Preface: It is true that between 2/3 and 3/4 of a therapist’s patients tend to be women and I think it’s safe to assume that many of those who seek the services of a psychotherapist are not suffering from a serious mental illness. Probably though, they are unhappy about something. (Not terribly surprising given that they spend many hours trying to communicate with men.) I say this to acknowledge that my professional experience with women is skewed in a certain direction. I do not mean to suggest that the foregoing is a truism for all women but it is common for many women I speak with daily.
The following account is true. I have changed identifying information to protect the identity of my patients but the dynamics illustrated will demonstrate my concern.
Jane is a mature professional (i.e., bright and competent) she’s been married for many years to Dick. Their children are grown and have moved out. Dick retired early while Jane has chosen to work for a few more year to maximize retirement savings. Jane tells me that Dick spends much if not most of the day parked in front of a computer were he looks at pornography and goes into “online chat rooms” and has sexually vulgar conversation with individuals who characterize themselves sexually precocious teen-age girls. (Who knows – perhaps these individuals are really old, bored unattractive men who live out their own twisted fantasies by pretending to be teen-age girls.) When Jane is home and walks up behind Dick to see what he’s doing on the computer (the computer is kept in the living room), Dick immediately switches to a different screen in a lame attempt to hide what he’s doing. Jane has a pretty clear idea of what Dick is doing, nevertheless, she asks him, “What are you doing”?
Dick’s behavior may seem pretty peculiar but the part that gets my attention is Jane’s question. She already knows what he’s doing so why does she ask a question when she already knows the answer?
The above description of Dick and Jane’s behavior continues through many cycles. Frustrated, Jane say’s “I know what you’re doing! It’s sick and weird! Do you think I don’t know what you’re doing?” To this Dick responds like an adolescent who’s been caught taking money from mom’s purse. He says, “What are you talking about? I’m just reading the news and researching stock prices. You’re paranoid. You’re the weird one for even thinking I’d do anything so strange!”
Jane is positively flummoxed. Therapists sometimes like to call it cognitive dissonance (it’s that feeling we have when we try to reconcile two ideas that disprove each other.) Jane was experiencing cognitive dissonance. It’s a feeling of emotional whiplash. Jane was speechless.
So far, there has (a) been unacceptable behavior, (b) Jane has confronted Dick with what she knows and (c) Dick has denied all accusations and made his own counter-accusations.
Here’s the next part I note. Having heard Dick’s denial, Jane redoubles her determination to “catch” Dick. Why does she want to “catch” Dick? Does she want to be proven right in some imagined court of opinion? Is it because Dick’s denial somehow calls into question Jane’s sanity or judgment – and this will “prove” that Jane’s not crazy? If Jane knows what she knows, why does she need further proof? Do women need men to validate their perceptions?
Here’s the next act in our drama:
As I said, Jane is resourceful and bright. She installed software onto the computer that records keystrokes. After a week or two, she had collected perhaps 25 pages of smutty dialog between Dick and someone else on the internet. During an appointment with me, she proudly showed me her “evidence” (Did she somehow imagine that I am a judge?) proving that she was RIGHT. The following evening, she confronted Dick with the evidence – (probably not unlike the way it’s done on TV, in an interrogation room at a police station where an investigator confronts a suspect with incontrovertible evidence).
Dick: “What’s this?”
Jane: “What do you think it is?
She wants him to cop to it like it’s some suspenseful Perry Mason moment.
Dick: “I have no idea.”
Jane: “Well it’s just you and me living here and I didn’t write this.”
Dick: “Well, I didn’t write it either.”
Jane: “Well then, who wrote it?"
Dick: “I don’t know, you’re the crazy one, maybe you wrote it."
Again, it’s a moment of cognitive dissonance el grande for Jane. Probably she feels like her head is going to explode. She’s probably starting to feel crazy. She’s got all this fabulous evidence and Dick’s dismissing it. It’s like that country-western song where having been caught “in the act” of cheating, a husband sings to his wife, “… are you going to believe me or are you going to believe your lying eyes?”
Again, my question is: Why does a woman need a man to validate what she already knows to be true?
Another scenario that is too common in my office: A couple comes in – the husband confesses to having an addiction. They are in my office this day because after many episodes of unacceptable behavior the wife has “had enough”. She insists that “If things don’t change, I’m leaving!” The husband is doleful. He assures the wife he will change his ways. (Note: No behavior has changed but the husband is saying what his wife wants to hear.) “Well, OK…” the wife says, “…but if there’s any more of this; I’m leaving!”
Often this is the fourth or fifth time this cycle has been enacted with this couple. There is no behavioral change from the husband and probably there will be a period of weeks that he’s on “good behavior”… then, the process will kindle until it’s blazing again.
Why do women hinge their future and often the future of their children on what a man says? Is it fear? I usually encourage women to not be moved by words but only by months of behavior. But the questions remain: Why do women seem to need men to validate their experience? Why are women so easily bamboozled by mens words? Is it because this is the way women have been acculturated? Like a now dead president once said, “Trust… but VERIFY.”