It's not easy being a shrink. Nobody ever let's you forget it. Everyone is just a little apprehensive, that you look right through the skin and fat and bones that shelter the few pounds of jelly in your skull that determines everything you think and do. They think you know just how vulnerable it is - and you do!! I have a thousand stories of the strange results of its gyrations.
I hadn’t seen my cousin Peggy McGoldrick since she she came over from Dublin to visit us in Canada in 2012,
the year after her divorce. She was
staying with a friend in Toronto,
convalescing from the effects of a two-year marriage which had gone sour after
a few months, and that took longer to recover from than the marriage had
lasted. Maggie and I live on a small farm
two and a half-hours drive from Toronto. When her father, my Uncle Jimmy, phoned us to
suggest that since she was in Canada we might like to have her visit us, ("you know, it would help her to get over things"), we were more than willing to do so.
My Uncle Jimmy was a special person, despite his idiosyncrasies, and was
especially kind to Maggie and me, eons ago, when we were first going out together. He was a great fly fisherman and had often
tried to interest me in that art when I was a kid. The problem was that if we didn’t catch
something in the first thirty minutes I rapidly lost interest. Anyway, Maggie phoned Peggy, and in her warm and welcoming way she soon convinced her to spend a week or two with us.
She had been a spoilt kid as I remembered
her, but she turned out to be good company and we had a nice couple of weeks together,
despite her underlying post divorce blues.
She had a great sense of humour and if ever I gently nudged the
conversation in the direction of her marriage, she found a good-humoured way to
firmly steer the conversation in another direction. She wasn't having any snooping from me!
However, when we were saying our good-byes, her parting words to me were “since
you’re such an expert on marriage, maybe someday we’ll see if you can evaluate what went wrong with mine.”
I had in arrived in Dublin a couple of days earlier for the funeral of an old friend and to fulfill my commitment as the executor of her will. For various reasons Maggie couldn't come at this time so I was on my own. I phoned Jimmy soon after my arrival in Dublin and he had invited
me over to dinner.
“Mary’s away too’, he said when he heard Maggie wasn’t
with me. “Come over and I’ll show you
what a good piece of fish should taste like.
I’m a pretty good cook you know and I caught the fish myself.”
I arrived on
Sunday evening and was surprised when Peggy, his daughter opened the door delightedly.
“It’s good to see you, ”, She said. “It’s been a long time”.
“Yes,” I said, “I've tried phoning you several
times when I knew I was coming but never actually managed to connect.
It was a fine dinner and Uncle Jimmy made much of
the facts that he’d caught the trout and shot the partridges, and talked as
though he’d cooked the whole dinner, even though I knew it was Peggy who’d
done most of the work. We talked a lot
about the good old days, and the more we sipped our 'Bushmills Black' the better they
“And what’s new with you, Peggy,” I said.
“Quite a bit,” she said happily, “ I’m getting
married – again” and then, more seriously,
“You remember, when I visited you in Canada a couple
of years ago and you said to me that that we could discuss what happened in my
marriage, and I brushed it aside mainly, I suppose, because I just wasn’t ready
yet- too painful. Well, I think I’m
ready for that now. I know that things
are going to be right with Hugh, but I still think I should learn as much from
my failure as possible. Does your
offer still hold?”
“It certainly does, “ I said, “after all, if we
don’t learn from our mistakes we are doomed to repeat them, and this is a good
time to do this, if it won’t embarrass your Dad.”
glanced over at Uncle Jimmy.
“It won’t embarrass him,” she answered for him,
“will it, daddy? It’ll just bore him to
death. He and Mom lived through all that
too, and I don’t think I could ever have gotten through that time without their
“Go ahead,” Uncle Jimmy lit up his
pipe contentedly, “maybe we’ll all learn something”.
I said, “I know there’s a great
danger in trying to simplify complex situations, but usually people used to manage to
handle the myriad of minor irritations associated with day to day living within
their marriage. These days people are much more inclined to walk away at the first major confrontation rather than try to work them out. A great deal depends on how good the marriage was in the first place and in the flexibility of the couple. Why do you think your marriage failed?
She considered the question for a
few moments. “Kenny, - that was my
former husband’s name, was a real control freak. You’d probably call it an
obsessive-compulsive personality or something like that. I should have seen the writing on the wall,
because it was evident long before we got married. Kenny, he insisted on being called Kenny,
not Ken or Kenneth, started when we were planning the wedding. He had to have his own way in every little
" A sure recipe for failure, if ever there was one. One that has to be sorted out before the marriage because it's not likely to be resolved afterwards.
Some of the issues were really trivial, and yet if he didn’t get his own way
they could blow up into a major fight.
We hadn’t been married very long before he started making demands. He wanted me to become active in the Church,
which he had never even been interested in, or belonged to before we were
married. He became very involved himself
and expected me to do the same.
