Sleeping with the Shrink

–inspired by Maria of Ex II.

When my husband was a couple of years into his grad program in clinical psychology, a friend confessed to me that she had been horribly intimidated by him when she’d first met him. The reasons she gave: he sported a beard (post-BYU affectation; he started growing it precisely the instant he graduated) which he liked to stroke thoughtfully, and he often wore cardigan sweaters. This friend and her husband would occasionally come over for dinner or dessert and games, or we would go to their apartment for the same, and she described herself as having spent several uneasy evenings with us, sure that every word she spoke, every gesture she made betrayed her deepest secrets, that my husband’s characteristic calm, thoughtful demeanor meant he could see straight into her soul.

The reality, of course, was that my husband wasn’t even thinking about her, particularly. He was wholly, fiercely absorbed in whether Professor Plum had done it in the study with the revolver. Games, particularly games of strategy, trump everything for him. He plays Settlers of Catan with the complete and killer focus of a Grand Master, and he’s not above resorting to subtle and blatant manipulation of other participants and even outright bribery. Except insofar as it might reveal a weakness he can exploit, psychoanalyzing other participants is the last thing on his mind.

Being married to a psychologist has allowed me to experience our culture’s weirdly reverential feelings about psychologists secondhand. People tend to react to the news that I am so married in one of two ways: (1) nervousness: “I would hate to be psychoanalyzed all of the time!”; (2) wistful projection of personal desires: “Wow, your husband must be such a great listener.” But of course, the fact that my husband is a shrink does not mean that he is my shrink. When he gets home from work, he wants to put up his feet up and tell me about his day, like any doctor, lawyer, or garbage-truck driver. He doesn’t have a great deal of interest in the minute particulars of my neuroses, and he’s not an unending well of compassion. He rightly expects reciprocity.

Psychology is our culture’s magic, and psychologists are our priests. Being the shrink’s wife sometimes means that a little bit of the sparkly dust rubs off on me. I’ve been amazed at the personal and family problems people I’ve barely met will confide in me on that basis alone, it has sometimes seemed, hoping for some particles of secondhand wisdom to fall from my lips. (These hopes often make me sad, since I have no particles of wisdom whatsoever, first or secondhand.) Those of you who’ve seen the movie Mumford: think of the final scene, in which the fake psychologist is carted off to jail, and the driver starts in on his marital problems. There’s a reason the famous psychologist told people on airplanes he sold shoes. The poor guy wanted a little time off.

I’m often stunned at the assurance with which people will confidently assert that “a psychologist” has endorsed claim X, psychotropic Y, behavioral theory Z, disciplinary approach A. Psychology is like any other profession. There are the various schools (the East-Coast Freudians, the West-Coast humanists, the cognitive-behaviorists) and the rivalries, the grand and petty feuds, the theoretical disagreements and the office politics. Psychologists are no different from economists in the range of their opinions. It’s practically guaranteed that no two psychologists will see an issue or a case in precisely the same way. And of course, there are excellent psychologists, and there are terrible psychologists. Having interacted with psychologists-in-training socially for a number of years now, I’ve met some who strike me as people I would readily confide in, many who are probably perfectly adequate, and a few so troubled themselves they should be flushed from the profession. Let the patient/client/consumer (the term depends on one’s theoretical and economic model) beware.

Especially in a culture drowning in pop and TV psychology, I’d like to see us put a lot more thumbscrews to psychologists’ claims rather than, as we so often do, accepting them on the basis of authority alone. People concoct the most fantastical pseudo-psychological chicanery, often on the most questionable assumptions and with the slimmest foundations in any empirical evidence, and market it as so much snake oil. (Ah, now there’s a pleasant thought. The Pop Psychology/Self-Help section of every bookstore in the country is forcibly re-labeled “Snake Oil and Quackery.” Well, a girl’s gotta have her dreams. Or so I’ve been told by a number of grinning charlatans peddling snake oil.)

I adore my husband, I believe, more than anyone else alive. But he’s not magic. He’s just a psychologist.

So…how ’bout a little Settlers? The night is young!

12 thoughts on “Sleeping with the Shrink

  1. 1

    That title has gone through my mind many times in the last 20 years.

    She is a child psychologist. We had a brief but intense and rewarding relationship. I have often reflected on the growth and introspection that I enjoyed by “Sleeping with the Shrink”.

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    Eve, I’m curious as to how the confidentiality of your husband’s profession works out in your marriage.

    I can imagine that there are times when he wants to come home and say “You’re not gonna believe what happened today!” Is something like that OK as long as he doesn’t give names or information that would identify his client? How does that work in a marriage?

    I’m not meaning to pry, but I’m guessing this is ground you have already covered, maybe many times.

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    I loved this for post. My husband is the son of two psychoanalysts. His grandparents were also both psychoanalysts, trained by Freud himself. What comes from living with a man who had this upbringing? 1) I AM psychanalyzed all the time by him — he’s too perceptive for my taste sometimes; there’s no keeping any secrets from him . . . 2) he defies all stereotypes about men who are uncomfortable talking about their feelings!

    There’s such a deep longing to be listened to and understood — and therapy holds so many people’s dreams of curing what ails our lonely, troubled selves. No wonder we sometimes idolize and project our hopes upon its practitioners — it’s a bit like the way we view our bishops, I think.

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    he defies all stereotypes about men who are uncomfortable talking about their feelings!

    I would love for my husband to share his feelings about anything.

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    Howard and Deborah, indeed being married to a psychologist can be highly educational. Sometimes, as Deborah mentions, even uncomfortably educational.

