The FIFO Couple
Sandra was a work at home mum, a human rights lawyer with a profitable consultancy in the Law of the Sea. Her husband David was an emergency nurse, currently working for Médecins Sans Frontières out of Munich, posted in Africa and the Middle East. Sandra was considering taking a human rights job in Brisbane. They had three grown up boys, two living out of home, and two girls still in high school. The boy at home was level 2 on the spectrum.
With 48% resident tax in Germany, David chose to pay tax on his overseas earnings in Australia, and so maintained his Australia residency coming home at least every two months. The kids described him as a part time dad. The eldest daughter, Marigold, sixteen, had changed in the previous year. She had ceased telling her mother everything that was going on in her life. This was a gradual change, and one deeply upsetting to Sandra, who had relied on her in David’s absences. It was accompanied by increasing dark expressions whenever Marigold was in the house, and overt anger toward her father when he was at home. It was at this point in their journeys that the family became clients.
David’s commitment to work in Germany was a significant event in the family. It had required long hours learning to read German medical texts, and later to speak it. He had no German ancestry and had never learned another language. He had to become proficient in German to sit the nursing exams for registration in the EU. At the time Sandra couldn’t comprehend why he would put himself and the family through the agony of that process. He was in addition, dyslexic. It was a herculean effort, which as he explained was a means of proving to himself that he could overcome his academic handicap. Dyslexia had prevented him from gaining University entrance to medical school. His teenage dream had been of becoming an emergency medical specialist.
All this seemed completely reasonable, but I had a gut feeling that this wasn’t all there was to Marigold’s unhappiness. Of all her siblings, she was most like her father and closest to him, at times being a confidant in his personal and marital struggles. Marigold was, unhappily, triangulated by both parents. But these dysfunctional intimacies had dissipated almost as soon as David began studying German. The impetus for his study had been a conference he attended in Paris, where he first became aware of the possibility that he could work for MSF. But why Germany? Why not Canada, France, or Africa, I wondered?
I discussed this at length in my supervision sessions. I felt loathe to speak my mind in the therapy sessions, until I had more information. I considered the family secrets that might involve Marigold or one she had intuited in the unspoken spaces between her parents. If it was either incest or an affair overseas, it was likely to presage either police involvement or a marital tragedy. I decided to approach the family slowly and softly.
Over about ten sessions of couple therapy (without the kids’ direct involvement) the truth surfaced in agonisingly small stages. David had met someone at the Paris conference, an emergency medical specialist originally from East Germany, who was a team leader for MSF’s operations in Africa. It was at first just chats over the internet. Later, after he began working in a probationary capacity in Munich, it evolved to greater and greater intimacy.
To Sandra, he had always described his relationship with his boss as distant and very professional. But in fact, there were long afternoon walks, and after work drinks at the Lighthouse brewery, while he practised his German and she helped him with his upcoming exams. In their tenth couple therapy session, David finally disclosed that he had known from the minute he met her in Paris that she was his future. Within a couple of hours of returning to Brisbane after the conference, with that epiphany in his mind, Marigold had point blank confronted him with,
“Dad are you having an affair?”.
This so shocked David that he pulled back from Marigold, and that coincided with the change in her behaviour. A change that only worsened each time he came home elevated by the other woman. Sandra had been oblivious to it, and after discovering it, and realising the depth of the breach in her knowing of David, the self-doubt later rolled on into a loss of trust in her own professional judgement. That disrupted her confidence in re-entering the human rights work force.
At this point in the sessions Sandra, who had had the presence of mind to hold her cool from years working as a lawyer, completely fell apart. She felt gutted, utterly betrayed, and realised that the loss of her daughter had been directly the result of Marigold keeping this secret to protect her parent’s marriage and her own family from breaking up.
For better or worse, Sandra was not prepared to give up on David by handing him a get out of jail card free, to enjoy a second life in Europe.
When she got home from our tenth session, the first thing she did was burn his passport and then went online and cancelled the next six months of flight bookings. She then wrote a resignation letter from his email address, alleging that he, David, had been sexually harassed by the named team leader. She then searched MSF’s on-line complaints procedures until she came across an indication that fraternising, especially between senior and junior staff, medical and nursing, was verboten.
The eleventh session was explosive. He walked out, then came back in, denied it all and verbally attacked her for sabotaging his life. He played victim, the DARVO card, which as a lawyer Sandra had both expected and quickly named.
‘I will not be your victim’, she said with gritted teeth, ‘and neither will you be mine. I need to fucking well wake up and you need to fucking grow up. There’s a chance here we could repair this mess. I’m willing to do whatever it takes,’ she said with a steely calm certitude.
‘Well, you sure have already done that. Really? Fuck me, you’ve probably ruined her career. I can never forgive you for that’, he shouted.
“That makes two of us mate’, she sighed.
I didn’t expect to see them again.
Seven months later David called. He told me he was enrolled in medicine at James Cook University, with a plan to qualify in emergency medicine and practice in rural and remote Australia. Sandra had taken the human rights job in Brisbane. They were still together but struggling to regain intimacy. Marigold chose to live with her maternal grandparents on the Gold Coast. David’s former lover survived the complaints procedure. He had no other contact with her as Sandra had demanded and he resented. I wasn’t sure I wanted to work with that situation, so I asked him what he wanted, not what Sandra wanted or demanded but what he wanted out of couple therapy.
‘I just want to get back to normal, like it was before all this blew up.’
‘Like the blow up just came out of nowhere?’ I asked provocatively.
‘Okay, okay, like it was before I blew it up.’
‘Better, thank you,’ I said. ‘I’m guessing trust is the big issue blocking intimacy?’
‘And a whole lot of other stuff. It’s messy.’
‘Blood everywhere hey? Just like a road accident wheeled into emergency.’
‘And I can’t stop the bleeding, Pete. I need your help. Please.’
Desperate usually works with me but I didn’t trust what lay behind “the mess” without knowing more. I agreed to a one session follow up to assess the damage.
To cut a long story short, Sandra had very little hope that David really got the damage he had done. She had buried herself in the new job, in effect turning her back to him, and in separate beds. Based on the research into couple therapy, I suggested they were looking at between 12 and 24 sessions to get back to somewhere satisfying, knowing that neither of them could ever be the same again.
‘That’s pretty much what I figured from my research,’ said Sandra ruefully, and with a tone of resignation.
‘Oh, I get it. So that’s too much for you, isn’t it?’ he replied, edging toward blame.
And there it was, I thought, “the mess”!
In our couple sessions I started to unravel what had led David to finding another woman so attractive that he had been able to lie to and disappear from Sandra, ignoring the existential dilemmas of a new love CLICK HERE . I explored with David the source of his reactivity and to develop an internal locus of control. With Sandra I spent time on self-reflection and meditation to find space to return to the marriage and be able to forgive the unforgiveable. As they saw each other’s genuine emotions they regained connection from their new place as individuals. That neat summary took 12 or more sessions, and it was often bloody and always challenging.
Years later I heard back from them. David was working in emergency medicine, and Sandra was ironically, a consultant to MSF. She met the other woman by following her policy of keeping her enemies close.