Initially, I thought he was having an epiphany, but after a while I
began to realize that he saw it more as a step to success, than anything
else. Kenny was an accountant doing
okay, but certainly not setting the world on fire, and I think he thought being
perceived as a family man might help him. I had my own career which I certainly thought no less important than his. But other than my bringing home my pay packet to share in the house expenses he didn't seem interested."
"And how was your sex life?' I asked.
Her father busied himself filling his pipe and trying to move out of ear shot.
"Not that great, but it did exist." she responded, and added, "I did let him know that on a couple of occasions and I guess that didn't help very much."
“No, it wouldn't" I couldn’t help observing..
“I guess I was being mean. Our sex life sure wasn’t anything to write home
about. But what really bothered me was
that he never seemed to want to be alone with me. Almost every week-end and holiday was spent
with his mother, or middle-aged bachelor friends and some of the time I could
come if I liked, or not, and some of the time I was just not invited. And if we weren’t going out, he thought we,
or rather I, should be entertaining them.
After a while that started to wear pretty thin. It wasn't long before I was making all sorts
of changes to my plans to facilitate Kenny.
I found I was resenting it increasingly because it seemed to me that he
wasn't making the same sort of concessions.
For instance I changed my work schedule at his request so that we could
spend more evenings together and found that his concept of spending evenings
together was visiting his friends or entertaining them and his family. We rarely had an evening together to go to a
movie or to just to sit and watch television.
He wanted me to work and share all the expenses of living, including
paying him rent, I might add, but was very resentful when my work interfered
with his social expectations."
"You can be sort of anti-social
at times, Peggy," her father said quietly.
"I don't think I'd call it
anti-social, Daddy," she said, " I just don't like being with people
all the time, and Kenny never seemed to get enough. But I thought if someone really loved you,
it was without reservation."
I shook my head sadly, "that's
the way it is in romance novels, unfortunately in real life it rarely works
that way, and if things get bad enough between a couple they both find that
there are very real reservations and limits to their love."
"I realize that now,"
Maureen continued, "so we were fighting more and more frequently, and he
said horrible things to me and - "
Her father interrupted, "you
have a pretty sharp tongue yourself ".
"Oh Daddy, who's side are you
on?" she asked angrily, "you'd think it was all my fault!"
"I'm sure it was both your
faults," he said.
They both looked at me as though
seeking some judgement. I thought I'd just listen.
"So what happened next," I
"What happened next was the
inevitable spiraling of our conflicts until eventually even the silliest little
difference ends up with us screaming at each other. He was so controlling that eventually
everything ended up as a conflict and he was just impossible to live
with. He said such horrible thing to me."
"Whoa," I said, "you
knew this man for some time before you married him, are you telling me that you
didn't see this side of him at all before you married him?"
"Well, I suppose I did, but I
thought we would be able to work it all out after we got married," she
"I don't want to sound
cynical," I said, "but marriage tends to magnify these problems, not
diminish them. Put two people in close proximity
on a daily basis and sooner or later they will have to confront these
differences and if they don’t respect each other’s boundaries living together
soon becomes untenable.”
“Anyway,” Peggy said, “to cut a
long story short, it ended up with him running back to live with his Mama when
he found he couldn’t just get me out of his house. It was his house, and he was going to get me
out of it, and I wasted the next two years of my life depressed and miserable
trying to get over it. I’m sure not going
to make any of those mistakes again.
This time I’m really sure things are going to work.”
“That’s encouraging to hear, Peggy,” I said. “What have you learned that inspires such confidence?”
“First of all, I have learned that
the person you marry is going to be the same person after the marriage as
before it. In fact, any problems that
exist before the marriage must be resolved then, because after the marriage
living in close proximity magnifies those irritants. When Kenny and I got married, I made a whole
series of promises for change, which ranged from quitting smoking to becoming
more of a social creature that just was not me. I found myself making promises that I just
couldn’t keep, but he was such a nag, that I’d have said anything to shut him
up. With Hugh, I had the maturity and
self-confidence to say ‘what you see is what you get’. Sure, I want us to please each other, but
not under the circumstance ‘do what I say and change to suit me or get out’. No promises of that nature from me, and I
don’t expect them from him!”
“That’s certainly an important
lesson,” I said, “maybe the most important one. If you want to make over your partner even
before the wedding, it doesn’t bode well for the future.
From what you’ve said to me, I think you can realize
what harm words can do. Nothing could
be further from the truth than that old saying children used to quote when they
were the victims of hurtful words. ‘Sticks and stones can break my bones but
names can never hurt me’. In fact sometimes
words can hurt much more than sticks and stones. And the problem is once said they can’t be
unsaid. Words said in anger can
reverberate long after the anger has dissipated and the issues that gave rise
to them are forgotten.”
Peggy looked at me thoughtfully, “yes, I think you
may be right,” she said. “Another
important thing is the change in relationship that normally takes place between
a married person and his or her family and friends. I think those relationships are very
important, but a successful marriage depends on the persons involved placing
themselves above all else – without in any way depreciating the other
relationships in their lives. I’m sure
there is a lot more about marriage that I’ve learnt that I can’t just put my
finger on right now. I know this is
your area of specialization, maybe you’ve discerned some other messages in my
story that I’ve missed?”
