Making Love a Habit

This page contains stories about couples. I have written a book under this title. Some of the stories that appear on this blog come from that book or are outtakes from the book or are from something else I have written. Hopefully they will change weekly. Please visit.

Hrumph Traveling Again: This Time to France


Like our trip to Italy, Isabelle and Christian, our Paris friends, were going to play a prominent role in our vacation. We were traveling to Marseille in France and would recover there from our jet lag for two days. Then our plan was to meet Isabelle and Christian in Buis-les-Baronnie at a rented villa in the Luberon Mountains with a view of Mont Ventoux.

Isabelle and Christian spent two years in Nashville while Christian was completing a fellowship in Cardiology. Isabelle was trained as a psychologist in France. While in the U. S. she attended to her children, Thomas then 6 and Charlotte then age 2 ½. I hooked up with her by a request from Hans Strupp, who she sought out when she arrived in Nashville. I invited her to be a member of our peer support group and to supervise me on a case. During her time in Nashville, we met weekly. She observed my work through a one-way mirror with permission of the patient, and then we talked over lunch. We had both Christian and Isabelle over for dinner.

We were excited to see them again, because of our previous connections, because of their kindness to us on our last trip and because we were so eager for the refuge of their company in a foreign land. Isabelle had a similar excitement about travel and new experiences as Marietta’s. Christian had a similar notion to mine that everywhere you are, you are still there. To Christian and me, this means we reserve the right to complain. Neither of us alone is a match for our wives high moral ground, but together we make a formidable team. My seeming composure was not without complications. As the time approached for us to fly to France, I was aware of a gloom descending over me. This feeling seemed familiar to me. It had many of the hallmarks of the dread I felt before our last foreign trip.

Chapter Ten: The Ego

Barbara and Allen were forty-eight years old and in their second marriage. Both had active careers; both were naturally friendly affable people. And both liked to be right.

“He embarrassed me in public,” she said.

“You left me standing there and walked into the other room,” he said.

“What are you talking about?” I asked.

“We were shopping for tile,” Allan said. “Not my most favorite thing. I could have been home watching the football game. And we were looking at samples. We had narrowed it down to five. And she disappears. She is in the other room looking at carpet. We weren’t shopping for carpet.”

“Well, we are going to need carpet, probably,” Barbara said.

“But you left me standing there with the sales clerk feeling like a fool.”

“My back hurt standing there. I needed to move. You know I can’t stand in one place too long.”

“No I don’t,” Allan said. “Sometimes you can and sometimes you can’t. I can’t read your mind.”

“No, but you seem very good at raising your voice, reprimanding me in front of others and embarrassing me. And I don’t appreciate that kind of treatment.”

“Dr. McMillan,” Allan said turning to me sitting in my rocker in front of them on the couch, “What do we do?”

Chapter Nine: Two Interacting Parts

All social interactions consist of two parts. The first part, as described above, has often been defined as the male part. The receptive part, the second part, has traditionally been considered the female part. Instead of using gender terms, I suggest that we imagine a bolt and a nut.

The bolt represents the projection of an idea, invitation, a proposal for action or an initiative. The nut represents the question that should meet a proposal or a bolt. And that question is: Does this fit here in this place, at this time, with these people? And does it serve a purpose? The bolt needs help to find a place where it belongs. Too often people project ideas that are not appropriate and do not fit the circumstances. Too often no one offers to help this initiative find its fit. Both the nut (the receiver) and the bolt (the initiator) play important roles in every social exchange. Though the terms “nut” and “bolt” provide illustrative images, they also contain some unfortunate pejorative meanings. Consequently, I will more often use the terms “initiator” and “receiver.” Whatever term we choose, the hope is that we challenge ourselves to develop both parts and learn to use them for the good of the relationship.

Chapter Eight: A Constructive Reframe

The therapist may offer a reframe that creates a new way to understand the problems in a relationship. You’ll recall Tonya and Mahala from chapter 7. Just prior to the session reported in the last chapter they were having a serious crisis. This story comes from that visit.

