Judy—A Case of Marital Conflict

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1. Presenting Problem

 Judy came to the office distressed and agitated by an incident that had happened with her husband over the past week.  In the days leading up to an important holiday, she had been preparing for a party. Her husband, Mike, had come back from a business trip very early in the morning, so she had been trying to give him a wide berth and to avoid including him in the preparations.  But, she was very busy and had a lot on her plate. She finally asked him if he could go to the airport and pick up her mother. He asked, “Do I have time to take a shower first?” Judy said he could, but that she wanted him to pick up her mother in a timely fashion.  Mike took a long shower and took his time getting ready; by the time he left, he was already running late, and Judy’s mother was calling from the airport, wondering where he was. Judy was furious and let loose on Mike. She called him thoughtless and irresponsible, and said that he thought only of his own wellbeing.  There was a lot of back and forth acrimony before he finally left to get Judy’s mother. It soured the rest of the evening. Mike complained to Judy that she’s never satisfied, that she always complains, and that he can never win. When he went to pick up her mother, conflict had happened, which caused Judy distress. She was upset with Mike for this kind of behavior and they’ve been upset with each other ever since.

2. Background Information

Judy and Mike have been married for 20+ years and have 4 children.  Before being married, Judy was a very successful marketing professional.  She’d dated many men before finding Mike, but had trouble finding the “right” one because most of the men she’d dated were just as ambitious as she was.  She comes from an intact family which values achievement. Her immediate family was very warm and tended toward emotionality. Mike’s family was dysfunctional.  His mother was abusive, and his father detached from the family. There wasn’t a lot of family conflict because the father checked out. When Mike and Judy met, Judy was impressed by Mike’s friendliness and easygoing nature. 

She thought his approach to relationships was similar to hers but he’s actually much more detached than she initially realized. His detachment is a longstanding problem. Judy has had much regret over marrying Mike because of this.  Mike sometimes feels overwhelmed by Judy’s need for emotional support. He feels she makes much out of nothing. Judy stopped her career to be a wife at home after marrying. Her most powerful sources of satisfaction outside of being a wife and mother.  Their relationship has a long history of conflict, disappointment and unhappiness. Fights like the one above form a pattern of conflict that is frequent between them with the very same complaints. 

Important relevant information to this case: Judy and Mike are a Jewish family keeping Shabbat.

3. MindFulChoice Assessment

We reviewed Judy’s situation.  Walking through events, I asked Judy what her state of mind leading up to Thursday was.  She replied that she was under a great deal of stress and had a lot on her mind. She said that asking Mike to pick up her mother was an attempt to take one of those things off of her mind.  I identified her stress and high sensitivity to discomfort as being symptomatic of Tunnel Vision Effect. When she asked Mike to pick up her mother from the airport, she was solely focused on getting one item off of her list of things to do.  That was her primary objective. When Mike asked her if he could take a shower, however, her objective shifted.

I asked her what she was thinking when he asked that, and she said that she thought if she was nice to him maybe he would be nice to her.    Her primary goal was no longer getting her mother home, it had become having a positive interaction with Mike. She was testing Mike by telling him he could take a shower before going to the airport, and he failed the test. He was focused on himself, thinking that Judy had given him permission to be.

4. MindFulChoice Tools

  • Paradigm:

Primary vs.  Secondary Objectives—When Judy changed the focus and allowed Mike to create a priority of his own, it was inevitable that conflict would occur.  Neither Judy nor Mike was aware of the way that their focus changed.

  1. B) Remediating Principle:

V—We teach others how to treat us: We are conveying information about ourselves not only through words but also through our actions.  So when people respond to us in a particular fashion, and we respond to them in a particular fashion, we teach them how they can act toward us.  We show how we want to be treated by what we respond positively to. If we are pleasant in response to rude behavior, we teach people that there won’t be any consequences for treating us that way.  What did Judy teach Mike? She taught Mike that she had a hidden agenda that she didn’t share with him, so even if he did something nice for her, if it didn’t fit that secret agenda, she wouldn’t care.  Therefore, Michael’s response to Judy was to be even more thoughtless, with the reasoning that if he has no chance of succeeding, there’s no point to trying. Judy is teaching Mike that she’ll be upset no matter what he does.

