When “Thank You” Is Not Enough
“You’re asking me to thank you for, what? making dinner?” Roy wrinkles his nose in mock incredulity.
Raina nods. “You come in. You eat. You go to your study. You don’t even thank me.”
They sit facing one another during their eighth couples session two weeks before Thanksgiving.
Roy raises his chin. “OK. Dinner was great last night. Thank you.“ He pauses. “Thank you. Ok? Done.”
Raina shakes her brown curls, “I can’t believe that. Not with your tone.”
“I knew it. I never do it right.” Roy turns slightly in his chair.
“Roy!” Raina slaps her thigh. “It’s your Dad who criticized: ‘Where are the other 4 points?’ when you’d bring home a 96 on a test. That’s not me. I simply want you to acknowledge how I’ve made dinner every night all month, just as we agreed, while you’re finishing your year-end report for work.”
Raina sits up straighter. “A Thank You shows me that you see it’s me doing it! That I’m not invisible to you.” Raina purses her lips.
“You, invisible? I don’t get it. I’m working hard for us. This project could pay for a whole year of Johnny’s preschool! You’re blaming me for not doing this ‘we’ thing right.” Roy pauses to catch his breath. “It’s like I’m never good enough.”
“You are good. You work so hard for our family…” Raina’s voice trails off.
It looks to me that they are not yet fully practiced in reading one another accurately. Both are off target, feel confused, and blame the other for feeling upset.
Roy’s face clouds over. He cocks his head to one side. “Now you just want me to feel bad!”
Silence. Raina looks off to the side at the floor. I start to think that Raina is not signaling clearly, thus making it harder for Roy to attune to her and to read what she wants. I’ll bet she’s asking for something more than a simple ‘Thank You,’ what she’s calling being ‘seen.’ How, if at all, might I help her put into words what she really wants?
I decided to start with a basic intervention. “It’s easy to get yourselves into an ‘I-thou’ cycle: Raina feels hurt; Roy feels blamed. You can’t get to ‘we,’ what’s happening between you if you each stay inside your own hurt feelings. You need to walk around to the other person’s side of the mountain to see more clearly what they want from you.”
Silence. Raina thinks, then offers, “I know neither of us grew up feeling seen. Neither of our parents really knew who we were. We’re trying to change that in therapy. So I just expect you to keep me at the top of your mind, as your Number One.“
“But you don’t keep me at top of your mind. You’d rather spend time with your cousin than with me!” Roy looks at Raina’s puzzled face. “You call your cousin every day. When I try to check in with you, there you are, on the phone with her. You clearly prefer talking to her than to me!” Roy sits back. He crosses his arms.
“Oh, wow. I never realized…” Raina stops. She’s startled. A long pause. Then, “You know that my Cousin Beth lived across the street from me growing up. Both our childhoods were so lonely. We played together almost every day. We were like sisters. Each other’s only support.” Raina looks at Roy intently. “While you’ve been working so hard I reached out to her. So I’m not floating in space. She helps ground me. But she’s not a substitute for you. You’ll always be my Number One!”
Roy’s face has softened while Raina is speaking. He sits still.
“So what do you hear that Raina wants from you?” I ask. “What’s she asking for?”
Roy exhales. “I like choosing me as Number One. My Mom chose her bowling league friends as Number One over us kids. So I can see how you got lonely while I’ve been working every night. I get that you needed to connect with your cousin to fill in those empty spaces.” Roy rubs his chin. “Just as you did when you were a kid.”
Raina nods and reaches for Roy’s hand. Roy accepts Raina’s bid for peace, takes her hand, and pulls her toward him into a hug.
“That’s a good ‘Thank You in action,” I say softly. “You don’t always need words!”
Raina’s real Ask was to connect with Roy. She hadn’t realized how lonely she was while he was working long hours on his report. Asking for a ‘Thank You’ opens a door to a room full of Raina’s feelings, of all kinds.
Once Raina explains why she seeks support from cousin Beth, and how she hopes to recreate a similar loving connection with Roy, he is freed up to be vulnerable and empathic toward her.
And Raina’s explanation mutually regulates Roy. Instead of his moving into an amygdala highjack1, he calms down. With both of them in their frontal lobes (of reason), I can suggest my understanding of how they trigger one another’s a cycle of emotional missteps.
I say: “Raina, you describe your Mom as leaving you alone a lot until she needed you to be, or do, something for her. She did not see you for you. And Roy, your parents were too busy surviving to pay much attention to you at all.”
“Raina, it seems you’ve discovered your level of tolerance beyond which you no longer feel connected to Roy. If you let too much time go by, and don’t offer, or get, a genuine connection in the spaces in your lives, you each trigger a familiar hurt in the other. Raina feels that you, Roy, don’t see her real genuine self, and so are not fully connected. And her hurt and disappointment trigger in you, Roy, that you’re ‘not enough’…or worse, that you’ve done something wrong, yet again.”
And we’re reminded yet again that there are numerous ways to say ‘Thank You.’ Try a hug!