfortable in public places?
HILLY: Yeah, I think in a similar way I do—but I react inwardly, which frustrates you, because you don’t know what I’m thinking.
GEORGE: And when you come over, we always watch television—movies—and we always get alcohol, that’s another source of conflict. So I think that adds to the irritability.
DR. SELMAN: Can you elaborate?
GEORGE: O.K. The TV part or the alcohol part?
DR. SELMAN: Alcohol.
GEORGE: I would say that 50 to 85 percent of the time we’ve spent together, there has been some alcohol involved. It’s usually in the evening when I see you. I’m not saying I don’t drink when you’re not around, but I think—haven’t I mentioned this before?
HILLY: He mentions it a lot. He gets mad at me; he calls me the guzzler.
GEORGE: I don’t know, maybe she’ll have three or four glasses of wine. But she’s not out all night, like I do sometimes, and then she gets up at the crack of dawn and goes to work, works hard all day. It’s sort of a ritual: She’ll come over, and I’ll just feel it, I’ll know that she wants me to go out and get us a bottle of Sancerre. I’m always willing to do that. I feel unproductive sometimes. The thing is, I want you to come over, and I encourage it, persuade you to come over, maybe even demand that you come over. But then, at some point, I feel I’m being unproductive and I should have read for three hours, and why am I watching this silly movie?
HILLY: I am an enabler.
DR. SELMAN: An enabler is someone that enables another person not to function.
HILLY: Well, if I show up with a bottle of wine ….
DR. SELMAN: You enable him to drink. You both drink like a bottle of wine each?
HILLY: No, no. It’s funny, too, because I do this thing with drinking that he doesn’t. I like to drink when I’m sitting around at home, not really doing anything, watching a movie, puttering around. He, on the other hand, likes to do it when he’s out socializing. And so what’s happened more over the time we’ve been together is that I drink consistently, for the most part, but George instead will go out a couple nights a week and stay out really late. If he ever brings something up to me—which is nice, I think it’s sweet, because it shows concern about me drinking—I can always easily use the defense that “Who are you to criticize when you stay out until 6 o’clock in the morning?”
DR. SELMAN: Pot calling the kettle black. Do you get drunk at those times?
GEORGE: Yeah, binge drinking. Nightclubs, bars. I am a nightlife reporter, but that can sometimes be an excuse to overdo it. We have sort of different schedules. I stay up late no matter what. Go to bed at 2, 3 in the morning, get up at 11 or so. By the time she comes over at 8 or 9 p.m., she’s sort of winding down, and that’s like late afternoon for me, you know. So I’m really awake, and she’s ready for bed by midnight. But anytime we’ve hung out during the day, it’s a different story—a better thing.
DR. SELMAN: How do you think alcohol affects your relationship? It sounds as if you raised the issue in the context of problems in the relationship. She was saying you’re irritable a lot and angry, she mentions a couple of times where you’ve had outbursts and yelled at the cat, the fuse or whatever—very often, people get irritable when they drink. Sometimes they get depressed after they drink. A hangover really is withdrawal from alcohol. You get headachy, irritable, anxious; sometimes people have panic attacks after a night of drinking.
HILLY: When the fuse thing happened, you’d been out the night before.
DR. SELMAN: Were you drinking before the “scratchy” incident?
HILLY: One glass.
GEORGE: One glass of wine.
DR. SELMAN: A little bit. It sounds like alcohol has a central role in both of your lives. You both like to drink.
GEORGE: Yep. O.K.
HILLY: And I think when we go out together, it’s less of an issue or problem. Talking about this makes me realize there’s a pretty easy solution on my part, which of course I won’t like, but I like our relationship a lot more than I like drinking—so I’d rather give that up.
GEORGE: I’d also like to be able to go out and not stay out all night.
DR. SELMAN: So I guess that you could probably both agree that if there was no alcohol involved, your relationship might be very different.
HILLY: Sometimes I get frustrated because he frequently says, “I wish I hadn’t stayed out, I wish I’d had the will power to go home at 2 o’clock.” And I always think, “Well, just discipline yourself. Give yourself a curfew, come home at 2 o’clock.”
GEORGE: She’s really good about that.
DR. SELMAN: Why do you go out so late?
GEORGE: There’s the nightlife reporting. My regular haunts. Siberia. Bellevue. Bungalow 8. Dusk. That’s sort of my social life, aside from going to work and interviewing people. I think I get kind of excited when I go out, run into people I know, and I want to extract as much as I can.
DR. SELMAN: It’s kind of an occupational hazard. You’re a nightlife reporter, then?
GEORGE: Well, I have done stories on nightlife figures, covered parties. I mean, today I was by myself, in my apartment until 6 p.m. And don’t you think I’m going out less frequently lately?
GEORGE: Tonight there’s a chance I might go out. But I’m going to do everything I can to resist it.
DR. SELMAN: Chance you’re going to go out?
GEORGE: There’s a really good party, for the Aristocrats movie, and I hope I’m not on the list. I could be persuaded to go out. By Saturday, I will have had a late night, I’m sure.
DR. SELMAN: And he goes out by himself without you?
