Trust and Your Family - The Practice

Choice Theory: A New Psychology of Personal Freedom - William Glasser M.D. 1998

Trust and Your Family
The Practice

IF, BEFORE I WAS BORN, I knew all I have learned and experienced since childhood and was given the chance to pick my parents, I would not hesitate to pick my father. No son ever had a better father, and I owe much of what has been a good life to how he chose to relate to me for the more than fifty years I knew him. Although he has been gone for many years, his picture is still strongly in my quality world, and I feel certain mine was in his as long as he lived. As I look back over our long relationship, I see that what I had with my father was trust. It never crossed my mind that he ever meant anything different from what he said. From my father I got the gift of personal freedom, love without control. I was a very lucky child.

Although she had some outstanding qualities, I would not pick my mother. It wasn’t that she didn’t treat me well as a child or even as a young man, but I would not want to relive the way she treated me and my family later on. I don’t mean that what she did after I was an adult harmed me or that her good treatment of me as a child did not contribute to my success. But knowing what I have known for many years, I believe I would have been better off with someone else. From the time I was very young, my mother was unpredictable. I never felt free really to trust her. In that respect, she was far different from my father.

Unlike all others who are in our quality worlds, we do not consciously choose to put our parents in. By the time we become aware of them, we have made that choice; they are there. Many animals bond with their young for survival for a short time when the young are growing up. We don’t bond genetically, but what we do when we put our parents into our quality worlds and they put us into theirs may be stronger than that short-term bonding. For most of us, it lasts a lifetime.

It is almost impossible for children to take parents who raise them out of their quality worlds because in most instances there is no one to replace them. For the same reason, it is difficult to take many other family members, even stepparents or adoptive parents, out of our quality worlds if they have been there from close to the beginning. Even if they treat us terribly from the moment we are aware of them, most of us struggle to keep these people in our quality worlds far longer than anyone we meet later in life. And it is the same for our children. No matter how our children choose to behave, we find it next to impossible to take them out of our quality worlds. In this respect, the child-parent relationship is unique.

Abused or severely neglected children know nothing about their quality worlds, especially how strong these worlds are and that their parents or parent substitutes are so firmly in them. Because they don’t realize the strength of their quality worlds, I think they sometimes wonder why they can’t seem to give up on their abusive or neglectful parents. Frequently, they accept the mistreatment in a desperate attempt to please the people they need so much. The pain of the abuse is far more bearable than the idea of separating from what children believe are irreplaceable persons, which, of course, means taking these persons out of their quality worlds.

This was the problem of the hero of the movie Shine, young David Helfgott: Neither he nor his father could remove the other from his quality world. The movie painfully depicts how his father loved him, but Helfgott could not help but perceive that this love was conditional. To get it, he had to submit to his father’s domination. When he first asked his father to let him leave home to pursue his gift as a pianist, his father cruelly rejected this request, all the while protesting how much he loved him.

Even when Helfgott finally summoned up the strength to escape his father’s domination and leave, the separation was only physical. He still was not able to take his father out of his quality world. He suffered unbearable pain over the conflict between his need for his father and his need for the freedom to pursue the piano.

Finally, to escape from this painful conflict, to find the personal freedom he needed so badly, he chose to turn his life over to his creative system, not an unusual choice for a talented person such as Helfgott who is already well in touch with this system.

I believe that Helfgott’s choice to give up playing the piano by choosing to become psychotic was his final resistance to his father’s insistence that he could not have his love unless he was willing to be the musician his father wanted him to be. But after ten years—time does heal some wounds—he felt free enough to return to the piano. Shortly afterward, he was fortunate enough to meet his wife and, with her love, he has come back as far as he has.

Because of well-intended but brain-damaging electric convulsive treatments Helfgott was given during his psychosis, he may never regain the creative artistry he once had. But we should not underestimate the ability of our creative systems to work around brain damage. He still jabbers, he still needs that protection his creative system gave him, but he is no longer psychotic. He is criticized unfairly for not being as normal as some righteous critics think he ought to be to perform. But he has triumphed over a lot of adversity, and the audiences enjoy seeing how far he has come back.

Now that he is happily married, he may finally be close to taking his father out of his quality world, as was depicted in one of the last scenes in the movie. While visiting his father’s grave, his wife asks him what he feels. Helfgott answers, “I feel nothing.” Even that answer does not mean he has taken his father out of his quality world. It may mean that with the love of his wife, he is finally able to deal with the father who may always be there and retain his sanity. The healing potential of finally satisfying his need for love, without believing he has to satisfy anyone else’s conditions to get that love, is equally clear.

Many abused or neglected children are in similar situations. They are stuck with the pictures of their abusive or neglectful parents in their quality worlds. Because of the abuse or the neglect, when they are young, they are too weak and frightened to do much but suffer. As they grow older and separate from the weak relationship they had with a parent, many of them are too distrustful of people to consider trying to find happiness in human relationships. They now have no one, not even their parents, in their quality worlds. But they want to feel good—we all want to feel good—so many of them pursue what is available to them, the pleasures associated with violence and drugs. Study after study has shown that prisons are filled with people who were abused or neglected as children.

For many of these children, the only people besides their mothers and gang members whom they could relate to are their teachers. But the external control system that dominates our schools deprives many of these needy young people of this opportunity. It is also sad that many teachers who try to care for these children are criticized and ridiculed by the external control system that dominates our schools. The educational message of our existing schools, Learn what we tell you whether it is useful or not or we’ll punish you, compounds this problem, a problem that only the schools have any chance to solve. I explain this situation in more detail in the next chapter.

Huge numbers of people are not willing to settle for lives with no happiness. They are not willing to give up on people or turn their lives over to the search for pleasure without happiness.

Many of these unhappy people want very much to find others to love, but because of the reality of their life situations—they are poor, old, uneducated, unattractive, workless, homeless, sick, or criminal, the list is long—they are unable to.

There may be an answer to the poignant question posed by the Beatles: All the lonely people, where do they all come from? They come from a world in which they are separated from their husbands, wives, children, teachers, and employers by this destructive psychology.

