It was our fourth couple’s therapy session. Hilly and I weren’t so happy with the way the third one had gone …
DR. SELMAN: So what’s the latest?
GEORGE: I’ve decided that this time I’m not going to do all the talking, to let Hilly talk more.
HILLY: Uh-oh …. And we wanted to ask you if maybe you … if maybe you … if ….
GEORGE: You want me to say it?
GEORGE: I am totally over it, but in the last session you seemed to be … I don’t know if you were scolding me, but maybe you were trying to get me to think more. I felt like you were giving me a hard time—maybe about being an exhibitionist. At first I was slightly annoyed, but I wonder if maybe this is part of what couples therapy is about: You get people to think not only during the session, but in between sessions. Is that your technique? I think at one point I said, “I feel like I’m in the principal’s office.”
DR. SELMAN: What do you think it was that made you think that it was like the principal’s office?
GEORGE: When I mentioned this report card that said I had “vile behavior at times,” and you gave me this look and were like, “Well, it seems like everything you’ve been talking about today sounds like vile behavior.” And it seemed a little harsh. I think I was talking too much about myself, but I was confused because you had said, “Talk about anything you want”—and then to get that reaction puzzled me. And then, when you were writing the diagnosis, I made some kind of joke, asking, “Are you going to write ‘provocative and depressed’?” And you kind of gave me this look like, “We’re not kidding around here.” Maybe I totally misinterpreted it and I’m paranoid ….
DR. SELMAN: Ha, ha, ha ….
GEORGE: … but I thought I would try not to talk so much this time. I would defer to Hilly.
DR. SELMAN: What do you think, Hilly?
HILLY: I thought at first that he was … I don’t know if “paranoid” is the right word, but maybe over-reacting? But then I realized something that would be helpful to us—I don’t know if it’s something you would consider—which is, in each session, sharing some thoughts about what you think we talked about, if we’ve progressed. And then—this might not be feasible, either—but leaving us with kind of a positive thought somehow? Something positive and happy.
DR. SELMAN: Why do you think you need something positive?
HILLY: Well, especially this week, there was a lot of talk about the previous session that was kind of negative.
DR. SELMAN: What exactly are you thinking of that was negative?
HILLY: That Georgie felt like you scolded him?
GEORGE: I was concerned, but I don’t feel that way now. But I would like to get your feedback on one thing. At one point I said, “Is there hope for redemption?” And you said, “This is not church.” And it was funny, and I respect that: This shouldn’t be some sort of feel-good thing, it should address serious matters. But I’m curious about your approach, your technique …. You know, what’s the philosophy of couples therapy and, you know, your style?
DR. SELMAN: People’s past experiences tend to color their present-day relationships. My recollection is that what we discussed last time was that there seemed to me to be some similarities in what you were saying to the events that had previously transpired in your life. And people do tend to repeat things over and over in their lives. And for me to point those out to you is potentially a helpful thing to do. At the same time, I’m trying to stay in the moment and be a therapist to you guys, and it’s like we have another person in the room with the newspaper.
GEORGE: O.K. …
DR. SELMAN: And I think that, because we’re always playing to this voice ….
GEORGE: Oh, so you think that maybe some of the things I’m bringing up, I think will be funny to read about?
DR. SELMAN: I really don’t know.
GEORGE: I think you’re part right. But I promise you that these are things that I’ve wondered about a lot; they happened 25, 30 years ago, and they’re still fresh in my mind. And this stuff that happened—is this normal? Or, you know—I’m kind of kidding, but … am I this demonic?
DR. SELMAN: You used the word “demonic.”
GEORGE: I’m hoping that you’ll say, “George, when you’re a little kid, that’s a pre-moral stage, and little kids do these kinds of things.” I’ve never talked about that stuff to a therapist.
DR. SELMAN: Well, I don’t mean to discourage your revelations, but maybe these are the kinds of things that would best be said in individual therapy. Because it’s not entirely clear how relevant this stuff is to what’s going on with your relationship with Hilly right now.
