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"Mind-Mapping": How We Manipulate the People We Love

All too often, people do hurtful things with impunity and entitlement in relationships simply to gratify their own needs.

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When I asked Kristin what she thought, she acknowledged keeping her disappointment to herself all these years because she didn’t want to embarrass Stanley, who’d been reluctant to seek treatment. Nevertheless, sometimes she cried after sex, and occasionally she suggested they have a second go-round.

Upon hearing this, Stanley immediately objected. “Oh come on! You rarely did that! Do you expect me to read your mind?” Kristin acknowledged that she’d rarely proposed this, and Stanley appeared to emerge as the victorious and aggrieved party.

I then asked Kristin, “What made you think Stanley was embarrassed about his rapid ejaculations?” She described how he’d turn on his side with his back to her after sex and wouldn’t talk to her, so I asked, a bit skeptically, “So Stanley has been embarrassed a couple of times a week for 25 years?” I was pointing out what Stanley and Kristin were avoiding: the incongruity of thinking someone would continue to be embarrassed about something repeated so frequently over so many years, or if he was, considering the question of why his interest in sex hadn’t waned in the face of such humiliation.

Kristin replied, “Well, that’s what he said whenever I asked him.”

It’s important for a therapist to pay close attention to provocative remarks. I immediately noticed that in response to my comment questioning his embarrassment, Stanley looked at me and smiled. To me, it was the sly, slightly abashed look of someone being found out. At this point, Stanley interjected in a guarded tone, “Do you mean you don’t think I was embarrassed?”

I said, “I’m not sure if you were embarrassed or not, but I’m asking Kristin for details so I can figure it out.”

When Stanley smiled again, I took that as an opportunity to ask directly, “Should I take your smile to mean you’re embarrassed about us talking about your rapid ejaculation, or you’re embarrassed about me questioning whether your embarrassment is real?”

A bit defensively Stanley said, “I was just too embarrassed to go for treatment.”

I replied, “That may be true, but that’s not the same as being embarrassed when you come quickly with Kristin. But let’s focus on what’s happening right now. You haven’t answered my question about what you’re embarrassed about now.”

Stanley continued as if he didn’t get my point. “I didn’t think it was such a big deal because Kristin could still have her orgasm with me. We usually came together.”

Suddenly Kristin glared at Stanley. “You put your embarrassment above me, above our sex life, above our marriage! Even if you didn’t know how frustrated, angry, and disappointed I was, you knew this was a problem! If you really cared, you wouldn’t let your embarrassment stop you from taking care of this!”

For a moment, I was taken aback by Kristin’s outburst—not by her anger, but by what she was angry about. She’d been triggered when I’d raised the possibility that Stanley wasn’t embarrassed about his sexual performance, but she was still assuming his embarrassment to be an established fact in their relationship. It was as if she was trying to close off our discussion by starting an argument—a familiar tactic in troubled couples.

“For crying out loud,” replied Stanley, “I’m a business guy! I know about making money. I don’t know about relationships. My family was cold and distant. We never talked about feelings.”

Neither Kristin nor Stanley wanted to consider a darker view of their last 25 years than the one they presented. In my approach with couples, I see these moments as opportunities, rather than things to be avoided. I turned to her and asked, “What makes you think Stanley didn’t know you were unhappy and frustrated?”

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