Dr. Jenn Berman On Couples Therapy Episode 7: “I Didn’t Expect It To Explode Into Mean Behavior”

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Dr. Jenn Berman Couples Therapy
Couples Therapy seeks to repair the relationships of couples who have spent significant time in the spotlight, and season two is going to bring the drama in ways that season one never dreamed. Dr. Jenn Berman will be speaking to us each week to help us make sense of the couples’ issues and shed light on why they need her help. This week, we get into how frustrated she was with the cast after they ganged up on Courtney and Doug and tore their room apart after they left. We also discussed the tension she has with Alex and Simon who were both upset and emotional this week.

I love that I get to ask you a lot more about how you’ve been feeling about the patients this season. It’s like you said at the beginning of the season they’ve been very responsive and they like to spar a little bit with you, and you’re showing your own emotions a lot more.

And you know what else was interesting too, Rodiney tweeted yesterday saying how shocked he was to see the dynamic of the couples in the house and how he felt so close to everyone in the house during his season, and how they helped each other and how sad he was that this group didn’t help each other.

I wondered how you felt when you confronted them as a group after Courtney and Doug left and the first thing that Shayne said was “Can’t we just let it go?” That was just in perfect Shayne fashion, like let’s not get into our emotions, let’s just let it go.

What I said that didn’t get shown was “Sweep it under the rug? You mean just like you do in your marriage? Yeah, no I don’t think so.” In therapy we talk a lot about how whatever you do in the real world, you recreate in therapy. This was one of those situations where she was recreating with me what she does with her husband and I had the opportunity to say “No, no, no, we don’t sweep things under the rug around here, that has not been working for you and were not going to do that and now I’m going to demonstrate to you in the next twenty-four hours how it works when you don’t sweep things under the rug.” That was really important for her and for Nik and for our work together.

I did think that it was pretty honorable that both of them took responsibility for their actions in the end.

I did too. In the group I thought that what Nik said was incredibly insightful and profound when he said “I did in this house what I do with TheDirty.com, I pulled together an army and basically picked on someone,” and I really respected that he called himself on his stuff thought that was great and also that Shayne came around, that Shayne really saw what she did and why it wasn’t cool.

Alex and Simon were probably the toughest to convince about the fact that that they had ganged up on Courtney and Doug, they tried to justify why they did wheat they did. I’m wondering if the point that Alex was making resonated with you or if you could take her side in any way?

I really did, I really got how incredibly frustrated and difficult for everyone in the group to be living with Courtney primarily in two ways. The first was that hyper-sexualized dress and attitude and the second was their frustration at her not being at their level in the therapy room. I think that what I was hoping would happen for them they would learn to ignore the hyper-sexualized stuff, which would then render her powerless in trying to use it and then perhaps she might use it less and then they would start to have patience with her and understand that in therapy not everybody is at the same place at the same time and that different people are ready for different things at different times. There were times where I’d push one person really hard and not another and vice-versa. That’s what I was hoping to happen, but we had a bit of an explosion.

Do you think it was valid what she was saying about we weren’t getting any help dealing with them?

Yes, I think that her feelings were one hundred percent valid, but also Alex had the opportunity, she could have come to Sarah, she could have come to Dr. Mike, she could have come to Rachel, she even could have pulled me aside at the end of a group or individual session and said “Look, I really need more tools in dealing with this, I need more help.” Well I saw her frustration at the same time I didn’t expect it to explode in the way that it did with her shoving dollar bills in her skirt. I didn’t expect it to explode into mean behavior.

The other thing that I thought was really interesting was that Alex used Courtney as the reason she was apprehensive to bring her mother in. Was that an excuse or do you think that she was legitimately scared by her Housewives experience?