GEORGE: O.K., I’m ready talk about anything else.
DR. SELMAN: What do you think, Hil?
HILLY: Uh, I think I agree with that, too. Uh … sorry, I’m a little out of it. I’m not feeling very well today.
GEORGE: I’m kind of hung over; I was out reporting last night until 4 a.m.
HILLY: I just have a little cold or something. But I don’t really know what couples therapy is, either; so I didn’t think that, when George brought all that stuff up, it didn’t strike me as being so irrelevant.
GEORGE: I think we do want a diagnosis of what’s going on when things go awry in our relationship. But I think we also want, from you, some positive reinforcement. I think the first two sessions, we really felt like we were making progress ….
DR. SELMAN: Progress towards what, though?
GEORGE: Progress towards communication and feeling better about us.
HILLY: I just had a thought of some things I’d love for you to stop doing.
GEORGE: Go ahead.
HILLY: One is that you frequently criticize the fact that I use the word “like” too much—but when you do it, it’s as if you’re really making a moral judgment against me. And another one is, when I’m telling a story, he gets really, really irritated and interrupts: “Just cut to the chase! What’s the punch line?” It’s that irritated tone … it’s almost frightening.
GEORGE: I’m sorry. No, you’re right.
HILLY: I can understand your irritation, but it’s your tone that I don’t like.
GEORGE: I think—yeah, it’s rude, and I just think that if you say “like” ….
HILLY: And then The New York Times —
GEORGE: Well, can I try addressing each one of these? I’m not making excuses, but sometimes when you’re talking, and you say the word “like” more than once in a sentence, I do feel like I should say something. Not to sound condescending, but I just think that’s for your own good! I mean, I do it, too—I say “like”—but I kind of tease you about that. But I know what you’re talking about. And then … what was the second one? Oh, I think that maybe that’s a male-female thing. Sometimes I don’t want to wait for a two-minute-long exposition. Often I want to hear the story, but it would seriously help if you first tell me what this is about exactly, where this is going, and then give me the details.
HILLY: Actually, I understand your annoyance a lot better now, because I’m seeing it in a different perspective, and I can think of a friend who does a similar thing, and it drives me insane.
GEORGE: Right, but it’s still rude of me. And the other thing is that your stories are, like nine times out of 10, good ones, and I’m always like, “Well, tell me more!” And the third thing was that I was telling you that The New York Times is a must-read, that you have to read The New York Times every day.
HILLY: Again, it’s that tone. Sometimes it’s in the middle of a movie or a walk—he gets this fact that I don’t regularly read The New York Times, and he gets so frustrated you can see his face almost turning red, and he’ll put his hands up in the air, and he’ll shut his eyes and clench his teeth.
GEORGE: I just think that—
HILLY: Get me a subscription if it’s that important!
GEORGE: You can read it online for free. The other thing is that you can afford a dollar a day. I don’t think it’s the be-all-end-all … I read it in the evening, because it kind of depresses me. I started that trend. I like the idea of us sitting around and, rather than watching movies, I’d like to hear you say, “Oh, did you read the piece in The Times?” That’s kind of a New York thing.
HILLY: What’s wrong with the Post?
GEORGE: Well, yes. Yeah.
HILLY: What’s wrong with The Observer?
GEORGE: Right. Right.
DR. SELMAN: Let me see if I can rephrase this: You’re complaining that George is critical and controlling?
DR. SELMAN: And maybe a little irritable sometimes?
GEORGE: Am I really controlling?
HILLY: I think that he’s, uh …. Sorry, I feel like I’m in a fog or something.
DR. SELMAN: Did you take something?
HILLY: No … I took Super Blue Green algae, omega-three fatty fish oils and a Z-Bec.
GEORGE: Want a Diet Coke?
HILLY: No, I’ve already had two Diet Cokes.
GEORGE: Be honest. Do you really think that I’m really extra over-the-top controlling?
HILLY: You’re pretty controlling.
GEORGE: On a scale of 1 to 10?
