“I can’t understand it,” says Beverly, an attractive 48 year old attorney, passing her hand through her short, curly black hair. “I’ve been with Joanne for over 20 years and now that there’s the possibility that we might be able to get married, I’m getting cold feet. We love each other, we get along. I just don’t understand myself. I haven’t said a word to Joanne. She’s floating on air. I don’t want to burst her bubble.
“She’s such a good person,” she continues, warmly. “I never want to hurt her, although I know I have. There were those years that I had lots of affairs. Looking for more exciting sex. But I’m really committed to Joanne now. You and I worked on it and I haven’t seen another woman for a long time. I promised Joanne I wouldn’t and I’d never go back on my word. We have a decent sex life. It’s not what it was 20 years ago, but what couple who’s been together for 20 years does?”
Beverly and I have worked together for several years. She was initially a difficult patient, challenging, argumentative, defensive. But she’s now far more thoughtful and open.
“Does it seem to you that if you get married you’ll be more tied down, less able to turn to other women if you chose?” I ask.
“That doesn’t seem right. I promised Joanne and my word means more to me than a piece of paper.”
We sit thoughtfully in silence. I think about the wonderful gay wedding I attended last year, the glorious celebration of love and possibility. I think about my lesbian friend who died suddenly many years ago and whose partner could not speak of her loss in the school system where she worked. I’d like Beverly to be able to get married, but that’s my desire, not necessarily hers.
“I was thinking about my parents.” She laughs. “I do that a lot here. My sisters and I have already begun planning their 50th anniversary party. It makes me nauseous. What’s to celebrate in 50 years of misery! I still don’t understand why they’re together. My father’s this horrible, authoritarian person who bosses around my meek, mousy mother who is constantly depressed and bemoaning her life. I know, I know, they must get something out of it to have stayed together. I think they enjoy torturing each other. Besides, no one else would have either of them.” She sighs. “Am I afraid my marriage would end up like theirs?”
“That’s a good question, are you?”
“Not consciously. One of the good things about being gay was that I knew my relationship could never look like theirs, at least not literally.”
“So how about figuratively?” I ask, hoping to help get beyond the conscious.
“When my sister got married, my mother decided to tell her about her own wedding night. I mean she knew my sister wasn’t a virgin, so I don’t know why she had to tell her all that stuff. She said how painful sex was and how my father didn’t care about her, just his own pleasure. So what else is new? He takes what he wants and she cries about it. Ugh! It’s such an awful relationship.”
I think about my own parents who shared some similarities with Beverly’s. My father was explosive and tyrannical; my mother was compliant, but definitely a competent, capable person, who saw both the world and my father through rose-colored glasses. They loved each other and, although I would have disagreed, they both would have said they had an excellent marriage. Unlike Beverly, I had a mother I could identify with, without getting stuck in a passive, depressed position. For Beverly to propel herself into the world, she needed to identify with her father, an identification that has carried some negative consequences for her.
“I was thinking, Beverly, that you said at the beginning of the session how you never wanted to hurt Joanne but that you did with sexual relationships with other women. And now you’re talking about how your father took his pleasure sexually and was unconcerned about your mother. Do you think you’re concerned that marriage will give you more of a license to hurt Joanne, sexually or some other way?”
“Hmm. I know that makes no sense logically, but I don’t know. I’ve certainly learned about the power of the unconscious. So if I get married, I’ll be more like my father – married – and therefore more likely to act like him. I’ll have to give that more thought.”
“Not to negate your possible fear of being more like your father, I’d say that your thoughtful, non-defensive interaction with me today indicates how far you’ve moved from being the authoritarian your father is.”
“Thank you. That means a lot to me.”