“Tonya’s gone nuts,” Mahala said. “I don’t know what’s happened. She had an affair with the carpenter last year. She admits it. After thirty years as a lesbian, she comes out of the closet and she is suddenly straight.”

“You are never home,” Tonya said. “And suddenly you are so demanding and drinking more. You are angry when you are sober. You retreat to your music room, where you can’t be disturbed. We have no social life. I take care of the children while you are out of town, which is 200 days a year. And when you are home you are too exhausted to go out with me or to entertain friends. You enjoy a book more than you do me or the children. What was I supposed to do?”

“I think she may be bipolar,” Mahala said. “We both think her father and his mother were. It runs in families. And suddenly she seems to be impulsive, self-destructive and angry like manic people often are. I have been a social recluse since she has known me. I have always liked to work alone on my music or read a good book. This is nothing new.

“I play the father role in our family. I am the provider. I tend to the children some when I’m in town, but Tonya has always been their mother. She is the one they count on. They overwhelm me sometimes. Tonya has accepted this role gladly—until now. I think she is having a bipolar episode.”

“I think Mahala has become a full-blown alcoholic,” Tonya said. “She always drank too much. She stopped smoking marijuana two years ago because it was affecting her voice. Her mother was an alcoholic, her brother, her uncle, her grandfather — talk about running in families! Mahala has gone overboard with her drinking and anger. And she is trying to blame this on me.”

Chapter Seven: From Anger to Compassion

I first saw Mahala and Tonya twenty-four years ago when they first got together. They parented three children, one adopted son from China and two girls who were conceived from a sperm donor, one born to Mahala and the other to Tonya. Mahala was and is a famous singer/songwriter. She has a demanding schedule so most of the parenting duties have fallen to Tonya. Two of their children, Kathy and Tom, are in college. Sonya is a junior in high school. Mahala and Tonya were entering menopause together. Both had issues with anger and both were easily triggered into being angry.

“So this is menopause,” Mahala said.

“It might be easier going through this with a male partner,” Tonya said.

“Men have their own issues at mid-life,” I said.

“We wouldn’t know,” Mahala said. “So what do we do?”

“This fellow Steven Stosny has developed a ritual that I intend to teach you,” I said. “If you learn to use it, this ritual will transform your anger into compassion and help you become a person of compassion instead of an angry idiot.”

“You are calling us angry idiots,” Tonya said.

“You are not angry idiots now,” I said. “But anger shuts off two-thirds of your brain and leaves you with a brain of a five-year-old child. And you two are in your forties. For a forty-year-old adult, that would make you an idiot.”

“After our fights, when I have calmed down, I can’t believe I said those things,” Tonya said. “They were so childish. I didn’t mean most of them.”

‘”I’m the same,” Mahala concurred. “I play back what happened in our fights and I acted like I remember our children acting. When they witness our fights, they just walk away disgusted. I can’t blame them. I’m disgusted too. Angry idiots. I plead guilty.”

“So what is this ritual?” Tonya asked.

“I call it the HEART ritual.”

“How does it work?” Mahala asked.

Chapter 6: Confessional Communication, page 16

Yes But: Marietta and David 

My wife, Marietta, and I were trying to print something from our computer. We printed several documents that were not the document we really needed. When it got to our document, the printer jammed.

             “Dammit,” I said, “The printer is jammed.”

            “Oh, no problem,” Marietta said. “A paper jam is easy to fix.”

            “Yes, but not on this printer,” I said. “The printer display says undo the back. I tried but the back won’t come off.”

            “Yes but,” Marietta said, “you don’t know how. I do.”

            “But I do know how,” I said. “It’s my printer. The back is hard to undo.”

            “But I haven’t tried it yet,” Marietta replied. “Let me get at the back of the printer.”    I had been trying with no success to open the back of the printer. She turned the printer so that she could get to its back.

            “But I almost had it open,” I said.

            “But you don’t know what you are doing,” she replied, “and I do.”