I will now explain how we may prevent many of these relationship problems by applying choice theory to families and, especially, to rearing children. As I stated earlier, by far our best chance for good relationships for our whole lives is with our families. If we could get rid of the urge to control, our families would be much stronger than they are now.


Child abuse, rejection, and neglect, widespread as they are, are far from the main reason families are unhappy. The vast majority of family unhappiness is the result of well-intentioned parents trying to make children do what they don’t want to do. And in search of freedom, children, often adult children, resist their parents’ efforts. Much later, the same conflict is commonly revisited when adult children try to make elderly parents do what they don’t want to do, such as give up driving, move in with a child, or move to a place where they can have the care they need.

What makes these struggles so much more miserable than marital or nonfamily conflicts is that parents and children are stuck in each other’s quality worlds forever. I have no good answer for what to do with elderly parents; there may be no answer to this problem. But the better the elderly and their children get along together while the parents are still able to take care of themselves, the later this problem may occur.

I can hear parents of school-age children saying, Are we supposed to abdicate our responsibility as parents? Let our children do anything they want to do? Of course not. When we deal with children, we have to learn our limitations and do as much as we can do within these limitations. To try to do more results in accomplishing less. What bothers people, especially parents, is that choice theory, which states that we can control only our own behavior, imposes such strict limitations on what we can do when we want children, or anyone else, to behave differently. This limitation does not change when we deal with children who are using drugs, failing in school, or being sexually promiscuous any more than it changes when our mothers or fathers become alcoholics, start running around, or keep losing jobs.

This limitation needs to be repeated because it is so hard for people, especially parents, to accept how limited they are in what they can do when they are dissatisfied with how their children are behaving. They are limited to controlling their own behavior. All they can give to other people, including their children, parents, and mates, is information. This information may be threats, bribes, beatings, and incarceration, but it is still information. Short of extreme measures, such as incarcerating an uncontrollable child, there is nothing that external control psychology can offer to this problem. Since this psychology is all we have, it is no wonder that many of these problems seem insoluble.

Few of us are prepared to accept that it is our attempts to control that destroys the only thing we have with our children that gives us some control over them, our relationship. The choice theory child-rearing axiom is this: Don’t choose to do anything with a child whom you want to grow up to be happy, successful, and close to you, that you believe will increase the distance between you. It is all but impossible for controlling people to accept that axiom when it means don’t criticize, threaten, complain, put down, punish, or bribe anyone, including your children, with whom you want to stay close.

In fact, this axiom goes way beyond children. It applies to all relationships and is the core of beginning to use choice theory in your life: Do not do anything with anyone if it seems to increase the distance between you. Unsatisfying as it may be, doing less may be the best thing to do. Here again, prevention, which means keeping a failing relationship going, may be much better than anything else you can do. Children grow up, and what was once a poor relationship often gets better. But if there is too much of a split, it may get better but never get to the place either child or parent wants.

To illustrate what I mean, let me show you how I counseled a forty-five-year-old divorced woman. As you read what I did, try to put yourself in the place of the client. Her name is Linda, and I’ll start when she sat down in my office.

“You mentioned on the phone you were having some difficulties. Can you tell me a little more about what’s going on?”

“Well, actually, my doctor sent me. I’ve been having these terrible tension headaches, you know, the kind that go up the back of your neck and throb in your forehead. I thought I had a brain tumor.”

“I’m sure your doctor gave you a thorough checkup, CAT scan, the whole nine yards.”

“That’s right, he found nothing physical. So he said I was probably suffering from stress and recommended that I come to see you. If I seem skeptical, it’s because I don’t think that kind of pain could be caused by stress, whatever that is.”

“Well, whatever we do, it has no chance of making things worse, so please go back to see your doctor or to another doctor if what we discuss doesn’t help you.”

I always say this to people who are sent by a physician for any reason. It reassures them that I don’t think they are crazy or that their doctor is necessarily right. I try to come across as someone who will help and, more important, as someone who will listen to what they have to say. Many physicians today, trapped in the demands of managed care, haven’t the time to do so.

“The way I look at it, stress is very simple. It occurs when something in your life is not the way you want it to be. From my experience, it is most often attached to an unsatisfying relationship. Is there anyone in particular who isn’t doing what you would like him or her to do?”

“Well, for years it was my husband, but four years ago I had the sense to call that marriage quits, so it’s not him. I’m very happy with all the people I work with. I had a lousy boss for five years and he drove me up the wall, but my new boss is a doll. If I was going to have stress headaches, I should have had them then. I got rid of that boss and my husband the same year. I sure felt better after that, but these headaches are new, really only for this past year.”

“Do you have any children at home, teenagers?”

“Yes, Samantha; she’s sixteen going on seventeen, and she’s a handful.”

“Girls that age can be. How do you and she get along most of the time?”

“Frankly, it’s got to the point where I can’t stand the sight of her. She’s the most irritating, nasty-mouthed human being I’ve ever encountered in my life. I’m sick of her.”

“I think she’s worth talking about. Tell me a little more about what’s going on with her?”

“Well, she never does anything I tell her. And when I complain about it, she just rolls her eyes and gives me the silent treatment. She spends most of her time in her room with the door locked on the phone or listening to that music. Thank God, it’s a solid door, but the vibrations shake the house.”

It’s Samantha, but what makes it so hard is that Samantha, for all Linda’s protests, is still in Linda’s quality world and Linda is in hers. Linda didn’t get the headaches with the husband or the lousy boss because she was able to take them out. No such luck with Samantha; she’s in it for good. And because Samantha is there, Linda hesitated to tell me about her. I had to probe a little more than what I’ve written here.

“I’m pretty sure that Samantha may be the problem. Are you willing to talk about your relationship with her?”

“Yes, I’ve got to talk to someone. Do you think you could help me with her? I’d about gotten to the point where I thought it was hopeless. It’s only two more years before she goes away to college. Thank God, she’s doing well enough in school for that.”

“I don’t think you’re going to be able to last another year like this, and I’m sure I can help you. But I need you to tell me something more specific. It’s more than her locking her door and talking on the phone. You could live with that. It’s got to be something else, something that brings you more in contact with her and that goes on all the time that you feel is driving you up the wall.”

