One of the best things to learn is how to find absurdity in the midst of regular living
The problem, I think, with couples in trouble, or with individuals who are stuck, is that they lack a sense of the absurd.
Yet life, it you manage to take a step back, is patently absurd.
Darbella and I were at a wedding this past weekend — the traffic was abysmal, and what should have been a 2.5 hour drive turned into 4.5. We arrived 10 minutes late, a real exception for us.
Anyway, we got there just as the Rector was going to ask the groom the “Do you promise” questions.
This is what flowed out of the rector’s mouth: “Sam, do you promise to be Sally… no, that’s not right…”
The groom turned to the Rector and said, “I don’t think so.” Then, slow head turn to the gathered crowd, and a single eyebrow lift.
I was practically on the floor. I had to think of dead kittens to stop from laughing. All I could picture was the Monty Python crew, and John Cleese as the groom. Eyebrow raised, he smiles, and is instantly dressed as the bride.
This is the absurd. And it’s right there, all the time.
A client told me a new version of an old story. She told me she’d been married for 12 years, had always squabbled with her husband, that he was an artist and he has a volatile personality and quicksilver temper. In the past, they’d made decisions together; lately, he’d been making decisions solo, and expected her to pick up the slack.
The decision that caused the present turmoil happened a while back, when said husband decided to buy what she described as “…a really, really ugly building. We live in a pretty town. Why would he want to buy a really, really ugly building?” He then rented the building to a guy the woman didn’t like, and the tenant didn’t pay the rent on time. Somehow, going to collect the rent became the wife’s job.
Also, the purchase left them short of cash, so she was working at a job she hated, to make ends meet.
She’d tried talking with her husband and fighting with her husband, so he’d admit the error of his ways, collect his own rent, get serious, smarten up. Nada. Months had passed and she continued collecting the rent, doing the books for the building, going off to this job she hated.
She was, she said, looking for help dealing with her anger about him, and her inability to change him. I said, “What would happen if you simply went on strike for a few months — you know, don’t collect the rent, don’t pay the bills, give him a month’s notice that you’re stopping, but stop?”
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve suggested this to clients. Stop. Simply stop.
I then began a fun little counselling approach which I’m now going to share with you. Milton Ericksonwas a doctor who got interested in hypnosis, and used it to cure himself (twice!) of paralysis from polio. You can get the gist of his work from the book Uncommon Therapy, by Jay Haley. Erickson was quite simply the best hypnotherapist ever. He never repeated an induction. He just kept on inventing new ways.
One approach he used was to stack stories. Which is an approach I use all the time. In fact, I trained with one of Erickson’s students, who thought that “the stacked stories approach” was the easiest way to get a point across. He suggested that you needed to stack at least three stories. By the time you got to the third, the listener was so confused that the gist of the story went straight to their sub-conscious mind and changed their perspective almost instantly.
Erickson would sometimes go 5 or 6 layers deeply; I find that 3 or 4 suffice. And by the way, I just used the technique, describing Erickson, Erickson’s student, and now back to me. The pattern was, me — Erickson — Erickson’s student — Erickson — me. (A‑B-C-B‑A)
Which is what I did with my client. I told her about the couple I ever worked with, and how they were stuck repeating useless behaviours. I told her that I told them about the first female client I ever had, and how she had taught her daughter to do laundry and her husband and sons to take responsibility for their lives by going on strike for 8 weeks — by refusing to do their laundry or cook their meals.
My client started to glaze over about half way through the story about the story about the daughter and the woman’s husband. I finished and stopped talking. She sat there, staring ahead, into the middle distance. Suddenly she looked up at me and started laughing. She said, “I didn’t think it would be this easy. All I have to do is stop doing what I hate.” And I agreed.
A few days earlier I’d said a similar thing to another client. She kept repeating behaviours that got her absolutely lousy results with the men in her life. I stacked a couple of stories, and knowing that she’s a highly successful business person, ended with, “And have you ever met a guy at work that designs a project, a project that took him a long time, and implements it, and every time he does, the company loses money, but he keeps doing it because he has so much time invested in it, and the company says, “Sure! Keep losing money! We know how hard you’ve worked to create this great plan that doesn’t work.”
She looked up and laughed and said, “Jeez! That’s what I’ve been doing with men all my life. If my sex life was my work life, I’d be on welfare.”
My client with the ugly building decided to change her approach one month from now, after giving warning to her husband. My client with the “men” issues decided to create a new way of relating to men. All because there was an absurd little story that caught their attention.
And here’s the story I told them, in summary — you get what you put out.
You want to change a situation, change it. If you’re stuck, unstick yourself. Erickson understood that patterns, once repeated, take precedence over creativity, until you see that creativity (a new thought followed by a new action) is the only solution to being stuck.
For you, for me, the answer lies in noting the pattern, noting our active or passive participation, and “going on strike” from that which does not resolve the issue.
See what stories you are telling yourself, stories that keep you stuck repeating old patterns, stories that keep you from risking being all you can be, stories that keep you from fully engaging life and others. Then, tell yourself a new story. For a change.
And the three words? Get a Life. A new Life. Because it’s all an absurd story anyway. Might as well tell yourself a good one. Milton Erickson and all of his students would agree. So would the Monty Python guys. Me too.
I’ll bet you’re smiling. Absurd, eh?