Wednesday, December 31, 2008
Rob and Celia were stuck in the argument about Rob’s work
Christmas Party, to which Celia fell short of committing due to her choir
concert rehearsal. For Rob, the
conflict between party and rehearsal symbolized much of what they were fighting
about in the first place – what does togetherness mean and look like in this
relationship? For Rob, commitment to togetherness is equivalent to commitment
Rob couldn’t get out of
the contrary mood he was in; he said, “I’m not sure what good being in Columbus
is if we can’t do things as a couple anyway.” He stood up and put his coat on. “If we get there by eight
we can still have dinner, but we’ll miss cocktails. I’d like to get there by about seven but if you can’t, you
can’t. So call me by six and let me
know the plan. Please just let me
know by then so I can go earlier if you’re not coming.” Rob gave Celia a hasty
kiss on the top of her head as he walked out. He didn’t want to kiss her but to avoid doing so seemed
Celia and Rob had short,
businesslike like phone conversations for the next couple days. By mid-afternoon Saturday Rob began to
glance frequently and anxiously at his phone. So what if she doesn’t come along? I can take a cab and have an extra drink, he thought. I might have a better time anyway. But the reality was that Rob wasn’t
much of a partier, and he wanted to show off his pretty girlfriend to his
Maybe I should have told
her that, he thought. Would that
have made a difference? It occurred
to him to leave her a message now, during the rehearsal, telling her as much;
telling her too that he couldn’t wait to see her in the green velvet cocktail
dress he had helped pick out last year.
But agitated as he was about the situation, he refused to manipulate
Celia into the choice he wanted.
Then he got stuck in that thought loop. Would that be manipulation, or just honest sharing of how he
She called at four
forty-five. Rob responded
immediately, trying to make his “Hey” sound conciliatory and inviting, not
pissy and rejected.
“I’m done,” Celia said.
“Done with rehearsal?
“Yes, done with
rehearsal. But I’m done with the
choir, too,” she said. “You were
right. The concert is going to
suck as much this year as it did last year, and being hired as director doesn’t
mean I’m going to have any additional resources to improve it for next year.”
Rob’s emotions flit from
being ecstatic that she’d be attending the entire party with him to feeling
terrible that he had planted the idea that the music department at the church
was hopeless. He had made the
remark during the argument about the party and while this wasn’t the best choir
in the world it probably didn’t deserve being given up on.
“Well, that’s a big
choice. Let’s talk about it
tonight,” Rob said. He envisioned
sweet conversations about her job and their future together during jazzy slow
dances fueled by spiked egg nog.
“Maybe I should just marry
you and let you take care of me,” Celia said.
How should Rob respond to
Wednesday, December 17, 2008
What’s the Big Deal? (Joanne’s comment)
I was disappointed that Celia couldn't find a way to commit to Rob's party. Rob was working hard to come up with a win-win for the holiday, and I hoped Celia would do the same for Rob. Rob may be right: just how big a difference is another hour of rehearsal going to make for the choir? I wish Celia would have come to that conclusion herself. However, in relationships that's not the point and it wasn't helpful for Rob to have pointed it out. The choir is important to Celia, and Rob seems unable to embrace that on any level. The argument at Celia's apartment looks a lot like the arguments many couples have all the time. These arguments are seldom about Christmas plans, or a party, or a choir concert. They are about each partner pleading (probably unconsciously), "How much do you really care for me?" Couples who can interpret arguments in this way are more resilient than ones who get caught in the content. Celia and Rob are walking a fine line right now, and Rob has a lot of power in his response to direct where the conversation goes from here.
Tuesday, December 16, 2008
What’s the Big Deal?
Celia missed Rob’s work holiday party last year because of a Christmas concert rehearsal that ran late. Because she’s the choir director this year, she has a responsibility to deliver the best possible concert, although she also has the authority to end the rehearsal whenever she wants. Rob is trying to be flexible about Christmas family plans and he pushed for a commitment on the party.
Rob and Celia walked home to Celia’s apartment. Her roommates were out and they had a rare opportunity to be alone at Celia’s home. One of the roommates had put up a miniature Christmas tree, the colored lights of which bathed the room in a gentle glow. Celia left the other lights off. It seemed appropriate that that tree was the focal point in this ongoing, though tiring, conversation about Christmas plans.
