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A sudden change in attitude for Bernie

We met Bernie, a married man who reports a history of mental and emotional abuse from his wife. We’ve not met her, and, therefore, only have Bernie’s information. His wife, I understand only conceptually requested he seek therapy.

Due to the immediacy of Bernie’s plight, treatment must focus on mental and emotional survival. Bernie’s early presentation of physical rigidity called for a delay in gathering personal history, customarily a source of inquiry. He was locked in physically from an accumulative effect of rule-out domestic violence.

Ordinarily, we find cases of domestic violence take on stereotypical roles, man as perpetrator, woman as victim. Safety and survival in any case are paramount. Given an approach to allow a gradual release from his burden, Bernie’s current situation was critical. When a client is physically overtaken by long-term emotional and mental distress, we needed a metaphorical key to open the lock. This can be touch and go. My experience with this domestic violence case falls in line with role reversal. Many aspects of role reversal may require attention in future sessions. One prominent area to explore might be Bernie as a man being victimized by a woman. She berates him and calls him derisive names. Exploring Bernie’s male identification and alpha male role might deliver shame and indignity.

Men are supposed to be … you can fill in the blank however characterized. A man being shamed by a so-called alpha woman blows the stereotype out of the water. Without Bernie’s wife in session, I need to guard from falling prey on surrendering to a real or false belief of the full scale story. Even with some unanswered questions, Bernie is my client and my attention is drawn to his mental and emotional health and well-being. So, Bernie, welcome back. How was your week? And how did you feel after your second session?

“When I left your office, I sat in my car silently. I had lots to think about. Was I in a domestic violent marriage? Did I feel safe going home? My body felt different, funny. I usually listen to loud music to offset my wife’s harsh tone. It becomes white noise. I hear the music trying to drown out my wife’s haunting messages to me. This day, however, I put classical music on and really caught the full measure of the mood. My body began to feel less tense, more at ease. At that first session, I felt like a prisoner in my own body. I felt vulnerable all the time. I’ve felt beaten down. While I listened to some classical music before driving home, I began to wonder if I was hiding behind my tense body. You know what I’m saying?”

Help me understand, Bernie. Are you saying that you locked yourself internally in your body to survive the onslaught of derision from your wife? “Yeah, kind of like that.”

Bernie, I’ve got a thought. Given your description of pure survival, is it possible you had the key to unlock yourself? “Wow, I never thought about it that way. Somehow I knew that as long as I stayed with my wife, her manner scared me. I now see I had a choice; to survive or pay greater consequences.”

The key could enable you to extricate yourself. Yet, what happens if you are free, Bernie?

“Now that you helped me unlock my own door, yeah, right, what now? When I went home last time we ate dinner quietly. She’d been drinking alcohol and yet was quiet in an eerie way. Looking back, I wonder if she saw something new and different in me. I still was guarded and quiet. Wait a minute, I think I said hello and smiled at her. She returned a bit of a smile, maybe influenced by alcohol. Listen, I know that I’ve taken a beating mentally and emotionally from my wife. She spoke very few words to me. Marshall, what do you suppose is going on with her? You know, my guard is up. She scares me. Calling me a beta-man. I mean, now that I’m kinda unlocked from my internal prison, does that mean I must morph into becoming an alpha man to match my alpha wife?”

Bernie sat back, and then suddenly caught me off guard. He began to laugh, which graduated to howls. Tears rolled down his face. An endless stream of water works like a valve left wide open finally released after several minutes. Bernie wiped his face on his shirt sleeve. “What’s happening, Marshall?” I began to laugh, too. Bernie joined me in a more controlled laugh. We pointed a forefinger to each other. No words joined in. Bernie, how do you feel now?

“This might sound crazy, Marshall. I feel like I took the key and on my own unlocked in a different way. I feel vulnerable. I don’t feel weak like before.” Do you feel like you can begin to process emotions congruently, meaning clean and straight forward with life events, Bernie?

Bernie took a couple large breaths. “I think I’m more ready to live my life. I’m not ready to decide upon the future of my marriage. I want to continue therapy. I can grow and get stronger. Hey, you know what; I don’t need to be an alpha or beta man. I can just be me. Is that OK?” I smiled. Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.

Marshall Greenstein, a Cassadaga resident, holds a master’s degree in marriage and family counseling and is a licensed marriage and family counselor and a licensed mental health counselor in New York state. He has regular office hours at Hutton and Greenstein Counseling Services, 501 E. Third St., Suite 2B, Jamestown, 484-7756. For more information or to suggest topics, email editorial@observertoday.com.

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