Q—When you DO know something is true and you choose to ignore it – you will mess up your life: Judy is very aware of the fact that Michael can be self-absorbed.  She’s always testing him to see if he’ll act differently this time.  She’s ignoring the fact that he is self-absorbed, and creating problems for herself. If she had acknowledged that Mike tends to be self-absorbed, she would have asked him to wait to shower until after he picked up her mother.  It’s common for people to ignore knowledge of unpleasantness. We don’t want to be confronted with unpleasant things we wish were different. That’s why we avoid and impulsively ignore them, and that’s what Judy did. She ignored a piece of information that she knows because it is an unpleasant piece of information.  MindFulChoice recognizes that a person’s choices are often not “good vs. bad” but, rather, “bad vs. worse.” Judy had a choice. She could recognize Mike’s self-absorption and articulate and define for him that he had to be thoughtful, but that was a disappointing option because she would need to tell him to be thoughtful.  On the other hand, she could give him the choice to be thoughtful or not, without any guidance, and be even more disappointed when he fails. That was the choice that she ultimately made.

5. MindFulChoice Intervention

I reviewed with Judy the tipping point in this incident, which was when she told Mike that he could shower first and then pick up her mother.  I pointed out to Judy that if she told Mike to pick up her mother first, this whole incident would not have happened. When we discussed what her objective in changing her primary focus was, she admitted that she is so frustrated about how Mike is not helpful that it overrides her judgement.  The distress she feels because she sees Mike as being unhelpful interferes with her decision-making.

6. Results

What I achieved with Judy was giving her greater clarity on her actions and decisions can be dysfunctional.  Together, we also identified other decisions she could have made and recognized other issues that she needs to address—specifically, her issue with her husband’s lack of empathy.  What Judy still needs to work on is how to deal with her unmet needs. We were able to recognize that her impulsive shift from one primary objective to a secondary objective shows that her unmet needs are beginning to interfere with her ability to make effective decisions.  They are functioning as noise in her decision-making process. The result is that we were able to clarify the noise that intrudes on her ability to meet her objectives. We are currently still working on the noise.

What MindFulChoice does is a process, and it’s an ongoing process, meaning that you’re never done.  You learn how to live better. You learn to recognize sources of unhappiness, and to find better ways to reach goals, but you’re never done.  It’s a way of life.

7. Comparison to Other Methods

I helped Judy identify her objective—she wanted to reduce her stress level when she asked Mike to pick up her mother.  When he asked if he could take a shower first instead, the thought process that she had involved reviewing her objective.  She saw an opportunity to see if he’d be nice to her, and that became her new objective. Trying to get him to be nice to her was a reasonable objective, but she did it impulsively.  She didn’t tell him that it was her new objective. That set the stage for conflict.

Examining the process of what happened, we also identified her impulsivity.  We looked at the situation from the perspective of whether her actions advanced or detracted from her primary objective.  In trying to get her husband to be nice to her, she made her secondary objective her primary one. We were also able to see how this impulsive change in her objective influenced her feelings and her actions.  MindFulChoice helps people manage impulsivity and inattention. Other methods focus on feelings, hurts, and the past. They would focus on problem perseveration. Looking at how the problem is created and the experience of the problem, they would focus on the past as the source of the current problem.  It’s not that MindFulChoice ignores the past, but its approach is that if the past has meaning, then let’s find the best way to deal with that past. Sometimes the best way to deal with the past is acceptance.  

Mike is not going to be emotionally satisfying or empathic to the degree that Judy wants him to be.  It will be frustrating for Judy to try to get him to be, whenever she tries it. Now, if someone came to a MindFulChoice professional with the problem of not having an emotionally satisfying partner, MindFulChoice does have solutions for addressing it, but that isn’t the problem presenting here.  Judy is constantly trying to undo the past; she is focused on the past.

She won’t get the emotional satisfaction she wants from Mike, but she can get other things from him, and from other people.  Other methods would focus on addressing hurts and feelings from the past, and on validating and reaffirming Judy’s reasonable desire for an empathic partner.  MindFulChoice doesn’t see that as the best solution.