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Getting Along by Lawrence J. Cohen - A bi-weekly column in The Boston Globe

1/16/2003 - Why loved one's faults become our problem

I was reading the other day about the marketing effort over the years by various pharmaceutical companies to promote their drug treatments of menopausal symptoms. Most of the ads implied that this stage of life is somehow unnatural or pathological. The description of two advertisements from the 1970s stood out as especially absurd.

The first was for a drug that combined hormone replacement with a good dose of the tranquilizer Librium. This little duo is much less popular today than it was back in the days when being female was considered an abnormality. The ad showed an older couple, with the caption promising that the drug ''treats the menopausal symptoms that bother him the most.''

The other ad was even more explicit - if that's possible - in trying to persuade doctors to help the poor men who were stuck with these horrifying menopausal women. Beneath this unhappy-looking couple the ad read, '' He is suffering from menopause because of her.''

No wonder so many menopausal and post-menopausal women have talked and written about feeling discounted, silenced, and invisible - and not just by their husbands. One of the ads seemed to suggest to doctors that the proper prescription would help keep these complaining women out of their offices.

While the sexism of these ads is clear, if we look deeper we can see a problem that affects us all. Don't we all want our loved ones to get rid of the symptoms that bother us most? Don't we all feel as though we are suffering because of our spouse's or our friends' neuroses, their annoying habits, their unresolved feelings about their mothers, their drinking, their anger?

As a therapist, I am constantly being told by various well-meaning people what it is that my client and I should actually be working on: ''Make sure he talks about how he always feels like a failure compared with his big brother.''

It is true that many people skirt around the key things they need to be addressing in therapy, and may need a gentle nudge to disclose well-guarded secrets or break out of well-established denial. But I'm talking about a giant step beyond that gentle nudge.

This need to control the other person can be taken to absurd lengths, as with the husband of an old classmate of mine. He talked her doctor into telling her to minimize her weight gain during pregnancy, because he didn't want her to look fat. Instead, she looked like a toothpick that swallowed a basketball, and she was worried about the health of the baby. After the baby was born, healthy (fortunately), he admitted what he had done to intervene, and was bewildered that she was angry about it. He had only been trying to prevent the ''symptom'' of pregnancy that bothered him most. During her next pregnancy she found a different doctor, and made a second home at the ice cream parlor!

In Alcoholics Anonymous, this tendency to focus on the other person's faults that need fixing is called ''taking someone else's inventory.'' The fourth of the 12 steps is to take one's own fearless moral inventory, to look oneself squarely in the eye, seeing one's own character defects and acknowledging the regretted behaviors of the past. This is easier said than done, especially because it is also important to take that inventory without beating up on yourself. It is so much easier to inventory someone else's faults and mistakes. Unfortunately, we move forward only when we accept other people as they are and focus instead on changing ourselves.

To put it another way, who has the problem, the one who's annoying or the one who's annoyed? The person with the roller-coaster hormone levels or the people who live with them? That's an easy one: You've got the problem that needs fixing, not me. If it's your bad habit, then you'd better get cracking on breaking it, because it's driving me nuts. If it's my bad habit, then the problem is obviously your inability to accept me as I am.

Occasionally, the opposite dynamic is at work: We refuse to see a problem in another person because of some benefit we derive from it.

Like most psychological abnormalities, this one was described best by Woody Allen, who told the joke about having a relative who thought he was a chicken. They never took him for psychiatric help, though, because they needed the eggs.

Larry Cohen
phone: 617-713-0568

email: larjack@playfulparenting.com

Larry Cohen
1680A Beacon Street | Brookline, MA 02445 | Tel/Fax: 617-713-0568

email: larjack@playfulparenting.com