Disfunction Wrapped in a Sentimental Bow: How to Recognize the Many Faces of Manipulation.
“Don’t fear the reaper. You’ll be able to fly"-Blue Oyster Cult
There’s a story that has been circulating on Facebook for a few years now. The headline reads “He told her he was leaving and she asked him for just one thing.” The story goes on to say something like (and this is paraphrased) “ Mary and John have been married for 20 years. They have a 15 year old son. John fell in love with another woman, named Janet and asked Mary for a divorce.” Mary said, “Ok I will grant you that wish provided you do one thing for me. For the next thirty days, I would like you to carry me down the stairs and through the door like you did when we were first married.” John agreed.
The first few days of this exercise felt awkward to him. He began to notice that she had lost some weight and seemed frail. By the fourth week, the feelings of love he once had for his wife came back to him and he ran over to see Janet to tell her that he did still love his wife and no longer wanted a divorce. He then ran back home to his wife Mary, only to find her dead in their bed. Unbeknownst to him, Mary was dying of cancer The author of the story claims that Mary kept her terminal illness a secret to both protect her family from the pain of knowing she was dying and her son from the scar of a divorce.
After Mary dies, John weeps with regret and everyone else weeps for her loss.”
There’s a lot that can be said about this story.
It is a bit of a tear jerker upon first read. Yet, let’s try to ask and answer the following question before we break out the kleenex. Is the author of this story trying to recapture the fairytale Mary once had with her husband John 20 some odd years ago or expressing a sentimentally gift wrapped revenge fantasy because John chose to leave? For arguments sake and good dialectics, let’s say it’s both and start with the fairytale.
Fairytales and myths predominate our culture and with good reason. They are both poignant and fun. Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Santa Clause, fill our imaginations with adventure, hope, fear, love and in some cases, can offer us guidance on how to live our lives. The story of Santa Claus may be perhaps one of the best fables for couples who want to understand the secret for a successful relationships .
Why might that be, you ask?
Parents who are attuned to their children’s needs, delight in surprising them with gifts. Couples who are attuned with each other delight in doing the same. And though not everyone celebrates Christmas, the theme is universal. Healthy happy couples choose to make the fairy tale real once the honeymoon phase ends. When there are mis attunements between them, they see that as an opportunity to get curious and turn the inevitable empathic failures into a deeper connection. This is how they make Santa real, time and time again. This is how they create and recreate the magic, even when the demands of work, family and life take over. Though there’s never a 100% guarantee that making it and keeping it real will last till death do us part, it is the best strategy for getting their, if that’s what both parties want and continue to want.
What I most wonder about in the story of Mary and John is their capacity to reinvent themselves after the fairy tale ended?
Were they able to walk down the stairs hand in hand and through the door together as equals and carry each other at different times when needed? The author doesn’t say. As a psychotherapist, I am going to venture out and say, probably not and they are also not alone in that matter. What we do know from the story is that he found someone else and she is dying and doesn’t tell him. We also know that she wants to relive some elements of the fairytale with him before she passes. Who could blame her? Yet the specific tactics the author endows Mary with to help her get what she wants disempowers her. I can’t help but wonder if those same tactics took place in the marriage, reflecting part of the reason their marriage fell apart?
The first tactic is guilt.
Guilt is a powerful motivator, one that can never be underestimated. She guilts John into carrying her down the stairs each day because he’s leaving her. He did love her once and probably feels bad for hurting her by asking her for a divorce.
The second tactic is manipulation via secrecy.
Perhaps there was something noble about keeping her illness a secret to protect her family from the pain of her impending death and her son from the scar of a divorce. On the flip side, this choice was really rather cruel. Most families would want to know this so they could prepare for the loss. It is also arguable that Mary had darker motives, choosing to seduce John through guilt and manipulation only to then abandon him with her death. The proverb “revenge is dish best served cold” might be applicable here.
Wouldn’t it have been nice if the author endowed both Mary and John with courage?
What if we changed the ending to have Mary say the following when John tells her he wants to leave? “John, I know we lost our way, and I don’t really know why. I do know that we are both responsible for it and that we never talked about our growing distance. I regret that and I hope you do too. I am dying. What I would really like from you is to be here for me during my final days. Do you think you could do that for me?”
Feel the difference?
This would allow them to end their marriage with love. And while I can appreciate that many would like to change the story entirely to have Mary and John stay together and work things out, the author did not write that story.
Endings are sad. But they are not always bad.
The longing and ache one feels in their soul to live an authentic life is just as powerful a motivator as guilt, though guilt can actually feel more authentic to some. In my clinical practice, I often see people who are polarized between the two. “Should I stay or should I go?”, becomes the focus in therapy until this polarization dissolves. If one has the bravery ,will and inner hope to get to the heart of the matter, then it will.
There’s a lyric from the Semisonic song “Closing time” that says: “every new beginning starts from some other beginning’s end. Yet I prefer the Blue Oyster Cult to close out this story to honor both the phenomena of endings and the gift of disillusionment.
Don’t fear the reaper. You’ll be able to fly.