HILLY: Well, it depends. I started the job I have now in September, and I love it more than any other job I’ve ever had. Before that, I used to go out a little bit more during the week. Now I’m almost reluctant to even start, because I feel if I’m not at home, in bed, or ready to go to sleep by 11 o’clock, then I won’t perform as well the next day. So I can’t enjoy myself as much now. Which is a shame. It would be nice if I could go out to these places and not drink—maybe that would be a different story. But to me, that’s all part of the fun. So what happens is he’ll go out and I’m fine, and I think that’s a really good thing about our relationship, being able to go our separate ways from time to time so we don’t feel that we’re smothering each other. However—and this might go back to the communication thing—sometimes I feel a little paranoid and a little jealous: I know what it’s like going out, and I just have this feeling that there are all kinds of girls throwing themselves at him. I trust him, but there was one infidelity issue that happened early in the relationship, so I think that probably adds to my paranoia sometimes. That’s another thing that I’d like to accomplish.
DR. SELMAN: Do you consider yourselves in a monogamous relationship?
GEORGE: (Pause) Yeah.
HILLY: That’s something we discussed early on, and there were tests involved.
GEORGE: Can I say something? I’m having some difficulties with the “end of youth.” I’m 37. On the one hand, I’m welcoming it and like the idea of being more responsible than I was four years ago, 10 years ago, but at the same time it’s hurting me. That’s coinciding with the loss of the, uh, sense of freedom. Part of it I welcome, part of it I’m sort of uncomfortable with. That make sense? Like I know it’s good for me being in this relationship, it’s centering me, but—and I know this is pretty common stuff, but I have this other part of me that—you know, like I’ve told you, “Don’t e-mail me in the morning”?
GEORGE: Just the loss of surprise and ….
DR. SELMAN: Where do you guys think you want to go in the relationship? Where do you want to take it?
GEORGE: Can I say what just popped into my mind? “Status quo.”
HILLY: What does that mean?
GEORGE: I kind of just want to keep it where we are for now.
DR. SELMAN: And you?
HILLY: Well, I can’t imagine or I would hate for George not to be my boyfriend. I would hate it. I can’t imagine life without him. We discussed the word “marriage.” I think that I have a lot of bad habits that I need to still grow out of. I think it’s important to be in control of one’s self before getting involved in something that important financially, emotionally, living somewhere near each other. I don’t think it would be fair to drag in some of my dirty baggage. But down the road, it seems like it would be a nice thing.
GEORGE: I’m not averse to that. I think when we first met, that first night, didn’t I say I didn’t want to get married until I was 40?
GEORGE: But by “status quo,” that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t like to ….
DR. SELMAN: That some day you might consider getting married.
GEORGE: Yeah. “Status quo” might have sounded bad, but I mean that here we are in therapy—I’d like to improve the relationship. I did give you a ring.
HILLY: It’s a promise ring. And he didn’t want to get it for me, but I told him that the relationship would be over if he didn’t. Because it’s just something—after so long, I just felt it was a nice kind of token of commitment. I could just know that it would help me feel better on those nights, for example, when he’s out, thinking that he isn’t going to jump in the arms of some hussy.
GEORGE: That was after three years, right? That’s like a pre-engagement kind of ring.
HILLY: Yeah. I would say at least 85 percent of our time together, if not 90, is positive. And I think that a lot of the negative things may come from myself and my inability to communicate. I don’t think George has ever heard me say that I get paranoid and jealous on nights like that when you’re out. But you probably figured it out. I mean, I think there’s some things like that we should be able to just tell each other.
Later, after that first session, over dinner on the Upper West Side, I told Hilly she could have only one glass of wine and then one at home.
HILLY: I just think I’ve had a long day and it’s really hot outside; I think it’s O.K. to have one glass to start with and one glass with dinner.
GEORGE: What about have one now and one when we go home? Because if you have one now and one during the entrée, and then we go home and watch a movie, you’re gonna want another one and that’s three. You get two tonight.
GEORGE: Do you swear, when we go back to my apartment, you won’t have another one?
GEORGE: This is going to turn into a night on the town for me, do you understand me? If we order by the glass, the odds are we won’t go out tonight. If you order a bottle, I’m going out.
HILLY: O.K., I’ll just have a lemonade.
We talked about the book she was reading on irritable-male syndrome.
HILLY: They can’t even explain it themselves—it’s not their fault, it’s a chemical imbalance. Another important point is about how men can feel “emotionally sunburned,” meaning you have a sunburn on your back but I don’t know. And I come over to give you a hug, because I want you to feel better, but it actually makes you feel worse and it hurts you.
GEORGE: Right. It’s like having P.M.S.
GEORGE: All the time.
A few days later, we went to our second session.
GEORGE: [to DR. SELMAN]: I think it’s going well. I feel good. I think just the act of this … this communication.
DR. SELMAN: Maybe you could educate me on each of your individual backgrounds.
[HILLY speaks of her life, then says the longest relationship she ever had before she met GEORGE was six weeks.]
HILLY: There were a couple of those. But most recently, I guess it was the guy I was dating when I met George ….
GEORGE: From the rock band?