“OK, I’m a fastidious person. I work in a bank where everything has to be just right. I’m damn good at my job, and I make a pretty good salary. And I’m sure you can guess the rest. “

“Maybe I could, but it will save time if you tell me.”

“I come home from work and I like to have a clean kitchen before I start to get dinner together. All I ask is that she cleans up the kitchen before I get home at five thirty. That’s all; it’s not that much—ten, twelve minutes—is that too much to ask? I don’t mind making dinner; I even set the table because I like it done right. She helps me wash up after dinner, but it’s that dirty kitchen, just a few dishes from breakfast and a few things from snacks the night before and after school. She starts snacking as soon as she gets home; it’s almost all her mess. I see it when I walk in the door, every goddamned day. Pardon my French, but it drives me crazy.”

“That doesn’t sound like much to ask. I can’t understand why you’re having so much trouble with her over this.”

“Well, she used to do it, but she was so sloppy I had to do it over myself. I kept telling her, ’If you can’t do it right, don’t do it at all,’ and about two months ago she just stopped. When I come in, she doesn’t say anything but she gives me that It’s your house, if you don’t like the way I do it, do it yourself look. See, that’s what I have to put up with, her horrible attitude. It’s awful.”

“Tell me, what do you do or say when you come in after work and see the kitchen’s a mess? I gather it’s been the same for months.”

“Before I even come in the door I start to tense up.”

“And your head, does it start to hurt?”

“Not right away, but I know I’m in for one later on. When I walk in, I get so angry seeing her lounging on the sofa watching her soaps. She has them all recorded. She can do that, but she can’t help me. I think I’m beginning to hate my own daughter.”

The angering when she comes home prevents the headaches. The headaches come a little later when she realizes that the angering doesn’t work, and they prevent her from increasing the angering into rage and violence. The headaches also prevent her from depressing, which would have an adverse affect on the best part of her life, her work.

“Before that, when she was younger, did you get along pretty well with her then?”

“Pretty well, except there was a little trouble when her father left us. She was twelve. He never disciplined her; whatever his darling daughter did and still does is fine with him. I think he enjoys seeing me so frustrated. But I’ve got to give her some credit. During the divorce, she was a great support to me. Once she saw him for what he was, she took my side and still does.”

“Does she see him very often?”

“Every couple of weeks he picks her up and takes her out to eat. The only good thing I’ll still say about her is she won’t go to his house. She hates the woman he’s living with.”

“I don’t think what’s going on has anything to do with her father. I’d like you to tell me what you do when you come in and see her on the sofa watching the soaps. This is important, tell me exactly.”

“She’s got to learn to be responsible. I know what I’m talking about. I’m successful because I’m a very responsible person. I’ve got to teach her some responsibility; it’s my job as her mother. God knows she’ll never learn it from her father.”


“I yell at her. I threaten her, I’ve grounded her, I’ve cut her allowance.”

“All over a few dishes?”

“No, it’s not just the dishes. Like I told you, it’s her nasty attitude. The world owes her a living. It’s all about her, nothing for me. The dishes are just a symptom but they’re a goddamned annoying symptom. But last week the worst happened. I got so furious with her nasty mouth that I slapped her in the face. And you know what she did? She slapped me back. OK, she said she was sorry and we cried and hugged, but it was awful. She hasn’t really spoken to me since. Her hugging me, it was as if she felt sorry for me, can you believe that? That night I had the worst headache I’ve had yet.”

This account confirms what I suspected: Linda is close to rage and violence. She needs the headaches to keep any semblance of control. This is serious, but there’s a lot of hope. Samantha wants to get close to her mother, that was obvious in what her mother said, “It’s as if she feels sorry for me.” But Samantha doesn’t know what to do. Linda’s doing everything wrong and thinks she is doing everything right. The third belief of external control psychology, It’s my obligation as a mother to do what I’m doing, is driving her behavior. But the slapping, she knows that was wrong. I’ll deal with that.

“That slapping bit, it sounds like you don’t want to do it again, do you?”

“No, it was frightening, I was out of control. I guess I do need help. Can you help me?”

“Are you willing to listen very seriously to me? I am going to ask you to do something that you’re going to find very hard to do.”


“If nothing you do when you get home seems to work, I’d like to make a suggestion. Stop doing it, just stop.”

“What do you mean just stop? She’s the problem, not me.”

“She’s not the problem, and you’re not the problem. The problem is your relationship. Do you understand what I’m trying to tell you?”

“But if she’d just clean up the kitchen, we’d have a good relationship. That’s all I ask.”

She’s having trouble with the relationship concept, but I’ll keep working on it.

“OK, fine. What do you think she’d say if she was here and I asked her what was wrong with your relationship? She’s not happy with it either.”

“She’d say I should get off her back. She says that almost every day. But I can’t get off her back; I’m not a stranger, I’m her mother. “

“When you work, have you ever had a good customer who was a grade A pain in the neck?”

“What has this got to do with me and my daughter?”

“Well Samantha’s a grade A pain in the neck, isn’t she?”

When I counsel, I often try to show that being right is not very effective if you don’t have the power. Linda doesn’t have power over her daughter, but she thinks she has. She knows she doesn’t have power over a good customer. That’s a difference that may make sense to her.

“What do you do with a customer who’s a big pain?”

“The customer is important.”

“Is he more important than your daughter?”

“My God, my God, what am I saying, that girl is all I have.…”

Linda burst into tears. Most people get kind of a jolt when they realize that the psychology they have been using for years is destroying an important relationship, and that comparison with the customer gave her a jolt. These tears have been a long time coming. They are better than the headaches. That crying is going to do a lot for her headaches.

“When you go home today and step into the room with her, pretend she isn’t your daughter; pretend she’s a good friend and the kitchen is clean. What would you like to do?”

“I’d like to pour myself a glass of chardonnay, sit down with her and watch the TV. And as Samantha would say, chill out. “

“Could you do this today with Samantha?”

“I can’t. She …”

“Why can’t you?”

