We met Kara and Dave in the September 2014 blog post. At Dave’s request, they came for a couples session to check on how they were doing as newlyweds and then decided to continue couples therapy to strengthen their relationship. A big issue for Dave was his concern that Kara agreed with whatever he wanted without ever letting him know what she wants. Kara appreciated his honesty; however, she didn’t understand how her desire to please Dave didn’t make him happy. Others like how she attends to them and her mother not only likes it, she expects it, especially during her drinking episodes. It was difficult for Kara to consider the significance of how her mother’s drinking encouraged Kara’s need to please others instead of being fully in relationship with them. At my suggestion, Kara started attending meetings for adult children of alcoholics to better understand her mother’s impact on her behavior. While this was hard work for Kara, she was excited to be growing in her marriage with Dave. All was going well and they both liked feeling closer and safer with each other.
Hosting Thanksgiving dinner for both their families seemed a lovely way for them to express their appreciation for their families’ ongoing support. Kara and Dave imagined how organizing this special event would be a fun activity for them to do together. Yet, it wasn’t unfolding as they had hoped. Each time Dave offered to take on responsibilities, Kara said she had them covered, even though he knew she didn’t. Finally Dave decided to talk about this with Kara in a couples session.
In the session, Kara told Dave she wanted everything to be perfect and that she didn’t have the time to teach Dave how to do certain things, much less trust that he would follow through and carry them out well. Dave was angry and accused Kara of being unfair. Kara argued that she wouldn’t have to shut him out if he would just let her take care of things. Dave thought Kara’s logic was skewed although he could see how he used enthusiasm to coerce Kara into cooperating and to veil his own disappointment. Kara admitted having a negative reaction to Dave’s enthusiasm. She recalled times with her mother when she joined in on what was promised to be a fun activity, only to have it end up becoming a horrible mess for Kara to clean up. Whenever her mother was involved, “perfect” was a fantasy. Kara realized how believing if she took on the sole responsibility for Thanksgiving she could protect Dave from feeling awful when her mother messed it up was her fantasy. As Kara said this, she started to recognize how pleasing others was really more about controlling outcomes.
Dave and Kara are making strides in their relationship. At this point we can observe how they feel safe enough to struggle with the underlying, unconscious dynamics in their shared life together. Kara’s idea of normal is reflected in her attempts to be pleasing in order to protect those she loves. Children of alcoholics typically care for others to get the approval they need. This plays out for Kara in her relationship with her mother. No matter how often Kara attempts to prevent upsets, she seems to fail and then is left to clean up her mother’s messes. At some level Kara believes she isn’t good enough to warrant love unless she is perfect. Kara repeats this dynamic when she justifies shutting Dave out of their Thanksgiving preparations. Dave’s anger at Kara is new behavior for him. As Dave willingly takes responsibility for manipulating Kara and deflecting his own disappointment, he is met by Kara openly responding to his generosity and humility. Hosting their first Thanksgiving gathering is providing them abundant opportunities to appreciate each other’s vulnerabilities and deepen their commitment to each other.