“Rob, I’ll try to make the party,” Celia said as they took off their coats and sat on the sofa. “But if the rehearsals aren’t going well I’ll need to keep on. The kids are always goofing around, the old ladies can’t hear the accompaniment, the sound system is twenty-five years old—“
“I don’t see why these are your problems to fix. The sound system will still be twenty-five years old for the concert on Sunday, the old ladies will still be deaf and the kids will still be--”
“I get that. But I’m not so sure how this is different than you not leaving work for our first therapy appointment because you had an accounting emergency.” Celia used the last phrase sarcastically, because she wanted to point out that Rob is only an accountant – no one would have died if he had left work. Celia had read once in a book on relationships to avoid bringing up old incidents in arguments, and she wasn’t trying to beat Rob up with this. It had been resolved well. But she felt a skewed perspective on his part. She wasn’t clear why an accounting emergency was more important than a Christmas concert emergency.
“There’s a big difference, Celia. There was no planning ahead for that and it would have cost the firm thousands of dollars to reschedule the auditors. You can plan ahead for this. You can just decide to end the rehearsal on time regardless. I mean, is the concert really going to be any better for another hour of rehearsal? It wasn’t that great last year anyway.”
Celia decided to overlook the jab, though it stung, to focus on the task at hand. “OK. I’m sorry my little church is not your big corporate firm so I can’t quantify the loss in money. It’s a little church with a little music department!” Celia took Rob’s hand even though she hated it when he was in this pissy kind of mood. “If this concert goes well they might hire me on an ongoing basis to run Sunday worship, hopefully to bring in more college students. That would be a great opportunity – and it would keep me in
Columbus. That does matter to you, right?”
How would Rob most likely respond to Celia at this point?
Thursday, December 11, 2008
Christmas Wish (Joanne’s response)
I'm intrigued by Harold's identification of "togetherness" as an issue. It is clearly an area in which Rob is very concrete and Celia is much more fluid. There's a concept in psychology called "object permanence." If you show a six-month-old baby a toy, then you try to play peek-a-boo with the toy, the game won't go anywhere because if the baby can't see the toy for a moment he doesn't know it's still there. If you show the toy to the baby at nine months, peek-a-boo will become their favorite game, because if you hide the toy behind your back, the baby knows it is still there and eagerly anticipates seeing it again. Many adults struggle with object permanence in intimate relationships -- if we're not joined at the hip ("if I can't see you at the moment"), then I can't trust that we're together at all. Perhaps we can understand object permanence in adults as being a developmental phase too, as it is with infants. Rob needs to learn that Celia, despite her new assertiveness, is leaning toward this relationship emotionally even if she physically won't commit yet to marriage or even the party. That's a more sophisticated, adult understanding.
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
Christmas wish (Harold’s response)
"Togetherness" - this is such an important concept in intimate relationships. This latest episode with Rob and Celia highlights what "togetherness" means. Couples often err in thinking of togetherness as physical proximity. For example, they think we are together because we live togther or because we have physical intimacy together. But, "togetherness" is much more. It is the idea that we carry the needs and desires of our partners with us. It is the notion that we share the hurts and the joys of each other. And, it is the belief that we are better together than we are apart.
I think Rob and Celia still have a lot to learn about togetherness. Frankly, Rob seems to have a quite narrow sense of the term when he becomes overly assertive about whether they have to celebrate Christmas at the same place or that they have to attend the Christmas party together. Unfortunately, Rob's sense of security in the relationship is fixated on physical proximity. I think he needs to work on that. I feel like Celia does have a more healthy sense of togetherness. But, this couple clearly needs to become more comfortable (secure) that they can be unequivocably together even as they sometimes walk different paths.
Monday, December 08, 2008
As Celia has owned her needs in the relationship and is asserting them more directly, Rob is becoming more anxious that her independence means she’ll make choices that don’t include him. He became really pushy around their Christmas plans, particularly because Celia feels some responsibility to be with her divorced mother over the holidays. This isn’t part of Rob’s couple fantasy, but he realizes he’s going to have to compromise.
Rob and Celia sat quietly at the coffee shop just off campus. The quiet was in part just restful and being together; but there was definitely a piece that was the cold silence of disappointment in one another. Celia stirred her latte more than was necessary. Rob, his coffee done, was turned away from Celia to watch the crowd.
Rob turned to Celia. “You know,” be began tentatively, “I don’t care where we spend Christmas, really. I just hope we can spend at least part of it together.”
Celia looked up hopefully. The last few days she had been grasping the degree to which Rob really liked to have things his way, and she was aware that it seemed to cost him significantly to yield to her. Celia’s tears earlier had been less about sadness or being hurt by Rob. For the first time she was questioning their general compatibility. He seemed so careless about her family situation.
“So what do you suggest?” she asked. She tried to soften the words so they did not sound sarcastic; she really did want to hear what he had to say.
“What if we each spend Christmas day with our families, then I’ll drive down to your Mom’s for the weekend afterward?”
“I can ask Mom and Catherine how they feel about that. But I like the idea. Thanks, Rob.” She reached across the table for his hand, and he took it. “I know how much you like Christmas,” she added.