I think that she was legitimately scared by her Housewives experience and that she felt like that experience trivialized her life and that she had concerns that if her mom saw Courtney and Doug in the house it would trivialize this experience. At the same time I think that it is easy to point the finger at these other things, because the truth is her mom came into the house and came into therapy and I don’t know if she saw Courtney. I think afterwards she might have hung out, but that was Alex choice to take her into the house and therefore expose her to whoever was in the house. But I was thrilled that she came around and that she was willing to do that and to me it was an important moment because also it really spoke to — we do therapy here nothing’s going to get in the way. We’re not going to let other people or clothing or anything prevent us from doing the work that we need to do.

Did Alex ever take responsibility for when you were calling the group saying that they ganged up and that it was bullying behavior? I know that she and Simon resisted the bully label, but I’m wondering if she really absorbed how her behavior really came off?

I think she did, I think it’s easy to get caught up on the word “bullying,” to me the word bully is so much less important than the behavior, it was mean behavior. You can call it whatever you want, to me the word bully is unimportant, the bottom line is it was mean behavior and I think that when Alex and I sat down together for a one on one session when she heard the context that her actions happened in that Courtney had just been saying “This is a house where I feel people are being mean to me and are bullying me,” and then she came in and did that. I think she said in the session, she said “I made her point, didn’t I?” So I think she really got it and I understand — I have a lot of compassion for Alex and I think it was really hard for Alex to get angry with me and as a therapist it was very, very important to me that I wanted Alex to see and I wanted everyone in the group to see that it’s okay to be angry at me. This is a group where there were many times in individual sessions where I said to almost every one of them in the group, it’s okay to be angry at me, I can handle it, I can hold that, I can contain that, and it was especially important for Alex who was someone who as a child felt like her feelings about her Dad, that was apart of her I think that felt that her – wish that her Dad wouldn’t have to suffer anymore and that you wouldn’t either anymore. There’s a little part of her that felt like that she had killed him and I felt like it was important for her to see she can have negative feeling towards, I can survive them, I would still be there for her, I would still contain her, I would still be her therapist, and still care about her and I think that was really important in our therapy together.

What was the before and after of Alex, looking at her behavior prior to her mom’s visit, and post-therapy?

It was amazing, it was as if a weight had been lifted off her shoulder, you could see a physical difference in her. I think that it freed her in a lot of way, I think that it brought her closer to Simon, I think it took a lot of responsibility off of her, it brought her closer to her mother, and I think it even brought her closer to me that she was able to trust me enough to bring her mom in and have such a positive experience.

Courtney and Doug were essentially off-camera for the entire week, but I didn’t know what kind of contact you had with them while they were gone.

I have to tell you that the decision about whether or not to bring Courtney and Doug back was probably the most difficult decision I’ve ever had to make as a therapist. I wrestled with it more than I think anybody will probably ever know. I felt very conflicted when I walked into that room and Courtney had her old clothes on and I thought she was breaking the dress code, I knew I had to enforce the dress code, I gave her the option, I said “You can go back to your hotel room and change your clothes and I will you welcome back, I would love to have you I feel our work is not done,” and she said “No, I refuse to go.” So I had given her the option of going home and changing and coming back and I could see in Doug’s eyes that he didn’t want to go and I could see how even though he was supporting Courtney I could see that there was a part of him that didn’t really want to go. I hadn’t even heard their conversation before I had walked into the room. I really felt that Doug’s work — he and I had really started to do some deep work and I felt like there was so much more that we needed to do and I felt like that if Courtney had the courage to walk back in the house after making that scene that should would be returning in a different place and a much more humbled place, so they really struggled with it. There were many tears shed on their end. I think that Courtney hadn’t fully thought out the repercussions of her actions and I think like I said to you before, I think that Courtney is not used to people actually enforcing the rules with her and she is not used to suffering the consequences of her actions and I think that she did not really think about what the repercussions were. I think she acted in a moment of frustration and haste and that she kind of got up on her pedestal and kind of fought the fight she thought she needed to fight without thinking about the repercussions on Doug, the repercussions on the group, the repercussions on her therapy, the repercussions on me on our working relationship together and I think that it surprised her when I said well then you’re going to have to leave. And I really didn’t want her to, I was really bummed out because I felt our work wasn’t done and then after she left, when I knew how much they had wanted to come back and that she was willing to do, to follow the dress code, I wrestled with it a lot and I also met with every single person in the group and sat down with them and had a conversation with them about how they felt about what had happen and about moving forward with and without Courtney and almost every single member of the group individually said to me “I do feel that Doug and Courtney still have work to be done and that it’s possible for them to do good work in this house.” Well as a therapist I obviously don’t need anyone’s permission to bring anyone back in my treatment center, I felt that everyone’s mindset had shifted enough so that it was possible to do really good work for everyone with them in the house.