“Of course I can, but she’s going to think I’ve lost my mind.”

“So what? I’m sure she’s been hoping for a long time that you’d lose your mind. Today is a good day to do it. The mind you’ve been holding onto hasn’t seemed to have done you much good with her. C’mon Linda, you know what I’m talking about. Part of you has known it for months. Just sit down quietly beside her—no yelling, no criticizing, no complaining—and relax with her.”

“How long am I supposed to do this?”

“Could you do it for three days?”

“And just let the dishes go?”

“No, no, you won’t let them go; you’ll get up and do them just like you always do, but you won’t have gone through all you go through now. The house will be quiet, she’ll be quiet, you’ll be quiet.”

“Am I supposed to do this for two years until she leaves home?”

“No, I just said for three days.”

“Then what?”

“I don’t know. What might you say to her if you and she were sitting quietly together that might be better than what you’ve been saying?”

“Well, I guess I could ask her how her day went, try to be a little more friendly.”

“What if she asks you why you’ve stopped yelling. What will you tell her? Better yet, what would you like to tell her?”

“I’d like to tell her I’ve screamed my last scream.”

“Would you be willing to tell her that if she doesn’t ask?”

“I’d like to tell her it hasn’t worked and I’m going to stop doing it forever. But I don’t think I’ll be able to do that.”

“How about for three days?”

“OK, I can handle three days.”

“After watching TV for half an hour with her, get up and tell her, ’I’m going to get dinner.’ Don’t ask her to help. Do the dishes and then start dinner.”

“But that’s not fair. I do all the work, and she does nothing. What do I get out of it?”

“If life was fair, there’d be no need for counselors. I’m sorry, that’s a good question, What do you get out of it? Let me put the question this way, What do you really want with your daughter?”

“I want us to be like we were a few years ago; we were best friends.”

“Look, you are a very intelligent woman, and you do a hard job well. I don’t think the dishes are what you’re really worried about. They are an aggravation, but you’re really worried about something a lot more important than dishes.”

“She never tells me anything. She stays in her room, talking on the phone to that boy.…”

“She has a boyfriend? Are you worried about what she may be doing or thinking of doing with him?”

“I’m worried sick about it.”

“Would you be less worried if you were getting along better with her than you are now?”

“Of course. But I’d still be worried.”

“Let’s get back to the dishes. What if tomorrow or the next day she got up when you got up and helped you? She may, especially if you do what you say you are going to do for three days.”

“What if she doesn’t?”

“During the three days you’re quiet on the sofa with her watching TV, are you willing to do what we talked about a little while ago, tell her you’re through yelling for good? I don’t think you’re stalled on the screaming road.”

“If you believe it’ll make a difference, I’ll tell her.”

“If it were you with your mother, do you think it would have made a difference with you? Were you totally different with your mother than your daughter is with you?”

“No, my mother says I got the daughter I deserve. But you’re right, it would’ve made a difference with me.”

“If she doesn’t make a move to help you, let things go until the fourth day and then say, ’Samantha, how about giving me a hand in the kitchen and then I’ll make dinner.’ If she doesn’t come, don’t say anything. Don’t say anything for a week. But I think she’ll come if you say it in a nice way. Nothing like, ’You should have done this without my asking’ or ’It’s about time.’ You know what I mean, the way you talk to good customers at the bank, friendly, no pressure.”

“It’s the relationship, isn’t it?”

It takes people like Linda a while to realize how important the relationship really is. I’ll have to keep finding ways to remind her.

“That’s all you’ve got going for you, but it’s a lot. She’s desperate to get close to you. Give her a chance; give her some time.”

“She hasn’t acted like she wants to get close to me. The way she’s been, it seems just the opposite.”

“But you’re going to be different, very different. She’ll notice it tonight, you’ll see.”

“OK, what I’ve been doing hasn’t done much good. I’m willing to let it go. Now what?”

“Now I’d like to get back to her boyfriend. Do you know anything about him?”

“All I know is he’s on the basketball team and he comes from a nice family. But she never brings him home.”

“And you’re worried they might become involved sexually?”

“Yes, I’m worried sick about it. I’ve preached till I’m blue in the face. She used to tell me everything, and now she won’t talk to me.”

“Would you like to go out with her and the boy, sit in her ear where he couldn’t see you, and give her advice if you think she needed it? I mean be there but be invisible? Only she could hear you?”

“Now you’re getting silly. No one could arrange that.”

“No one has to arrange it. It’s already arranged. You’re actually in her head right now, just like she’s in yours. The only thing is, she isn’t listening to you very much; you know that. If you can get closer to her, she’ll listen to you again like she used to.”

“I hope it isn’t too late.”

“I don’t think it’s too late. It’s never too late to get close to a child.”

“I’ve been missing what’s most important, haven’t I?”

“Come back next week, and let’s see what happened. I don’t think you’ve done any real harm; she hasn’t been that easy either. But this way may work; let’s see. During this week, I want you to think about it. Not only with Samantha but with all the people in your life—your boss, your mother, your ex, everyone you have anything to do with: Whose behavior can you control? We’ll talk again next week. If you want to talk to me during the week, call me and I’ll get back to you.”

That session got things well started. I didn’t hear from Linda during the week. Samantha did the dishes for a few days and then stopped for a day. Testing. Linda didn’t take the bait; she did the dishes herself without saying anything. Samantha has now done them again for two days, and Linda plans never to say anything about the dishes again. Linda and I talked, and I spent some time introducing her to choice theory. She said that she is going to do everything she can to get close to Samantha and she could already see how much closer they were just this week.

About a month later, Linda told me the following. Samantha wanted to talk with Linda about her boyfriend. He is putting pressure on her for sex, and they have come close to doing it. Linda didn’t respond with horror. She just asked Samantha calmly if she wanted some birth control pills, but Samantha said no. Samantha told Linda that her boyfriend carries a condom with him and has promised to use it. Linda told her it could be a bad experience at her age unless she is deeply in love, and Samantha said she’s not. It’s just that a lot of her friends are doing it with their boyfriends and she’s curious.

