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About the cover

  D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e   January 2009

Coping or Healing?

They aren't the same, and understanding the difference can be crucial to moving forward.

By Bina Breitner

When Emma was in college in Boston, she'd call David to wail about her teachers, her roommate, the New England weather (she was from California), and her overall misery. David, who was studying in Virginia, would listen, encourage her, and calm her down. After she'd relaxed, he'd tell her about his classes, his gaming friends, the parties he'd gone to, and his family, who lived nearby.

By the time they finished with college, they were engaged. He came to Boston for graduate school, and they started living together. That's when they began coming to see me for therapy, because. . .

Even though she loved him, Emma was lonely, frustrated and angry with David. He was either in class or studying; all her other close people were in California; the weather was too wretched for her to walk the dogs; they didn't have enough money; he had their only car, so she was housebound; she was stuck with all the housework. She didn't like to cook, but she tried. He didn't remember to thank her and didn't notice when she'd cleaned the house or when he'd left his damp towels on the floor. Since he was thinking about his math assignment, he barely remembered, despite constant reminding, to take out the garbage. She was going nuts.

David admitted he wasn't very conscious about the practical parts of life. His mother had waited on him, his brother and their father, so he wasn't accustomed to thinking about — much less doing — household chores. Perhaps because he was smart in school and was the youngest child, he was his mother's pet. Both his parents worked full time, but his mother also did all the housework and managed the family. When he thought about it, he could see why his mother might be "irritable," and admitted that everyone in the family tried to keep a low profile so she wouldn't "get angry" (which, of course, she already was).

It seemed to me that David was re-creating his relationship with his mother. Emma was taken for granted in doing all the housework, and his only responsibility was to succeed in school/work. He hadn't considered that Emma was as smart as he was, accustomed to using her brain, and not at all interested in managing a house. She also wanted an equal partner in conscious responsibility, not a son. Emma was getting "irritable," and David, true to his pattern, was trying to keep her from "getting angry" (which she already was).

Although David hadn't minded Emma's emotional distress when they lived in separate cities, he was minding it now. He had to hear about it all the time; it took much longer to calm her down, when he could, and often he couldn't. There would be days in a row during which she kept crying, trying to explain to him why she was so miserable.

He wanted to understand, but he was running out of patience. And he was confused, because now he couldn't seem to lift her spirits. "I get the feeling that I'm helping Emma cope — I help her get through the moment," he said, "but nothing I do or say seems to heal her."

His comment perfectly defined the trap so many of us get caught in: We try to heal people we love — we know they're unhappy, and we want to help — but healing is internal, so the best we can do is help them cope, which is not the same thing as healing them.

Of course, helping someone cope is a huge gift. If a person is physically ill, for example, holding her hand, sympathizing and doing errands for her can be a wonderful contribution to her safety and well-being. Helping someone cope is an important gesture of love. Emma was grateful many times for David's support and reassurance. Her suffering was genuine, and her "irritation" was well-founded, so his attempts to cheer her up meant a lot to her, as did his efforts to remember to take out the garbage.

But healing? Even with the aid of a skilled professional, each person actually does his or her own healing. Say you scratch your arm, and it's bleeding. I can get the antiseptic and apply pressure until the bleeding stops. But I didn't stop the bleeding — your body figured out how to clot the blood. I can put on the band-aid and fix you some soup. But tomorrow, as your skin is forming a scab (healing itself), both you and I know that neither of us could create that scab. If you have more extreme problems, a physician offers assistance, opportunity and support, but you heal (or not).

The same principle applies to emotional healing. As a therapist, I can help you figure out what you're really dealing with, and what your choices are. I can then support you as you make and implement decisions. But I can't make or implement your decisions for you. You've done your duty toward yourself by getting outside perspective and guidance, and then you've become happier by integrating whatever you've learned in therapy.

The confusion of coping with healing generates four fundamental problems. In David and Emma's case, they looked like this:

1. Because David wanted to heal her, and she believed David could heal her, Emma didn't take responsibility for her own healing. She wasn't seeking the help she deserved (from professionals).

2. By expecting David to heal her, she asked for more than he could provide, which was unfair.

3. David, who was trying to heal her, became "a failure" — because he couldn't.

4. And because he felt imposed upon (and was failing), he became resentful.

The upshot was that both felt disappointed and baffled. Emma knew David used to "heal" her. Why wasn't he healing her now?! She was angry. And David was overwhelmed by Emma's distress and his own inability to provide what she was asking for.

Once we got it sorted out, Emma began taking responsibility for her own emotional state. She knew she came from a family with a fairly high quotient of difficulties (bipolar disorder and suicide). She explained that to David, who had known her family history but hadn't grasped the severity of it. He was glad to let go of his effort to heal her (he finally realized he'd been in way over his head). And she was able to start taking her own unhappiness more seriously, doing what she needed to do (more individual therapy than couples therapy, plus visits to a psychiatrist for some medication to help her through the tough spots).

For his part, David spent time and energy getting clearer about his own emotional habits: being entitled to ignore household duties, being responsible for jollying his mother or Emma into a better mood (which had passed for healing), and distancing himself from the real problems people might have. (He focused on gaming with his friends, since being up-close to those problems had always seemed useless and overwhelming — after all, his mother never stopped being "irritable" when the next household glitch arose.)

I'm pleased to report that David and Emma did get married. They've moved to California, he has a job he loves, and she's in graduate school part-time and working full-time. I hear from her occasionally, and they are thriving.

The moral of the story is: If you can't heal the other person, know it. If they can't heal you, know it.

The alternative is a destructive co-dependence, and wasting a lot of time: While Emma waits for David to heal her, she'll never figure out what she really needs; she'll blame him for not healing her, and David, frustrated and failing at his task, will get mad and withdraw. It's much better for David to say, "I love you, and I want to help you. I know you appreciate it. But nothing's really changing — I'm helping you cope, but I'm not able to heal you. We need to get you the help you really need (which I can't provide). What do you suggest?"

Now they both understand the limits of what he can do for her, she'll get the outside help that will make a difference, and he can stop being a failure. They are allies again. Nobody is to blame, and the real issues get dealt with. All because they figured out the difference between coping and healing.

Bina Breitner, MA, is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice at 808 W. 8th St., Silver City. She can be reached at 538-4380.

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