DR. SELMAN: You had no awareness of that?
GEORGE: No, I knew it.
HILLY: But I like to be given a good amount of direction!
DR. SELMAN: Why is that, Hilly?
HILLY: I find it hard to make decisions sometimes—for example, what to order for dinner. And also, what do you want? And that really makes me irritated, because he doesn’t want what he wants; he wants to know what I want, but I actually don’t care that much. If I had a specific desire, I would voice it. But I’m usually pretty easygoing about that stuff.
GEORGE: Yes … and not to try to defend myself, but sometimes, don’t I say, “Are you sure? Is this what you wanna do?”
HILLY: Yes, and that’s very sweet.
GEORGE: But in certain situations, I can be pretty ridiculously controlling … right?
HILLY: “Only one person in the kitchen at a time!”
DR. SELMAN: “Read The New York Times at night—it’s depressing!”
DR. SELMAN: “You can read it online … you can afford the dollar!”
GEORGE: What you don’t understand, if I’m in the kitchen and she starts to walk in, I go “No, no, no, no!”—real cute. What are some other ones like that?
HILLY: “Go pet Bobbie. Go brush Bobbie. Go pick Bobbie up.’ No matter what I’m doing—if I’m in the kitchen washing dishes, if I’m looking out the window—I have to stop and pick up Bobbie. Which is fun, but ….
GEORGE: Are there other ones?
HILLY: Sometimes George will call and, if he can’t find me, sometimes he’ll leave a million messages saying, “Where ARE YOU?” That’s usually when you’re hung over.
DR. SELMAN: You said that you feel “a little bit hung over” today?
GEORGE: A little bit. I was interviewing someone until about 1 a.m., then I kept going for another three hours—and, actually, I feel kind of proud of myself that it wasn’t later.
DR. SELMAN: The implication is that the later you’re out, the more you drink?
GEORGE: Yes. And to me, it’s a big difference—getting home at 4, I deserve a lot more pats on the back than if I’d gotten home at 5:30 a.m. I think my goal should be to try to get home at 1 a.m. That would be great. And now I’m getting ready to go out of town for a story—a lot of decadent nightlife coverage.
HILLY: Where they stay out until 7 a.m. doing Ecstasy and cocaine. So I can’t imagine how you’re going to do that. I mean, I think it’ll be fun ….
GEORGE: I just have to be really professional—not get carried away.
DR. SELMAN: Does everybody have to drink while they’re there?
GEORGE: I don’t think I could do it completely sober; I’m gonna try to just drink beers.
DR. SELMAN: You’re going by yourself?
GEORGE: Yes. It should be really fun. I’m worried about the whole thing—I don’t really like to fly.
HILLY: I’m going to miss you when you’re gone! It would be nice if you called me more frequently when you’re gone. ’Cause usually, when he goes away for long periods of time, he doesn’t call me very much. But he’s going to be really busy.
DR. SELMAN: How long are you going for?
GEORGE: About 10 days.
DR. SELMAN: Too bad you couldn’t go along.
HILLY: I know, it would’ve been fun. But that’s O.K.—I just took a vacation.
DR. SELMAN: With or without?
HILLY: George? Without. I invited him, but he didn’t come.
DR. SELMAN: Do you ever go anywhere together?
HILLY: Mm-hmm! We went to Palm Beach last spring. That was the first time we took an airplane together … ’cause George has a fear of flying? Then we went to Kansas City this summer. And we go to East Hampton a lot. We had a great time in Kansas City. George met my parents once, though, two Christmases ago: He drove home to Kansas City because he was afraid of flying, then on his way back he drove through Cincinnati and met my parents. But then there was that time you didn’t meet my grandfather.
GEORGE: Right. Right.
HILLY: My grandfather came to New York, and he’s had about five strokes since then. I just thought they’d really like each other. He’s such an amazing guy … he’s so brilliant.
DR. SELMAN: So where do you think this is all headed?
GEORGE: You’ve asked us that before. Right?
[to be continued]