I told Linda that’s all she can do, and I complimented her on handling the situation so well. What she said has brought them closer, and that’s the best thing for Samantha as she struggles with her own and her boyfriend’s hormones. Early sex is part of today’s culture. Whatever Samantha does, it is better for her that she and her mother are now talking and that Linda has stopped preaching, criticizing, and controlling.


Using this session as a guideline, I would like to try to explain how to rear a child using choice theory. As I look back, I think I learned a great deal about choice theory from my experience with my children. Both my late wife, Naomi, and I did not know any choice theory until our three children finished college. We almost always agreed on what to do with them, so we didn’t cast any blame on each other for the lives they have chosen to live. We used very little punishment in our child rearing and never had any of the usual problems with them that many parents have. They were never rebellious, and we all got along well. Our children had many friends who were always welcome at our house, and almost all their friends are successful and productive adults. For a hint of how to use choice theory with children, you might watch how grandparents behave with their grandchildren. We all seem pretty good at that job.

I am well aware that many people will disagree with what I am going to say. Just as there is a great deal of chance in marriage, there is no foolproof way to rear a child or to get along with every member of a family. If you try what I suggest and it seems not to work, I may be wrong. But there is also the possibility that you may be more committed to external control psychology than you realize.

Choice theory is much more effective when it is used to prevent problems than to solve them. If you look honestly at the lives of the people you know who have long-standing relationship problems or at your own, you will see that few of us are able to come up with a good solution to any of these problems. In most instances, the problems drag on and are never really solved. Eventually, we learn to live in unhappy marriages by expecting less and less from the relationships. I believe that we do the same thing with children. We deal with our disappointment not by rejecting them, but by expecting less from them and they from us.

The biggest concern of most parents is the future of their children: Will they lead happy and successful lives? To me, what is equally important is, Will they like to spend time with us and we with them? If they are happy and like spending time with us, as parents we are well satisfied. Most of us do not aspire for our children to be extraordinary; we seem to know enough choice theory to realize that beyond a certain point there is nothing we can do to push our children to the top in any endeavor. We can help and support, but much of what children ultimately become is not within our control.

Following the third belief of external control psychology, We know what’s right for our children, most of us reward and punish to attempt to get our children to do what we believe is right. We can keep doing so until we have destroyed our relationships with them without succeeding in getting them to where we want them to be. Even if our children become successful and do what we think is right, we may, in our zeal to push them to where we want them to go, lose the closeness that most of us want. Some people say that as long as their children lead the lives they want them to lead, the closeness doesn’t matter. I don’t accept this belief at all. To be unable to share success is unsatisfying to both parents and children.

I can explain only the basics of choice theory child rearing: a lot of love and no punishment. I have no day-by-day prescription for what you should do if the child is way out of order, but sending a young child who is acting up to her room or a calm-down chair, with a minimum of yelling, is usually effective and does not harm the relationship. When you send her, use the admonition, “When you feel calm, come out. I’d like to talk to you about what happened and see if we can help it from happening again, but if you don’t want to talk, that’s OK. I’ll settle for you just calming down.” And when she comes out, do something enjoyable with her that tells her it’s over, no hard feelings.

Creativity is at the heart of any good relationship. Do things that are unexpected. With very young children who are carrying on, I fake crying and carrying on. They are so amazed that they start to laugh or come over and comfort me, and I tell them how much I appreciate it. They often forget what they wanted or what they were doing, and I don’t remind them. Sometimes when they are about to cry, I teach a little choice theory and say, “You can cry now or a little later, which do you want to do?” They learn that whining and crying is a choice and maybe not such a good choice for them. It does give them something to think about: They can choose not to cry if they want to.

As a choice theory parent, it is helpful if you teach children a little choice theory directly. Explain the needs and the quality world first and total behavior later. Children as young as five years old are now taught this theory in some of our schools that are trying to become quality schools, and it certainly can be done at home. Material to do so is described in the appendix of this book.* Teenagers can read sections of this book and easily learn from it. They will be especially interested if you tell them that much of what you are trying to do with them is taken from this book.

As far as love goes, don’t connect love with any specific behavior. Make it clear that you love your children no matter what they do, but be candid that if they are totally out of order, loving them isn’t easy. The best way you can communicate that you love your children is always to be open to talking and listening. With this openness, you have a right to express your opinions and should feel free to tell them if you disagree with what they are doing or intend to do. But don’t harp on what they are doing over and over. When you disagree, expressing yourself twice is usually enough. Things get much more difficult, however, when your children want you to support what you disagree with.

For example, your daughter wants to change colleges to follow a young man she is in love with. You don’t agree. What do you do? There is no good answer. If you have a strong relationship with her, it probably won’t make much difference. It is up to you to judge whether what you do or don’t do will keep you from separating farther from her. Your obvious disagreement has already precluded your getting closer; what you don’t want is to get further apart.

Ask yourself, if I do or say this, will we be closer or farther apart? Tell her that whatever each of you does, you don’t want to be farther apart after this incident than you are now. Explain why and ask for her help. This is the child-parent solving circle that is comparable to the circle used in marriage. Teach it to your children as soon as you believe they are ready to learn it. And teach it at a time when you are getting along well, so you can use it later when there is a problem.

In or out of the child-parent circle, the best thing to do with the daughter who wants to change colleges is to lay your cards on the table and tell her why you disagree and tell her you find it difficult to support what she is going to do because you fear she will be hurt. But also tell her that your relationship with her is more important than anything else and ask her how both of you can work out what to do that will keep the good relationship you have. Her chances of doing anything that will ruin her life are much less if you do so. But keep in mind that when romantic love is involved, no one can tell anyone what to do. Choice theory says strongly, Do what you can to keep close to her. The relationship takes precedence over always being “right.”

When you deal with a child, offering advice is better than barking out instructions. Keeping as close to him as you can without getting deeply involved in his future is probably as good as offering much advice. If you offer advice, don’t repeat yourself or nag. It is almost certain he heard you the first time and knew what you wanted him to do before you gave him your advice. Don’t rake up the past if what he has done previously has not been successful. What’s done is done; to keep this failure alive is divisive.

