"I’m Not Your Mother"

for couples Feb 19, 2024

By Joy A. Dryer, PhD
PACT Certified Clinician, PACT Faculty

“And I’m not your mother!”

“No. You’re much sexier.” Eddie reaches for Eve’s hand. She pulls it back.

Eve shakes her brown curls ‘no’ and gazes past him at the floor. “Your mother bought one cupcake with a stupid candle for your birthdays. She made no big deal of Thanksgiving or other holidays. She was so different from my mother, who made me feel special when she celebrated events important to me.” She then looks directly at Eddie.

Eddie juts his chin forward, “You know that my mom’s parents couldn’t afford gifts so they let birthdays, even Christmas, slide. Also, well, you know, my mom believed in tough love. My parents didn’t spoil us."

Eve stamps her foot. “That’s an f-ing excuse! Making kids feel special doesn’t mean you spoil them!”

Eddie shifts in his chair. “I don’t see what this has to do with my picking up the graphs from Jon’s house for my 10am meeting!"

“It’s about being a loving parent!” Eve pauses to take a breath. "It’s your relationship with your kids! They may not forgive you for not knowing how important this day is for them!” Her voice rises.

“Who said I’d be missing the picture taking?” Eddie’s voice tenses. “You just assume the worst. We’re married almost 20 years and you put your worse fears onto me. Actually, you are like my mother when you do that! You don’t ask. You accuse first.”

I interrupt. “OK, you’re ping-ponging. Work on the problem. Not on each other. Replay it.”

Where’s the Action? 

I step in with a comment down the middle, directing them to work as a team, a foundational Psychobiologic Approach to Couples Therapy (PACT) principle.

They have somewhat different parenting philosophies. This is an ongoing issue they’ll need to work out. But not right now. We’re not asking why-questions for them to understand. I ask them to role-play, with actions, the story of their fight. Actions put the experience in their bodies (and out of their heads) and slows it down so they see how the troubled parts of their relationship play out.

They replay different versions of how this narrative might have played out. The goal is to solve the problem together. As king and queen of their fiefdom, they need to lead by governing collaboratively. I say, “Replay the fight about picture-taking, but eliminate the blame game. Blame and talking from a self-focus do not make the other feel safe. And without safety, you can’t solve it together. Let’s role-play that same narrative, but better.”

Replay One. Eve starts: “You just won’t give me information, like Jon’s house is only a 6-minute drive away…or that you want to take pictures. Why can’t you just say that? You want me to suffer. I hate that. I wanna curl up in a ball and disappear. It’s your aggression again.”

Then from Eddie: “There you go calling me aggressive again. Telling me I’ve anger issues as if it’s all my fault. Why can’t you own your own stuff?” Eddie starts to get triggered but catches himself.

This blame game approach just ramps up each partner’s defensiveness. It makes matters worse. “Nope,” I say. “Replay it.”

Replay Two. Eddie starts. “Jon has the graphs for my 10am meeting. I’m gonna run over there and I’ll be right back—"

“Why can’t you plan ahead?” Eve strains to be patient. “Why didn’t you pick them up yesterday?”

“You know how my ADD can get in the way of planning.” Eddie gives a why-reason, before I say, “Nope. You’re still acting like two separate people. Where’s your teamwork?”

Replay Three. Eddie softens but is still self-focused, not working collaboratively with Eve. “You tell me you want to take pictures. But you assume I don’t want to. That’s misreading me. But then you make it worse by leaning away. Like, emotionally shutting down. It feels like you leave me. There you go rejecting me again. Can’t you see that’s how you hurt me: you assume the worst in me. Then I feel terrible. And alone. As if you don’t know who I am.”

This will be important information when they deepen their understanding of one another. But right now, I focus on cooperative problem-solving and conflict resolution. It takes four replays before they figure out how to team up and reach an acceptable agreement. Their whole emotional tenor shifts. They discover how to work together.

Replay Four. Finally, a new narrative. They decide that planning ahead would work best. Talk the night before? Or wake up early before the kids? Among my props, they find a blanket on which to stretch out on my office floor. They role-play getting up in the morning.

Eddie turns over onto his side and faces Eve: “Do you have a plan for getting the kids ready to catch the bus today? I know they’re both nervous and excited about their first day at camp.”

Eve smiles at him: “Yeah. You know how sentimental I am. I like taking pictures of all the kids’ firsts."

“Yeah." Eddie nods. “Not my thing, but I like you’re doing it. How should we plan this?”

Eve thinks. “The bus is expected at 8:30. So if we get onto the front porch by, say, 8:15, we’d have time."

“Oh. Mmm, OK...” Eddie screws up his nose.

“What?” Eve purposefully keeps her voice low. Holds on to potential anxiety.

“Well, I have that big meeting with the partners today." Eddie searches for his words. “And Jon has the graphs I need to show at the meeting—”

“Why didn’t you get them before...?" I can see Eve struggling.

“Ahh, don’t go there," Eddie winks at her. “It's because I forgot until last night. (Pause.) You know my ADD can sabotage realistic planning. But look: Jon lives 6 minutes away. I’ll zip over there and be back by 8:15…”

“Umm...." Eve has learned to slow it down. “Well, I guess that’ll work if I give the kids breakfast this morning so you can start out earlier..."

“Great idea." Eddie gives her a juicy kiss on her lips. “Let’s get a’goin so we can all enjoy this special day."

"Ahhhh. I knew you could collaborate as a team!” I say. And that’s not empty praise.


Reprinted from Psychology Today with permission from the author. 


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