Wrong Choices

October 1, 2008

In an earlier column (Psychiatric Times, “The Road Less Traveled,” September 2002, page 14), I emphasized what can be learned from interviewing nonclinical subjects.

In an earlier column (Psychiatric Times, “The Road Less Traveled,” September 2002, page 14), I emphasized what can be learned from interviewing nonclinical subjects. One may hear of life’s turning points that appear to prompt maturational processes-in particular, the alleviation of psychiatric symptoms, greater emphasis on the needs of others, a renewed sense of personal meaning, and enhanced life satisfaction. These turning points are infrequently reported by patients who are taking part in psychotherapy.

Indeed, one perspective on psychotherapy is that it is a search for change that has not been provided by life experiences. The therapist does not often hear about healing marriages, growth through adversity, or spiritual experiences, in part because therapy may not be needed if such healing has already occurred.

What to make of these stories and their turning points remains far from settled. Some experts believe that a person’s life story is his or her experienced self or basic identity. Others declare that each of us has multiple life stories: the story that is told is strongly shaped by context (eg, who the story is being told to, the listener’s response, and so on).

Regardless of what one makes of life stories it is hard to deny that the choice of a life partner is usually for better or worse. This perspective on the importance of this choice is supported by data that range from surveys of the predictors of life satisfaction to studies of the course of psychiatric syndromes and of the quest for personal meaning. The choice of who one selects to spend his life with and the nature of the co-constructed relationship is arguably the most important adult decision that most of us will encounter, and it makes our relative lack of a comprehensive understanding of the crucial elements of such decision making all the more remarkable.

These thoughts-many of which have been presented in my earlier columns-returned to me while rereading books that have touched me deeply. One is the haunting story of a bad marital choice (really, 2 of such) that is presented in Wendell Berry’s wonderful novel, The Memory of Old Jack.1 In our relative ignorance of the multiple factors that account for such tragic choices, we can continue to learn from the works of great novelists.

“Old Jack” is in his 80s and is failing. The novel is about his recollections of his life and those experiences that helped to shape him. Born in 1860, he devoted his adult years to working on his family’s farm. When the story begins, Jack is living in a hotel with other older persons in Berry’s fictional small town of Port William, Kentucky. It is Jack’s intense attraction and marriage to Ruth and their shared inability to resolve their differences that indelibly scars his life. In his late 20s, Jack has reworked his family’s failed farm and he takes great pride and pleasure in working the land. He is also a lady’s man and is strongly influenced by physical passion. He is drawn to Ruth’s beauty, perhaps particularly his sense that he can arouse her from her reticence. Ruth, in turn, comes from a family that has left the land and has turned to the pursuits of town. Jack’s devotion to his land is not seen positively by Ruth nor is she comfortable with her own or with his sexuality. Berry describes their mismatch in wonderful prose, which I will quote liberally.

"He won her with his vices. She accepted him as a sort of 'mission field,' and it was the great disaster of both their lives. He bound her to him by disavowing the very energy that bound him to her. She was bound to him by a vision of him that she held above him-that he, in fact, neither understood nor aspired to; and he was bound to her by a vision of her that she would discover, by her own rights, to be beneath her. Her ambition would be forever as strange and estranging to him as the great heat and strength of his desire would be to her."1(p51)

Berry speaks to the tragic impasse created by 2 strong persons who cannot agree on the terms of their relationship. “They were extraordinary people, those two. Had it not been so, had they not been so evenly matched, their contest-for that is what it was-might have ended short of marriage. As it was, it had to go on, it had to accept the terms of a final defeat for them both.”1(p51,52)

Berry describes the consequences of such poor choices, of not really knowing who the other is. If the partners are both strong willed, the result is chronic conflict or emotional disengagement-either outcome is a tragedy. What are its products? Here we only know of those for Jack. He lacks a partner who validates that which is central to his sense of self. He, too, comes to doubt his core values. “He no longer seemed to himself to be enough. He knew that he had been found wanting in Ruth’s eyes, which meant, since her eyes had become the only qualification of his, that he was now found wanting in his own. Her judgment of him, however he might have resented and defied it, had entered into him, and the judgment was that though he might have pride and desire . . . he had, properly speaking, no ambition.”1(p65)

And so Jack was changed in a fundamental way: he no longer so valued what his life had been built on. He took Ruth’s perceptions of him into his self. Despite their ongoing conflict-usually surfacing about the more trivial aspects of a shared life-he incorporated her view of him as deficient. Just how common this outcome may be in relationships of otherwise admirable individuals is hard to know. Two relatively well-functioning adults can construct a relationship that is damaging to both, and the possibility of growth may be impeded.

Psychotherapists of my generation-almost all of whom were psychoanalytic to one degree or another-characteristically looked to childhood experiences to help explain adult outcomes. Relationships during adult life could be understood as emanating from early developmental experiences within the childhood family. There was a strong propensity to repeat, and, unless healing relationships occurred after childhood, the therapist could understand the patient’s current relationship dilemma as an unconscious recreation of or defense from the distant past. Although such linear thinking has declined, it is, perhaps, no surprise that in my rereading of Old Jack my thoughts about why Jack made such a tragic choice and stayed with it focused on his childhood. And, of course, Berry provides what I was looking for: Jack’s 2 older brothers were killed in the Civil War, his mother died in some sort of grief-induced illness, and his father retreated into silence. All this before Jack was 6 years old! A child who experiences such horrific losses will not readily enter into intimate adult relationships because the underlying fear is too great. He thus selects safety over closeness, predictability over encounter. Jack’s fate is sealed by age 6.

But this explanation is too pat. It may have some validity, but it almost certainly is far from the whole story. It does not explain, for example, Jack’s midlife love affair with a young widow whom he clearly believed valued him for who he was and not who she wanted or needed him to be. We do not know the extent of Jack’s expressed vulnerability with this more loving woman, but Berry tells us that this relationship became a central priority for Jack, and his grief was profound when she died in a house fire.

The truth is that we do not understand bad choices-at least in any comprehensive way. Our understanding of their impact on life satisfaction and life meaning exceeds our knowledge of how they come to be. Psychotherapists, however, seek explanations. It is perhaps a distinguishing characteristic of our vocation. I suspect that Old Jack would have been a poor subject for psychotherapeutic explorations of his life. On his own he came to the conclusion, however, that he bore his share of responsibility for the tragic marital outcome. In doing so, Berry suggests, he became more whole. Whether this is the author’s redemptive narrative strategy-making something good out of something bad-is up to the reader to decide.

References:

Reference

1. Berry W. The Memory of Old Jack. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich; 1974.