Going over past successes, however, is an excellent idea. It takes a long time before any of us get tired of hearing that we have done a good job. When the child is very young, try to establish the idea that, in time, most mistakes can be corrected or lived with. Very little is so bad that it can never be corrected or let be. Present yourself as always being ready to help but not ready to do it for him. One serious mistake I made with my oldest son was to intervene too fast and do too much to try to help. Love them, but let them flounder when they are young when floundering doesn’t carry the penalties it may later on.

The basis of a choice theory relationship is to establish trust. Parents can’t start too early to behave in a way that encourages their children to trust them. Establishing trust means that there is nothing the children can say or do that will persuade you to reject them. Later, when they are teenagers, it gets much more difficult to do, but it is always best never to reject your children. This does not mean you support what you disagree with. There is a big difference between not rejecting and not supporting, and children easily understand that difference and your position if you are close.

As I explained, parents are in their children’s quality worlds, which means the children either trust their parents or want to trust them. Children keep parents they do not trust in their quality worlds because there is no one to replace the parents. And as long as parents are there, children want to trust them. When a child no longer wants to trust a parent, it’s as if the parent has become an inactive member of his quality world community. You are there, he may even enjoy your company, but he does not trust you. The only way you can regain his trust is to spend some time talking with and listening to him and moving toward each other in the process.

When you are dealing with a child who you do not believe trusts you and you make a mistake, be quick to admit it. You don’t expect him to be perfect, and you are not perfect either. The admission that mistakes are possible builds or rebuilds trust. Parents who are the first to admit a mistake are seen by their children as much more trustworthy than are parents who are always right and have a hard time admitting they are wrong. Children need to trust their parents. If they can’t, they are living on quicksand.

Choice theory parents begin to teach their children by three years of age that they have to be willing to take responsibility for what they choose. But taking responsibility does not mean being punished. Sending them to their rooms is the maximum you should need for control. There is no punishment in a choice theory upbringing. Punishment is external control psychology to the core—an imposed consequence that always increases the distance between parents and children. Almost all punished children spend time and effort to avoid or resist punishment, time and energy that could be spent learning how to expand their lives and satisfy their needs. Punished children tend to contract their lives, to concentrate on evading responsibility rather than accepting it. Children should not be made to suffer any more than the natural consequences of what they chose to do.

For example, if your son is consistently late for dinner, he should still get dinner, but it may be cold and some of it may be gone. He may even have to fix something for himself, but he should not go hungry unless he is too lazy to get some food. If you believe that punishment solves problems, try doing without it. You will see that with a little conversation and guidance, your children will solve their own problems. Or they will accept your solution, not because you can punish but because they trust you. This way you don’t risk harming the all-important relationship.

Instead of punishment, the choice theory parent continually sends the message: I want you to learn from your mistakes. My job, if either of us is dissatisfied with what you chose to do, is to get together and help you to figure out a better way. There is almost always a better way. I will, however, step in and stop you when I believe you are too young to know what you are getting into, but my focus will not be on stopping you. It will be on letting you learn before you do something that you may regret. Here trust is all-important; if your child trusts you, he will listen to you.

Many parents struggle with their children over bedtime, and up to four years do the best you can without punishment. But when the child is older than four and still doesn’t want to go to bed, you can use this situation as an opportunity to teach him a valuable lesson in personal freedom. As soon as you believe that he is safe to leave up around the house, tell him that you trust him to figure out how much sleep he needs. This statement sends the message that you are not rigid or always right and are more than willing to give him a chance to do what he wants as long as he doesn’t hurt himself or anyone else.

After the hour that you feel he ought to be in bed, tell him it’s bedtime but that he doesn’t have to go. He can stay up as late as he wants, but he can’t have any more attention from you or anyone else who is up. He is on his own. He can play or, if the television is not in use, watch it with the sound turned down low. When you, the parents, go to bed, close your door and tell him that he can’t bother you anymore or anyone else who is up. If he bothers anyone, you will put him to bed even if it takes a big fight. But since he thinks he is getting away with something, there will be few fights. Tell him that you will get him up for school and expect him to go even if he is tired. If he falls asleep in school, don’t worry about it; his admission to college is not in danger.

This is the time to begin to teach responsibility, not later when your child is a teenager and there are some real opportunities for him to get hurt. If you struggle over bedtime, you waste a lot of effort that could go into teaching your child that whenever there is a choice in which no one can be harmed, you will give him the freedom to choose. When a child goes to bed harms no one else. If he’s too cranky to have fun the next day or to do his schoolwork, he’ll learn to go to bed earlier. That you and he are not adversaries makes it possible for you to give him some advice and likely that he’ll listen. All through early childhood, look for these opportunities. In most cases, letting him choose his bedtime works out fine. It gives him the chance to take care of himself in a safe situation and not depend on anyone else.

Talk with him about how things are working out now that bedtime is up to him. Ask him if there are other things he could do to take care of himself and tell him that you will try to go along with what he wants. Tell him you hate fighting and arguing and that you appreciate that he is taking care of something you used to argue a lot about. Never tell him, I told you so if he tells you that he needs to go to bed early; just say bedtime is up to him, early or late.

This approach changes the relationship. You are not the automatic, my way or the highway person many children believe their parents are. Your child learns that you don’t impose rules for the sake of rules or because other people do things a certain way. You are his partner as well as his parent, and you want to give him as much freedom to choose what he does that you believe he can handle. But if you don’t think he is ready to handle a situation, your way will prevail until you think he’s ready. And you are always open to talking it over to try to find out when this is. There are no automatic or nonthinking no’s in a choice theory upbringing, and you are not going to fight or argue anymore. That’s not the way you want to relate to him.

Now here is an example of when you don’t think a child is ready to make a decision; a time when it has to be your way. Your eight-year-old daughter refuses to go to school, and reacts with a great deal of hysteria when you try to get her to go. You have not been a choice theory parent, but up to now there was no reason to worry about her upbringing. She has been given a lot of love, and this school problem comes as a surprise. She had always been a little resistant to school, but this much resistance is new. When you talk with the principal, she tells you just to get your daughter to school and the school will deal with her. The principal has seen this behavior before and believes that the child will calm down as soon as she realizes this situation is not negotiable. Still, you are concerned. The idea of using force does not sit well with you.

