One of my clients Ben, came with Mary, the extra-marital affair partner he had married after divorcing his first wife who he had cheated on with Mary. He said this second wife, ‘represented the first choice I had ever made for myself. All the other big choices in my life had been made for me by the family from a very young age’ – all the way up the family agribusiness in the Northern Rivers.
The problem in this second marriage was that Mary did not know what he wanted except to please her and make her happy. He had little skill in asking for or even knowing what he wanted in a close relationship. Innovative and clear at work, restricted and fog fearful at home. He put the family business ahead of his own needs (or what little of those needs he allowed himself to feel and acknowledge).
He had recent painful evidence of how this slavery to the business had destroyed the peace of his grandfather’s last years but he would not put his own health first for fear of the extended family consequences. He knew this choice was life threatening but he was frozen.
Between a rock and a hard place, he was shutting out the love of his life – his first independent choice. His first wife he married in a way to please his family. Mary he married to please himself. After 8 years together Mary did not know what to do with him, and Ben had no way out of this dilemma – damned if he did and damned if he didn’t.
It is never a simple choice between slavery and freedom, but between slavery and the unknown. The unknown terrified Ben. Everything had been planned for him from boarding school in Grafton to the innovative Dookie Agricultural college (where his great grandfather, grandfather and father went as boys) to progressively taking over management of the business.
I thought about this family pattern in the context of my father’s generation before WWII. My Dad was told what career he was to have – one that best fitted the family business. He hated the job until the day he retired, all the while longing to be a stock broker. A hobby at which he was brilliant. Ben grew up in the 1980’s but was just as disadvantaged in his career path as my Dad had been 50 years earlier.
I asked Ben if he would consider rebelling against his family of origin as he had done in breaking the rules and going with Mary – if that was what it took to save this marriage? I was almost asking would he put his marriage before his family and the business.
That question lost me a client – it was unthinkable for him.
Ben had chosen Mary but had not ‘un-chosen’ his family’s choices for him.
In a way his family was the other woman in his life. Mary had begun to realise that his dilemma was present in his first marriage as well. He had escaped from it without examining the influence of his family of origin, by linking up with Mary. She now feared that he was affair ready, and might begin to look for another escape route. The more he said all he wanted to do was make her happy the more she feared he would fail at that and look elsewhere. He had to be happy in himself first.
Looking back on their story now, I hadn’t recognise that an underlying and more long standing problem was Ben’s depression. I got caught up in their desperation to re-open their hearts to each other, put the past behind them and make choices in the present that would support their marriage and honour the farm commitments.
In retrospect I think the problem began the day his grandparents and parents found a boy eager to please who would take on the burden of the family farm. He never chose that path for himself and thus had given up whatever his own inner path may have been. To question that now in his late 30’s was unbearable for him.