    Mark IV, very good question. My husband does indeed sometimes come home and tell me about his clients, particularly ones who particularly frustrate him (antisocials, batterers, etc.). He can do so as long as he’s careful not to provide any identifying details and as long as there’s no way I could know who they are. I think it’s actually much easier for me than it is for Maria and other bishops’ wives precisely because he can talk about his work and about what goes on behind closed doors. Unlike the bishop’s wife, I have absolutely no idea who he might be seeing–his clientele isn’t any part of my social world–so while my husband is scrupulous about guarding confidentiality, it generally isn’t a barrier in his sharing his experiences with me in general, non-identifying terms.

    When we lived in a small rural town, confidentiality had its own peculiar challenges. Every so often we would run into someone in the grocery store or the gas station who obviously knew my husband and who would strike up a conversation with him, but whom my husband would not introduce to me, and I learned pretty quickly to surmise that the person was a current or former client. I suppose crossing paths with one’s therapist socially is always a possibility. One day a few months ago my husband and I went to the gym together, and he told me later that he had seen a man against whom he had testified in a child-custody case. He said the man had given him a dirty look, but fortunately that was it. Still, he found it a little uncomfortable to see the man in a social setting.

    Karen, that is sort of our classic pattern of interaction between men and women–women want to air feelings and problems, and men want to stonewall. I have to give my husband a lot of credit for being very good about talking about his feelings–often better than I am. But I don’t know if that’s so much his training as it is his native disposition.

    I’m sorry that’s a problem you struggle with in your marriage. I wish I had anything helpful to say.

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    I was wondering whether your husband gets worn out listening to other people’s difficulties all day. Is it easy for him to leave his work at the office, so to speak, or does he worry about his clients after hours?

  7. 7

    Good questions, ECS. For the most part my husband seems to leave work at work. Once in a while he’s run across a case that really gets to him and that he talks about at home, but he’s dispositionally pretty calm, not prone to get overinvolved (as I might be).

    Fortunately he’s never been a full-time therapist; while he was in school, he had just a few clients, and now that he’s got a full-time job he does more administration than he does therapy. I think being a full-time therapist would wear anyone out. As it is, he often comes home pretty tired. I suspect we’re like most couples in that we take turns having bad days, listening to each other, and providing emotional support.

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    Settlers, huh? I may take you guys up on that (after I get back from my next trip abroad).

    I would be very curious to hear what your husband has had to say over the years after fast and testimony meetings. Seriously, I don’t know how well I would do as a psychologist in the church — it was hard enough when I was trying to be a folklorist, and that is just scratching the surface of what goes on inside the hearts/heads/minds of the folk. Does he view religion with a skeptical/cynical eye — as a way people convince themselves not to be so scared of the world? I’m very curious.

    Also, Dr. Marvin — Dr. Leo Marvin. That’s what went through my mind when I read “there are excellent psychologists, and there are terrible psychologists.” Of course they all must start with baby steps. And yes, this corn is hand shucked.

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    I guess my questions are, Eve, does your husband read your posts? If so, does he comment?
    It’s a very interesting thing talking about a person’s spouse. You’ve done it delicately and well. I hope he finds it amusing. 🙂

  11. 11

    Glenn, we need to get together for Settlers, and you and my husband can chat. I think you’d have a lot to discuss.
    Jessawhy, I tell my husband to read my posts–I directed him very specifically to read one I wrote a couple of months ago about the history of my love life, ending with him–but although he did read and like that one, he’s not much for blogging. Like a number of men I know, he tends to be pretty information-oriented; he wants what he reads to have practical value. (In this regard we couldn’t be more different. As a general rule, I find practical things very boring. But it’s a good thing one of us likes them, I suppose.) He occasionally asks me hopefully if I could get some kind of academic credit for my blogging. For me, though, blogging is a hobby, a way to hang out and chat with my family, and a way to hook into all kinds of interesting Mormon discussions I could never find in real life. Above all, I think blogging should be fun. Sometimes I think some of us bloggers are inclined to take ourselves a little too seriously and wring our hands over the academic publications we’re not producing. (Just what the world needs–another arcane article to be read and understood by 27 people!)

    Ultimately, as far as I’m concerned, blogging is just a (semi) adult version of Family Council. But my husband has a hard time dealing with the insanity of multiple members of my family interacting with one another–not that I blame him in the least! He usually tries to find a quiet spot to read or take a name while we all talk over each other faster and faster, in louder and louder voices, when we all get together at Christmas. So it’s not surprising that the online extension of this kind of interaction isn’t really his thing.

  12. 12

    Regarding confidentiality and discussions of work in counseling or psychology.
    “He can do so as long as he’s careful not to provide any identifying details and as long as there’s no way I could know who they are.”
    I found this interesting as someone in the church gave me feedback regarding my using “stories of students’ to bring light or levity to a discussion. They thought it violated confidentiality. I have worked in 2 states, and in 4 school districts as a school psychologist and school counselor. Providing an example like this was viewed negatively by a woman who was a visiting teacher. I did not state which school, which district or which state or when this occurred. Tell me your thoughts on providing a story such as this.
    A new student arrived in the district, for whom a matching language classroom was not available as the elementary school only offered English or bilingual (Spanish) instruction. My advice was to place the child in the bilingual classroom as they used English language learning strategies. The student arrived and I went to the classroom with the new student, and saw that the teacher had prepared well. She did a beautiful job of showing a world map with pins and yarn from the child’s city/country to our city in America and other children’s countries to ours. After discussing the students and their countries of origin and languages,Students said hello and welcome in Spanish and English and the new student said hello in his language. When this little boy found his seat in the class, the boy next to him smiled brightly and said, “It’s America, speak Spanish!”
    Is it my imagination, or are women psychologists viewed by many in our church with a critical eye?
    I have had some interesting experiences that I would like to discuss to get clarification on process and procedure, but more importantly, attitude toward women who are professionals and church members.

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