But now as you are learning to become a choice theory parent, you tell her that going to school is not a choice. It’s what all children, including her, do. You do it with love and concern, but you are careful to do it in a way that the child gets the clear message that this is not a negotiable situation. You are good parents, you love her, and this situation is very difficult; her hysteria seems so genuine. But the longer you allow her to control you with hysteria, the harder it will be to convince her that school attendance is not a choice.

If you had been a choice theory parent, then she would know that you are flexible in many situations. You have, however, gotten along well with her. She knows you love her, and you must be ready to act firmly in this nonnegotiable situation. No matter how much she cries, bodily take her to school, give her a kiss, and drop her off. You will have alerted the school that you are going to do so, and the staff can deal with her in any reasonable way, but you are willing for her to cry all day if she wishes. Once she sees you mean it, she will not cry very long. The trust that you have built will pay off. You may never find out what was wrong or she may tell you, but either way this is the way to handle this problem. Stand firm, without threats and punishment, when you believe it’s necessary. Be flexible as often as you can.

Eating is another hang-up for parents who know what’s right and punish to enforce it. Rather than get stuck in this easily lost battle, this is a good chance to be flexible. Your daughter who is not malnourished eats only a few foods. If it is convenient, give her those foods and say nothing. If it is inconvenient, give her what you are making for everyone else and that’s it. Say nothing if she picks out what she wants from her plate and leaves the rest. The clean-plate club is one of our charter external control organizations. If she is willing to prepare her own food, let her do it. That’s all. No arguments, no coaxing, no cajoling. No telling her “I told you so” when she eats the food or terrible concern if she doesn’t. She is not going to starve. If you make too much of a fuss over food when she is young, you may be setting yourself up for dealing with anorexia later.

Choice theory says that all I can give you in this book is information, and this is what I’ve done. Nothing I have said takes precedence over you using your own judgment. Enforce what you think is worth enforcing, but try to do so as little as possible. Let the rest go. Don’t protect your children from minor problems or try to get them to do it your way when it doesn’t really matter. In this way they will learn from experience, one of the world’s greatest teachers, what’s smart and what’s stupid. They will also learn that you are not rigid or overly opinionated, that you don’t care very much about many things their friends’ parents care a lot about. But they will also learn at an early age that when you do care, you will hold the line no matter how much they protest.

When they were young, you managed fine with giving them control over their bedtime and with what they ate and wore. A little later, things you cared a lot about like school, health, and safety were not negotiable. But by beginning to let them choose many things most children don’t get to decide on, you are teaching them the value of negotiation because by the preteen years, much of what they want can only be negotiated. You can’t physically control them as you could when they were young. You can ground them, but grounding them is difficult to enforce and you risk weakening your position in their quality worlds if you are too strict. Now, more than ever, you need to have a strong presence in their quality worlds. They can get into a lot of trouble during the hours you can’t ground them, such as before and after school.

Whether you like it or not, you have no control over what your children choose to do when they are on their own. Drugs, sex, alcohol, and crime are all available, and the only thing that may keep them from these destructive behaviors is your picture, front and center, in their quality worlds. It is not just being there; you are almost always there. It is how strongly you are there that will have a lot to do with the choices they make on their own. Your willingness to negotiate most of the time, plus the fact that you have done a lot of negotiating during the years you could have been coercive, keeps you and what you believe alive in your children’s quality worlds. Start to teach them to negotiate as soon as possible by doing it.

Your son is nine years old and wants a dog. You don’t particularly want a dog, but you agree that this is a reasonable request at his age and you don’t want to be arbitrary. When he asked at age six, you said that he had to wait until he was nine, and he waited. This shows he respects your judgment. But he will lose this respect if you don’t show that you respect his judgment. At nine, he is old enough to learn to negotiate, which means that you will work out how much he is willing to do to take care of the dog. The best way to start this, and all negotiations like it, is to talk to him a lot about the dog and to show enthusiasm for his request. If the request is reasonable, avoid being a wet blanket. If you really don’t want a dog in the house, hold the line. It’s easier to be firm in the beginning than to vacillate, postpone, and then get tough later.

Discuss the breed, the size, whether it should be a puppy or a housebroken dog and have long hair or short hair, its temperament, and the cost. Encourage him to read a lot about dogs, which is also a good way for him to appreciate how useful reading is. If you are in a large city, go through the classified ads with him, especially those about adopting a good free dog. Take him to visit some dogs. Make a big deal about it; it’s a way to get close and sets up the negotiation. As you do so, talk to him about the care of the dog, how much he will do and how much you will do. He is only nine, so you should not expect too much, but walking and feeding the dog are reasonable tasks.

If you are in a city, explain why a pooper scooper is needed and how to use it. I would not ask him to clean up after a puppy inside the house; that may be too much for him, and housebreaking is only a short period anyway. You may both decide that getting a dog that is already trained may be a good idea for a first dog. Try to get him the dog he wants, not the one you want or wanted as a child.

Keep in mind that teenagers need a lot of love. Certainly as much as younger children, who have less potential for trouble than teenagers. We tend to forget that fact and treat them as grown-ups, but they are not grown-ups. It takes a lot of creativity to love teenagers enough so that they will listen to you even if they don’t agree and still keep you strongly in their quality worlds. Don’t wait for trouble. Anticipate it by talking, laughing, and doing things with your teenagers. All this is a savings account, which you can draw from later when there are serious disagreements.

If a husband and a wife have formed a circle and extended it to the parent-child circle, it is natural to extend it further into a family solving circle. If you look at families who get along well, you see this circle in action. The family joins together as a supportive unit to help each other deal with whatever comes along. Members of external control families tend to blame each other when there is a problem. Each knows what is right for himself or herself but rarely thinks of what’s right for the family. Trust keeps the circle strong. As long as you and your children are in that circle, whether you are together or apart, you have the best chance for happiness.