“My work party is Saturday night,” he said. “Can you make it this year?” Celia hadn’t last year because rehearsal schedules for one of the Christmas concerts she was involved in ended up running too late and at the last minute she had cancelled on him. Rob hadn’t been very happy with her about that.
Celia began to stir her latte again. “You hadn’t mentioned the party, so I thought maybe you weren’t having one this year. The economy and all.”
“We’re not doing that badly,” he said. “The party starts at 7:00 at a restaurant downtown. Can you make it? You still have the dress from last year.”
That was true. It still had the tags on in the back of Celia’s closet. Last year Celia hadn’t been the director of the choir, so she didn’t feel she could leave when everyone else was staying to get the material right. This year, though, she was the director. This meant that she could see to it that the rehearsals stayed on schedule, but it also meant that it was her responsibility to deliver a great concert. There was a possibility that she might be offered a permanent position with the church, which she still wasn’t certain she wanted, but it would be nice to be offered it. It might just depend on the quality of the concert.
What should Celia do?
Wednesday, December 03, 2008
The New Traditional (Joanne’ comment)
Celia has grown up a lot in recent weeks. I wonder if Rob thought that as Celia committed to the relationship and began to do the work necessary that she would suddenly just accept his position on everything. Instead, as Celia becomes more comfortable in her own skin she is stating her positions and disagreements clearly, standing on them and owning them, and expecting Rob to interact with them as valid. She has really broken old patterns.
Holiday plans can be difficult for couples that are committed but not yet married and this can continue to be a point of constant negotiation after marriage as well. Celia's felt responsibility for her mother during the holidays is real, as is Rob's concern that this means he'll always come second. Resilient couples figure out how to have it both ways -- acknowledge what's really important and give and take to approximate what everyone needs. However, both Rob and Celia must recognize that what has been "traditional" up until now probably won't work anymore, and "really important," of course, is open to debate.
Tuesday, December 02, 2008
As Celia and Rob began discussing their respective
families in therapy, both Rob and the therapist encouraged Celia to consider
visiting her divorced father whom she has successfully avoided since graduating
high school. Rob, who believes this conflict with her father contributes to
Celia’s commitment problems, vehemently supports this, and Celia realizes that
to refuse could create an issue for them.
Rob and Celia walked around the Ohio State campus, which was
quiet on a cold and gray Sunday afternoon. They were dressed in sweats as if this was an exercise walk,
not just a romantic stroll. Celia
wore gloves and a knit cap, too.
“I think this is a big mistake,” Rob said.
“How can deciding not
yet be a mistake?” Celia said.
“I think I’d like to make visiting him, and Jeanne and their kid next
Thanksgiving, or Christmas, my goal.
I’m not willing to jump into anything.”
“I know,” Rob said, sarcastically.
“Rob, you don’t have to like my decision, but I am asking
you to respect it.” Rob could see
Celia tearing up, but it didn’t soften him.
“This is going to take forever,” Rob said.
“No, it’s not going to take forever,” Celia said,
sniffing. “But it is going to take
longer than you want.”
Rob, who wanted to be engaged yesterday, knows this is true. Still, it’s comforting to tell himself that Celia is the one
with the bigger problems in the relationship. Yet the more Celia has been speaking up and advocating
for herself in recent weeks, the more he realizes how hard it is not to be the
one in control in the relationship.
Even as Celia feels more mature and actually seems happier to Rob, the
scarier it is that she might make choices in her life that don’t include him. The more Celia seems in charge of her
own life, the more anxious Rob feels.
Rob did not feel like showing Celia sympathy right now, but
he pulled a tissue from his pocket and handed it to her. “So why don’t you come to Cleveland for
Christmas?” Rob asked.
“I assumed I’d go home to be with Mom and Catherine.
“Well, I’m trying not to assume anything right now,” Rob
said. “Let’s try for a win-win on
the holidays, can we?”
“I’d like that, Rob, but you’re not the only person I have
responsibilities to. Mom always
gets depressed around the holidays.
“I know. But is that always going to be your
“It might be, Rob.”
Celia’s voice was high pitched and betrayed her own frustration with
Rob, for whom the fantasy of being married and celebrating
family Christmas did not necessarily include Celia’s mother year in and year
out, sighed heavily. “So what does
that mean for us?”
“It means, Rob, that we might have to be flexible. Maybe one of your parents will die
someday. Maybe Catherine or your
sisters will get married or divorced someday. The holidays might look different every year because of what
others need too, not just you.”
“All right. I
know I sound like a selfish pig here, but can’t we do something at Christmas
that feels like we’re a couple?
What move should they make next?
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