It’s around 5pm. Musinya sits on the couch engrossed in her reading. Jowhar, her husband, enters the room and sits on the couch across from her. She looks up, smiles at him and returns to her reading. The kids roam the house in their own activities. After about five minutes he says to her:
“You’ve been reading all day -do you ever do anything but work?”
This comes to her as a surprise, she’d only been reading for two hours the kids were well-behaved and it wasn’t yet time for dinner. She responds to him saying:
“Why don’t you give me a break and stop hovering over me”
He’s surprised by her response but then he realizes this is typical she’s always putting her desires first and never takes any responsibility. In fact, he thinks to himself, she neglects the children, never makes dinner on time and ignores him.
“I didn’t marry you so you could sit around all day -if you don’t want to be a wife and mother just let me know someone else will gladly do the job”
She’s taken back -did he really just say that? But then she thinks he’s always been selfish. He only cares about himself and he never pushes himself in his work, he wasn’t such a great father either she decides and he’s probably already making a move on someone else.
“I don’t need this! You want someone else? Fine! It’s probably that witch who calls here about your meetings… you think I need to stay here? I have my own money and I don’t need you -I’m so sick of you. You never really loved me and you could care less about my aspirations -you don’t wanna move up in life? Fine! But you’re not dragging me with you… I’m going to my mother’s!”
Did anyone take notice of the objects in the room? Objects, or shadows as I’ll call them in this article since it more readily connotes the idea of its meaning, are the relational patterns we learn in early childhood. For example, we may learn “when I cry I get my way with daddy but I get punished by mommy”. In this way when we interact with people who are like mommy or daddy we go to our trusted relational patterns and reenact the same behavior that we learned in childhood. We also learn how to interact merely by watching others. This can be good and helpful but it can also be dangerous.
Jowhar remembers his childhood well. His favorite days where with his father. They would stay home and play card games, drink coffee and tell stories. His dad worked as a professor but took time off to write and be home with Jowhar when he was born. He enjoyed spending time with his son and he didn’t officially return to any outside work until Jowhar was 10. Even then he made sure Jowhar got in to the University Elementary school so they could have lunch and walk home together.
Jowhar’s mother was very well-educated and also worked in the University setting. She was offered a better job in another University a few months before she got pregnant, it would require a 2 hour commute but the pay and prestige was far greater. A few months later when she got pregnant she was delighted. Once the baby was born it took her and her husband by surprise that she decided to still take the new job. Her husband didn’t understand why she would take the position and begin right away four weeks after childbirth! What he soon realized and tried desperately not to let Jowhar see was that she was extremely depressed. Working was her only way out of her depression but when she got home she’d often felt trapped and mustered up enough energy only to make dinner and return to her room. Jowhar’s father picked up the pieces but as he grew in to young adulthood he began to realize not only the closeness of his father but the absence of his mother. He began to hate her. Once he was arguing with her and blurted out “You never wanted to be a mother you should have just left!”. He wished that he could divorce his mother and replace her with someone more loving and more involved, he knew his father deserved better, he swore to himself he would never marry a woman like her.
Musinya could remember her mother walking out on her step father. Her dad had died in her babyhood and her mom remarried shortly after. Her step dad was a good father but he was controlling. Her mother didn’t work and spent most of her time at home with Musinya and her three sisters. Accounts are different as to what actually happened but Musinya thinks her step dad suffered a mental break when both his parents were robbed and murdered in their home. Suddenly he began checking doors, giving stricter curfews and enforcing a suffocating schedule. Musinya’s mother gradually grew wary of his antics. She was shocked when she found out he’d cheated on her. It was much earlier on in their relationship ,when Musinya was merely a toddler, but the revelation made her rethink her loyalty to him. She stopped listening to his requests, engaging in nasty arguments and in a final showdown she yelled at the top of her lungs, “I don’t need you, why don’t you find someone else to push around!”
Many years from childhood and many years in to marriage and child rearing, Musinya and Jowhar assume they are arguing with each other. They assume their fight is about their relationship. Is it? Jowhar was in fact completely commited to marriage, loved his family and was very strict in his interactions with women. Musinya purposefully limited herself to three hours a day on work related activity at home and purposefully chose a non- demanding job so she could give priority her family. Jowhar never gave Musinya any rules and he always made a point to spend time with the kids after work. Musinya knew he was recently offered a promotion but turned it down because it would force him to be away from his family too often.
They both actively did things so they would have a good marriage but the shadows in the room remain. Jowhar is unhappy that Musinya is doing work related reading in the evening because he wants to spend time with her but the act of seeing her there on the couch invokes the anger he had to his disengaged mother. Musinya would like Jowhar to be more understanding but is he actually controlling? Or is she reacting the memories of her step father’s control over her and her mother?
Shadows live with us. No two people enter a room, a conversation, or an argument without them being present. Often they are invisible. But with some prying we can point them back to the earlier relational patterns we once learned. In this way they can be taken out of the darkness and examined. If they are appropriate then there is no harm in using them but if they aren’t it is better to disregard them and focus on the present as well as the actual history between you and the person standing before you. Most of psychopathology and maladjustment is about being stuck. Misusing various relational frameworks in inappropriate circumstances. The key to dissevering ties with our shadowy past, when necessary, is to first realize their in the room.
This is not easy, in arguments we often go back to our relational frameworks because it is second nature. Knowing the shadows in the room may not always prevent you from reacting to them but it can be the means to restoration:
Just, sit down, let’s just relax… when I saw you sitting there… I just thought of my mother and… I, I know you’re a good mother…
I’m sorry also, you’re not controlling and you’re a good father, I just picture my step dad with all his rules and I just…
I can take a break from this stuff for now
No, no we should do something as a family, I really think you’re a great husband
And you’re a good wife”
The power to repair is a topic in itself but to summarize this article in one sentence: Be aware of the shadows in your life.