HILLY: No. It was a guy from—he was ….
GEORGE: I don’t want to know.
HILLY: Yeah. [laughs, then shares more family history]
GEORGE: I’m like your brother—don’t I scare you?
HILLY: Uh-huh. You do funny little pranks that aren’t malicious, but still scary sometimes.
DR. SELMAN: So being with George is like being home, a combo of your mom and your brother?
HILLY: Yeah! A little bit of my dad in there, too.
DR. SELMAN: And you, George?
[GEORGE tells his history. And then:]
GEORGE: I remember in kindergarten, the first day—all the parents were there—and the teacher told everyone to put our hands in our laps. Hands were flying everywhere, but no one put them in their laps. So the teacher said, “Now, class, don’t we know what our laps are?” And I said, “I don’t know what my lap is, but I know what my penis is!”
DR. SELMAN: That’s funny.
GEORGE: A little while after that, the girl who lived next-door to me, Heidi, sort of seduced me, and we tried to have sex. I was in first grade; she was in second grade. We did it standing up, sort of touching—didn’t quite do it properly.
DR. SELMAN: And you took your clothes off?
GEORGE: Yeah, erection, touching, sort of inside but not completely.
DR. SELMAN: This was at age 7?
GEORGE: Seven or 8, and she was one year older.
DR. SELMAN: How would you know how to do that?
GEORGE: She knew.
DR. SELMAN: I take it she was a virgin?
GEORGE: We did it about 10 times. And once with another girl from the neighborhood. And then I did it with another girl, a family friend. I think it was my idea that time. This was in Kansas. There was another girl in school, Shannon, who I was in love with, and she wasn’t reciprocating. And one day I brought four or five silver dollars and bribed her to say “I love you.” That’s weird, right? And then I threw them on the ground after she said that. That’s disturbing, right?
DR. SELMAN: What do you make of that?
GEORGE: I don’t know! Into my teens, 13, 14, maybe a little action but not much. Sort of frustrated. And then the next phase, 17 to 23, doing better, but getting really infatuated, borderline obsessed with a handful of Kansas City girls at Kansas University. That was pretty serious stuff. And then I decided, after the last one, that I absolutely would not let myself get that emotionally involved, would not let that happen again. I think through my 20’s I focused on work. Dated an older woman for about three years. It was pretty clear we weren’t going to get married. Then maybe a couple other girlfriends—nothing too serious, sort of disasters—and then Hilly.
DR. SELMAN: So you were exposed to sex at an early age?
GEORGE: Yes. Just those incidents I described. I had a subscription to Playboy in sixth grade.
DR. SELMAN: But when you were 7 years old, that’s when you made the comment to the teacher, “I don’t know what my lap is, but I know what my penis is?”
GEORGE: I think that my mother told me that we were going to call it “penis” …. We weren’t going to call it some other name, you know, not gonna call it a ….
HILLY: Hoo-ha ….
GEORGE: Or tallywhacker. So I had that in my head—I knew what my penis was. Can you tell me your reaction to any of this?
DR. SELMAN: It sounds like you were exposed to sex at an early age. Most kids don’t get a chance to have intercourse at age 9.
GEORGE: I don’t know if you’d call it intercourse, but it was definitely attempted.
DR. SELMAN: You even had what was like a threesome.
GEORGE: No kidding, no kidding.
DR. SELMAN: Where was your mother when all this was going on?
GEORGE: The last time I did it—or tried to—with the girl next-door, Heidi, we were in a closet, and we had finished writing in crayon on the wall a pact that read, “I love Heidi seven days a week and she loves me on Saturday and Sunday.” We had our pants down, and my mother opened the door. I remember Heidi pulling up her jean cutoffs. And that was that. Ten years later, my mother and I visited Heidi and her family in Texas. She was engaged. Her father picked us up and said something like, “George, so what’s it like, about to see the first girl you ever had sex with?”
DR. SELMAN: What’s your reaction?
HILLY: I don’t know. First time I heard that, I didn’t really believe it, but then, I don’t know, I thought it was almost kind of sweet.
GEORGE: It was like playing truth or dare.
GEORGE: When I first went to a psychologist, I had a problem with my second-grade substitute teacher, Mrs. Jones. I started calling her Mr. Jones. Made everyone laugh. She was very patient: “George, my name is Mrs. Jones, and you should call me that.” And I said, “O.K., I will call you Mrs. Jones, but you have to call me the Fonz or Fonzie.” And she agreed—she called me Fonzie. But then it sort of deteriorated, and the next thing was I wanted my desk to be away from everyone else’s. Maybe she liked this idea, because she let me move to the back against the wall away from all the other kids.
DR. SELMAN: You were defiant.
DR. SELMAN: Oppositional.
GEORGE: I kept acting up. Mrs. Jones would get on the intercom and say, “Mr. Gurley is ready to go home now.” One time she was at the intercom, I said, ‘Go to hell, bitch.” I told you that, right?
HILLY: I didn’t know about the “Go to hell, bitch.”
DR. SELMAN: Was that before or after the penis and the lap?
GEORGE: This would have been two years later. I think I’ve gotten better since then, right?
(to be continued)
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