Third-year medical students Ms.Edison and Mr. Willis had beenmarried only a month whenthey came to see me. Theirchief complaints were vastly different."I'm here because I'm lonely andscared,"Ms. Edison explained. "Ourcommunication has been a problem fromthe get-go. I kind of hoped that it wouldget better after we got married, but ithasn't; it's worse. I won't have a marriagelike my parents, and Jack knows this."
Mr. Willis then gave his side of thestory. "I'm uptight about money, plainand simple,"he said. "We have studentloans in the stratosphere and have borrowedmoney from both our families,yet Colleen spends like we're a dualdoctor couple, which we're not; we're adual debt couple."I asked each of themto respond to the other's concern.
Points of Contention
Mr. Willis spoke first. "I'm so sick ofthe word communication. I've developeda Pavlov-type response when she uses the"c"word, except I don't salivate, I getangry,"he explained. "I agree that herparents have a lousy marriage; they'reboth doctors, professors, and departmentchairs. I tell her not to worry and thatour marriage is light-years better thantheirs. And compared to our marriedfriends, I'd say we talk the best."
At this point, Ms. Edison interruptedwith laughter, eventually apologizing. Mr.Willis flushed. Turning away from hiswife, he gazed out the window and shookhis head in frustration. Ms. Edison thenlooked at me. "Here, Dr. Myers, is an insitu reenactment of our communication,"she said. "Oops, sorry Jack, I just usedthe ‘c'word; I'm sorry, but comparingour relationship with our married friends'relationships is ridiculous."
Struggle and Frustration
I stopped Ms. Edison before sheupset Mr. Willis more. I then redirectedthe conversation, inviting Ms. Edison torespond to her husband's concerns."Jack's right. He does worry aboutmoney and I don't—I mean, I do, butnot in an anal way like he does,"shenoted. "I buy small things, little pickme-ups. It started before Jack and I met.My parents were always working, sothey gave me little infusions of cash tokeep me happy."
This young couple did well. Theirsocioeconomic backgrounds were verydifferent, which explained Mr. Willis'sconcern about debt. I tried to create a safeplace where they could begin to let downtheir guard. In only a few sessions, a caring,intuitive, and mutually empathicrelationship emerged. And all three of uscould joke about the "c"word.
Michael F. Myers,
professor in the Department of
Psychiatry at the University of
British Columbia in Vancouver,
Canada, is the author of Doctors'
Marriages: A Look at the Problems
and Their Solutions (Plenum Pub Corp;
1994) and How's Your Marriage?: A Book for
Men and Women (American Psychiatric Press;
1998). He is the past president of the Canadian
Psychiatric Association and welcomes questions
or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.