I wonder if Doug’s relationship with group had been getting better or if there was any getting through to him like if he had been making progress and becoming more independent. Nik even said that at a certain point he felt that Doug was on their side.

He had, and also Nik really made an effort with him, even when he came into the room and he had saw that she wasn’t wearing clothes, Nik had initially had come into to just to, I think he was borrowing a book from Doug or something like that. I think that he had kind of started to have better relationships with people in the house and I think that was also hard for him. Up to that point, all he had was Courtney, and now he was actually connected with people outside his wife, and I think it was really good for him.

After the mob-type situation, at that point were your only feelings toward Doug and Courtney compassionate or were you still upset at them for not following the rules?

My feeling about Courtney breaking the rules is that when I made that dress code I made it with the intention of it being stuck to. At the same time it is a client’s job to test the therapist and it is a teenager’s job to test authority figures, so I was not surprised at all when Courtney came in not obeying the dress code, so I was prepared to handle it and I was prepared to handle it in a way that gave her the room to come back and to go home and change and come back, but when things got so out of control with shoving dollar bills and people being mean it prevented me from doing the work I had hoped to do with her that would have allowed her to stay at the house and that was upsetting to me. So I wasn’t angry at her, I didn’t take it personally even though it bummed me out because I wanted her to be able to stay and I couldn’t let her stay if she wasn’t going to follow the dress code. Regarding Doug I felt bad for him and I was hoping that he would be able to take that big therapeutic step of saying to his wife “Hey let’s sit down and talk about this before we make any decisions, let’s not just act on this,” but he got swept up in her decision-making and that’s the dynamic in the relationship unfortunately.

Were you able to get into her head a little bit or to talk to her any more about how the mean behavior toward her and how really affected her? She’s good at protecting herself.

I think that what Courtney has had to do — she experienced a lot of mean behavior in her lifetime and I think that in order to survive that she’s had defend herself and she’s had to not let people in and she’s worked very hard to not let people affect her a lot. So I think she had to come from that defendant place. If you do imagine if she didn’t how painful it would be, so I think she had to, she had to protect herself emotionally. I think the safer the atmosphere for her, the more she’ll be able to reveal and unfortunately that didn’t happen much. I think she was able to reveal more in individual therapy and couples therapy than she was able to in group therapy.

What other breakthrough moments were big for you this week?

I thought what happened with me and Simon was significant where he snapped at me and he did exactly with me what he does with Alex, and I felt a real sense of obligation to model to Alex what it looked like to handle it differently. I did not take it personally because like I said, just like with Courtney, clients are supposed to test the therapists, Simon’s supposed to test me, that’s his job as a client and it’s my job as a therapist to handle that, but I also felt it was important a) to Simon to boundary and be like no it’s not okay to treat me that way and even more importantly for Alex to see what it looked like for a woman, a strong woman to say to him that’s not okay in a way that wasn’t just “F— you!” because that’s the way they’ve interact with each other when they hurt each other, but instead to say “That’s not okay, this is what it feels like when you do that, and you may not do that with me anymore.” I felt like that was, as angry as she was with me in that moment, her eyes were as wide when she saw me handle it differently. I think that was important and he really got, he really got it. He actually came over to me at the end of that session and he got on his knees in front of me and apologized to me.