Two Therapists Go Out to Dinner...

burningoven.jpgTo be perfectly honest, the only food recipe I have is one for disaster. My husband and I found that out the hard way. We hadn’t been married very long, and I wanted to make a delicious home-cooked meal of steak and potatoes. I put the steak under the broiler, waited a reasonable amount of time and then opened my oven door to 12-inch flames. I screamed, what else could I do, but my husband simply strolled over to the fire and blew it out. In his sweet way he told me it would be fine, we could eat the potatoes. He also said, don’t worry about cooking anymore, we could eat out.

So over time our recipes for dinner came from restaurants. When we dine out, we relax into our table and, as everyone knows to do, we look to mind our own business. But sometimes the tables are very close together, and being that my husband and I are both therapists, listening to what people have to say is what we do. In fact, our business really is minding other people’s business, so inevitably we may find ourselves paying attention, as it becomes clear, that the conversation at the next table is about to go up in flames, just like my steak. The other night we were at one of our favorite Italian restaurants. As soon as the waiter took our order, we could hear it starting just a few feet away. The woman began.

marriagecrack.jpg“You would not believe the day I had,” she said, pulling her ponytail a bit tighter as if to emphasize the fact that her hair was the last thing on her list. “After I dropped you at the train, Simon threw up in the car, all over the seats. I had to go home before I could take him to school, and you know I had that meeting, which I had to cancel, and I literally spent the rest of the day cleaning the car. So basically I worked all day to get back to where I was when you left us.”

Uh oh, I thought. My husband and I glanced at each other, hoping we were wrong about what we thought might come next.

“You had to cancel that meeting?” he said. “So, really, you had the day off then. I’d like to have the day off. My day was horrendous. I had back to back meetings – I couldn’t get away with canceling a single one – and then Joe yelled at me for not making enough cold calls. Can you believe that? I mean, I can’t be doing two things at once.”

whataboutme.jpgYup, there it was, what I call “I’ll See Your Stress And Raise You.” In other words, neither is listening to the other, there is no empathy or feeling that they are working as a team, but simply a competition of who is working harder. It is a common problem that gets couples over and over again which I talk about in my book What About Me?: Stop Selfishness from Ruining Your Relationship.

Marc and I sat there, helpless, holding back the urge to jump in and help them. But it was too late.

“I’m not surprised that Joe was mad,” the wife shot back. “It doesn’t really seem like you do that much.”

The husband was clearly beyond angry. “You never support me,” he said. “Never.”

fightingcouple.jpgOur first course arrived. The couple next to us picked at their food, but at least we didn’t have to listen to them anymore – they didn’t say another word for the rest of their meal. If they had been our patients we would have told them to support each other, to listen, to show empathy and to think of the day as a small part of the bigger picture in which they are a couple, working together to raise a family and build a life together.

Maybe they will figure it out, I hope so. It’s tempting to drop a card on the tables occupied by couples having a hard time, even more tempting to drop a copy of my book. If I could, I would tell them that nobody is perfect, I can’t make a steak to save my life, but I can help them find the recipe that will lead them to a healthier relationship.

When that steak went up in flames so many years ago and Marc was completely unfazed, even nice about it, that was part of our recipe: a little love, a pinch of empathy, acceptance about who each person is, and a lot of teamwork. A bit of sugar for sweetness always helps, too.


Dr. Jane Greer is a Marriage & Family Therapist, Author, Radio Host & Shrink Wrap Celebrity Commentator.