            “But even if you get it open, you won’t know how to unjam the paper.”

              I could go on, but I think you have probably read enough. In this conversation Marietta and I were frustrated with the printer. We took out our frustration on one another by competing to be the hero who fixed the printer. We both wanted to redeem our failure at the expense of the other. “Yes but” were the introductory words to our contest.

            Now consider how the conversation might go if we used the words “yes and” instead.

Chapter Five: Communion, Page 2

Helping Doesn’t Help: Samantha and Steve

Sometimes one person wishes to help, but the other does not want to be helped, and this can create conflict. Samantha and Steve were consulting me. Steve was the athletic director at one of the local colleges. Samantha was a stay-at-home mom. They had three children under the age of five.

To open the first session I asked, “How can I help you?”

They were sitting at 90° angles on adjacent coaches.

Samantha was the first to answer, “We used to love talking together when we were courting. We couldn’t wait to see one another. Or anyway that was how I felt and I thought Steve did too. Steve told me every detail about the time we were apart and I did the same back to him. Each of us talked and listened equally, each about half the time.

“Now Steve doesn’t have anything to say to me. I feel shut out of his life. When he comes home, I tell him about my boring days with the children. Sometimes what I have to say about the children is not boring. But I am living in a children’s universe. I have little adult contact. I feel like a nanny or wet-nurse, not like an adult or much less like a woman.

Chapter Four: Accountability, Page 18

Accountability Begins With Us: Frank and Diane

Often the work we need to do will focus on ourselves and our own poor coping strategies.

Frank and Diane came to see me. Diane was suicidal.

“I can’t take it anymore,” she said. “I can’t say anything to Frank about what’s bothering me. He is so clueless. Our son John is ADD and Frank expects him to pay attention the first time. Then Frank yells. This happens constantly.

“My job keeps me away from home.  I travel for a cosmetic firm. So I have to leave John at home with Frank alone. I know it is bad. I have no right to say anything because I’m leaving Frank with all the responsibility. And Frank is a good father. He just does not understand John and what he needs. Frank is better with our older daughter than I am and I know it. But I understood John and Frank doesn’t. I feel so guilty because I’m not there for John. I can’t please anybody no matter what I do. That’s why I want to die.”

Chapter Three: Making Listening a Habit, Page 27

Turning Toward: Kat and Sam

As we listen, we should always turn toward people and provide them with the clear message that we are giving them our undivided attention.

Consider the story of Kat and Sam.

“He doesn’t pay any attention to me when I talk,” Kat said. “It’s like talking to a wall. He is always doing something else. When I began to talk to him I want him to turn off the computer, listen to me and look at me.”

“I listen to you,” Sam said. “I don’t have to look at you to listen to you. I hear what you say. I’m busy. I’ve got lots to do at work and at home. I don’t like sitting still when I have things to do. I have reports to read. I have animals to tend to on the farm, and firewood to chop for the stove. I like being able to sit down and read the paper. I have email to read and answer. I have no time to just sit and talk.”

Chapter 2: Bad Habits, Page 11

When the Distancer/Pursuer Role Becomes a Habit: Deana and Pete

The predicament of the pursuer is illustrated in the title of George Gershwin’s first published song, When You Want Em, You Can’t Get Em.

Deana and Pete are in my office.

Deana began, “I had an affair because I wanted you to find out,” Deana said. “I hoped that you would get a backbone, stand up for yourself and divorce me.

Pete responded, “I know it is my fault Deana had an affair. I am too demanding. I want too much of her time. I am too needy. That is what Deana says. But I love her so much. I don’t know what I would do without her.”

“There he goes again,” Deana interrupted. “Pete, you are so pathetic. It’s disgusting. I am so tired of you always crowding me. I had an affair because I thought it would drive you away. I don’t want to be responsible for making you happy. It’s too much. Why don’t you get a life? Surely there is something that you can enjoy other than sitting with me on the couch watching sports. Sports bore me. You bore me.”

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