Like all therapists, when I do my job well, clients go away. These people ideally feel better than when they first walked into my office because of our work together -- work that may consist of changing their relationship with themselves, seeing aspects of their lives from a different perspective, healing old wounds or internalizing life-changing insights (e.g. understanding that their grandmother didn't abandon them, rather she was not allowed to come to see them following a nasty custody battle). It's amazing to watch people change and grow, "graduate" from the therapeutic bubble and go out and live life on their own terms with a new skill set.
That said, recently I had an experience that surprised me.
My client, Heidi, made some drastic changes in her life. She realized that her decisions were always ruled by "shoulds" -- what she should do -- and that these "shoulds" were making her miserable. She decided that she wanted to live a more authentic life. With a big smile on her face, Heidi showed me a quote from Emile Zola that said, "If you ask me what I came into this life to do, I will tell you: I came to live out loud." Then she said, "That's my new favorite quote."
Normally, this is like music to my ears! It was so exciting to witness her stop saying "yes" when she really meant "no," stop apologizing for being powerful and beautiful (which were not considered to be "ladylike" in her family), and start taking risks she normally would have shied away from for fear of "being too much."
What I didn't anticipate was my sadness and guilt when she told me that, as part of uncovering her true self, she was leaving her husband of fifteen years.
Why was I shocked? Grief stricken? Protesting? I am a divorce expert and I see this happen every day. What was so different about this case?
The conclusion I drew was this: The goal this woman had when she originally came to see me had not revolved around her marriage -- she wanted to increase her confidence and performance at work -- so I didn't anticipate that a split was even in the cards for her. Perhaps she didn't either.
Of course, when one part of the system changes, the entire system changes so it's not unusual to see ripples of transformation across a client's life when they are immersed in doing inner work. Some people even avoid going to therapy because they know they'll have to change!
Heidi now understood that her husband didn't want her to have her own voice or opinion. After attempting some marriage counseling and giving the marriage another year's worth of a "chance to change," Heidi realized that she no longer wanted to be married to a man who made her feel small, who only looked out for number one and who had cheated on her a number of times. It was too much of a contrast to go to work feeling better and being more assertive only to come home and shrink again.
Given Heidi's multi-level transformations and her husband's unwillingness to make even one insignificant change, there was only one clear path for her.
She has since filed the paperwork to dissolve the marriage and she gets visibly stronger every time I see her.
Of course, therapists don't try to break up relationships, but divorce can be a side effect of one spouse (or both) getting healthier.
Perhaps we therapists should have a disclaimer for clients:
WARNING: DOING SIGNIFICANT, MEANINGFUL AND DEEP INNER WORK MAY CAUSE YOUR ENTIRE LIFE TO BE TURNED UPSIDE DOWN.
Susan Pease Gadoua and Vicki Larson will be publishing their new book entitled, "The New I Do." For more information on this book, please visit: www.TheNewIDoBook.com