I had an interesting Broadway theater experience in December 2012, when a friend invited me to join him for Laurie Metcalf’s star turn in “The Other Place.” Ms. Metcalf may be best known to the general public for her role as Roseanne’s sister on the comic’s eponymous television show. In “The Other Place” she plays Juliana Smithton, a biophysicist who talks about some problems she has, and the audience must try to determine what’s real. Is her husband having an affair? Is their daughter estranged, but trying to re-establish a relationship, or is she dead? Who is the young woman in the yellow bikini sitting among the doctors at the conference where Juliana is presenting? Is Juliana spot-on, delusional, suffering from dementia? What is reality? The answers are heartbreaking, as the audience tries to follow the plot twists, ending on one that is completely unexpected.
In my psychotherapy practice couples sometimes present a “play-by-play” of an event and anyone hearing it would swear it was two different events and very different participants. For the new therapist, this situation leads to great frustration as s/he tries to figure exactly who said what and who did what and who is “right.” After being in practice since 1995, I generally laugh and say, “Wow. It sounds like you’re describing being married to two completely different people!” They ask why I laugh, and I’ll say something like, “Well, it sounds like Sally is married to the Big Bad Wolf, and it sounds like Jim is married to Martha of ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’ and I’m guessing the truth is something else. One issue is that you see things so differently that I have no idea what I’m hearing, so why don’t you stop blaming each other and take responsibility for your own actions and reactions and let’s see where we get.” They may then soften in their polarized positions and be willing to see their own part in the problems, in which case we can do some good work.
Making friends with reality
“The Other Place” required trying to sort out a pretty complex set of situations in about an hour and a half. Luckily I get much more time to figure things out as a therapist, sometimes from my patients’ slips of the tongue or other clues that they unwittingly reveal. I’m committed to reality in my own life and do my best to help my patients make friends with reality, too. When you know what reality is, you have a chance for satisfaction, i.e., you must first know what’s going on before you can figure out what needs to be changed. When patients can get past being right, they can learn in treatment, be vulnerable with each other, and admit to mistakes in their perception of of their own actions or of their partner’s. They can start to recognize their default distortions: He may tend to minimize her rage; she may tend to exaggerate his indifference. When they can get past their viewpoint and see their partner’s, they have a shot at developing a relationship with reality and making real changes. On the other hand, if they are committed to their point of view and seeing the other person as the problem, reality is out the window, right along with any chance of a satisfying relationship.
If you have trouble sorting out what’s really going on in your relationship, what’s your part, what’s your partner’s role, couples therapy can be very helpful, whether you’re dating, living together, traditionally married, or nontraditionally married. Finding reality is part of finding the joy of everyday life!