“It's often the small things, Peggy, give me an example of some small thing
that provoked a third world war between you and Kenny?”
“Well there was the bloody ridiculous picture thing
just before we broke up. I thought a few
of our pictures needed to be moved and started early on Sunday morning, full of
enthusiasm to do the moving. I must have
woken the bastard gently hammering a nail in the wall, and he came downstairs in
his pyjamas ranting and raving when he saw what I was doing, and asked me what the
fuck I meant by moving pictures in his house
without discussing it with him first.
I was so furious that it took me days to get over it.”
“Do you think your anger was out of proportion to
the circumstances?” I asked her.
“What do you mean out of fucking proportion,” she
responded angrily, “you didn’t have to listen to the bastard going on for
“You said twenty minutes,” I said.
She looked at me angrily and said nothing.
“Peggy, when people over-react to something, sometimes they are transferring an unresolved conflict from their early life onto the
present situation without realizing it.
Does this remind you of any feelings from your early life?”
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“Well, as you are having these feelings, does that
remind you of similar feelings when you were growing up?”
“Oh, you mean when me and Mom got into it? Well yes, she always did seem to have it in
Uncle Jimmy looked uncomfortable. “Oh God, the two
of you used to be at it terrible, I was even glad to have to go to some of those
evening meetings on occasion. And
then there were those evening meeting of the Irish Fly-fishing Association. It seems to me that you and your mother were
two peas in a pod. You could both be
equally unreasonable at times with me burying my head in the sand as I ambled
down to my fly-tying equipment in the garage to get a couple of hours of
peace and quiet.”
“So you and your Mom are sort of similar
personalities, eh Peggy?” I asked. “We tend to pick someone like one or other
of our parents to be attracted to. So which
of your parents was Kenny most like?”
Uncle Jimmy picked up his well
chewed browning Meerschaum pipe and looked as though he were about to leave the
“Sit down Jimmy,” I barked. He may have been a favourite uncle but there
was no way he was escaping right now.
“Oh he always tried to get away like
that when the situation was getting uncomfortable, I hope Hugh isn’t too like
“Let’s get back to the point, Peggy,” I said, “which of your parents is Kenny a bit like?”
“You mean, that I’m like my
mother?” Peggy’s voice elevated an octave, “and that Kenny was a bit like me?”
her voice had risen another half octave.
“You have to understand, that what I
am really explaining is that you tended to transfer the unresolved control
conflicts with your mother onto the similar personality of Kenny, resulting in
minor angers becoming major rages.”
“I never thought of it that way
before, but if you are right, there’s probably nothing that you can do about
that, is there?”
“Peggy, when you spot transference
of unresolved feelings, from an early life intimate relationship, you have to
put the feelings of anger and sadness, back where they come
from. This can sometimes be done by
writing about it briefly, in a journal, recognizing the original feelings of
anger and sadness that you have never dealt with and putting them on paper.”
“So how does that help me with the
picture hanging, or should I call it the ‘picture lynching’ episode, Dr. Freud?”
she said sarcastically.
“Most couples are pretty competitive
with each other these days, rather like the competition between siblings. Couples are best off when they clearly
define zones of responsibility. Each
partner must have clearly defined responsibilities for the various tasks that
have to be accomplished on a day to day basis.
Traditionally the woman always looked after the house, the man the
outside and the cars for example. Yet,
if the man was going to change the appearance of the garden, he should consult
with his wife before he makes any final decision, just as much as if you were
going to change the pictures, you should have consulted with your partner
“But why would he flip out over
moving a couple of simple pictures?”
“Maybe his father wouldn’t let him
put posters up on his bedroom wall as a kid, and he’s pretty touchy about this.” I said, then added, “how were things done in your house when you were a kid?”
"I never cared about that sort of stuff."
Well, if you had checked with Kenny, it may never have bothered him. It may just have been a lack of communication,
or it may have been a truly touchy situation.”
"I think my husband and my mother were both control freaks," she said.
"And there was no way you were going to be controlled by anyone?"
By now, I was thoroughly fed up with all this nonsense. I needed to wind it up so that it wouldn't ruin my holiday. I wasn't even getting paid for talking or listening - unusual for me.
So this was the best way to wind it up quickly.
Said I, “Look, I didn’t do everything right,
and tended to take the line of least resistance a lot of the time, that’s my
problem that I have to deal with – but there’s no way I can blame my parents
for that, and equally there is no way you can blame yours. If you’re frustrated with them for not being
more assertive and more to your liking that’s your right, but don’t blame them for your problems. And, believe me, you have no idea what they are going to be, yet. They might just make ours seem mild. Remember, the secret of a successful life is
not necessarily to be dealt a great hand, but to play the hand you were dealt
the best possible way.