If the abuse is currently going on, we must do all we can to stop it, which usually means taking the child out of the abusive situation. But often, when the abuse is found out, it has already stopped. The child, however, still needs help to deal with what happened. Even more often, the abuse is never reported and stops sometime during childhood but surfaces later as the possible cause of an adult problem. The abuse can be physical, but nonsexual, as when the child is beaten. It can be psychological, such as being reared in a torrent of threats, criticism, and blame alternating with neglect. Or it can be sexual, which is mostly physical but also psychological. Most often it is some combination of all three.

Abused children are usually damaged by one or more of the people taking care of them. Natural parents, stepparents, grandparents, uncles, cousins, foster parents, even neighbors, someone the child tends to trust, are most often responsible for this injury. The conventional wisdom is that an abused child, especially a sexually abused child, will never be able to deal with what has happened unless he or she is made aware of it and, perhaps, goes so far as to confront the person who did it. It is believed that the abused person cannot deal alone with what happened and needs a psychotherapist to guide him or her through what is called a healing process. Whether they do so purposefully or not, therapists who believe clients are damaged tend to teach them that they are helpless victims and that unless they can revisit what happened in the past through counseling, they will remain victims.

Choice theory looks at past abuse far differently. It teaches that these children, or now adults, can use choice theory to help themselves. They are no longer victims of what happened unless they choose to see themselves that way. Choice theory explains that the current thinking that they must relive, and even confront, the abuse is not only ineffective but can be harmful. In any situation, it is always harmful to imply to people that they are victims and can’t help themselves. Countless people in the world who have been abused as children and adults, many horribly, have helped themselves without traditional therapy and with no knowledge of choice theory. They have had bad experiences but still have been able to learn to trust people. They have suffered, but they have not been permanently damaged.

Children or adults who have not dealt effectively with the abuse need good counseling, which should include the choice theory explanations both of what happened and how to deal with it. Most important, they must learn that they are not suffering from the abuse itself as much as from the fact that they have lost trust in or may never have learned to trust people. Sexual abuse is one of the most difficult behaviors to deal with because, in many instances, the child did trust the abuser when the abuse began.

As I explained when I discussed child rearing, learning to trust is crucial to learning how to satisfy our needs as we deal with the world. From their experience, not trusting people makes sense to abused children. If they have been hurt by people in their quality worlds, how could they possibly trust strangers? What they have to learn is that most people are not abusers and that many, but not all, people can be trusted. And they need to learn how to distinguish those who can be trusted from those who can’t and steer clear of those who can’t. Basically, they have to be cautious when they meet people and get to know them better before they trust them. They need to be extra cautious to avoid being hurt again and losing what little trust they were beginning to gain.

When the abuse ends, they are like people who were blind for a long time, maybe since birth, and suddenly regain the ability to see. Although they can now see, they are not able to use their vision normally; they literally have to learn or relearn to use their eyes. Abused children or adults have to experience loving and trustworthy people and, literally, learn to trust and then love. But to do so, they have to learn to let go of the idea that they are victims or have been permanently damaged. To be cautious makes sense; to continue to think they are victims makes no sense.

Counseling them with reality therapy and, concurrently, teaching them choice theory can do much more for them than taking them back through the abuse. Revisiting a bad experience does not make you stronger. If you have been starving for a long time, you need food, not an explanation why you weren’t fed in the past. Wounds, even severe psychological wounds, can heal, but only through experiencing love and gaining the trust that, with effort on their part, this love can be sustained.

Choice theory explains that all problems are present problems because the needs must be satisfied now. You cannot eat a meal you missed any more than you can eat a future meal. You can store food for the future just as you can make a good friend whom you can enjoy in the future. But enjoying the friend now is the key to enjoying the friend in the future. An abused person, because of an unhappy past, may be less capable but not incapable of dealing with the present. The past, be it abuse, neglect, or rejection, is not the problem. His or her present problem is no different from anyone’s present problem—all present problems are relationship problems. We all need a satisfying present relationship with someone we can trust.

Terri, a thirty-three-year-old woman, came to me because she was unable to sustain satisfying sexual relationships. As soon as she began to get close to a man, she chose to behave in ways that destroyed the relationship. What she actually did is unimportant. Let’s take a look at how, using reality therapy, I counseled her. I will focus on what I did that got her redirected from the past to the present and helped her to learn to trust. What I did is not the only way to do reality therapy, but it is a good way. Other reality therapists might do it differently, but we would all be going in the same forward direction.

“Terri, tell me your story. Everyone who comes here has a story. I’d like very much to hear yours.”

“There is no story. I’m lonely and miserable. Well, I shouldn’t really say that. I enjoy my job and the people I work with, but my social life, I always seem to screw it up. A good friend where I work told me about you. I talk to her a lot about my screwed-up love life, and she tries to help me. She said you helped her cousin; she could see her cousin change when she went to see you. Her cousin told her a little about how you worked, but she didn’t want to try to tell me because she wasn’t sure she understood it. Anyway, I need help. I have a little insurance; I can see you ten times this year. If it’s going to take much longer, I’m not sure I can afford it. Between my car and my rent and the few clothes I have to have, there isn’t much left. Also, I’m paying off a big dentist bill. Can you help me if this is all I can afford? I’ve heard therapy takes a long time. I don’t want to start and then have to leave in the middle. Now that I’ve mentioned this, I guess that’s my problem with men. I start in OK but I never seem to get much further.”

“How long it takes depends on you. A lot can be done in ten sessions if you are willing to make some effort to learn a lot more about yourself than you know now. It’s not like going to the dentist. With the dentist, all you had to do was open your mouth, and he fixed your teeth. I can’t fix your love life, but I can help you to fix it. We work together. It’s more like after going to the dentist, when you learn how to take better care of your teeth. The difference is that here you start right in, right this minute, learning how to take better care of your life. That’s what my kind of therapy is all about—learning how to take care of yourself. We’ll talk, I’ll ask you questions, and you’ll also help by beginning to take a close look at what you are choosing to do with your life right now. I’ll use the word choosing a lot because I believe that we choose what we do and that you have to learn to make better choices if you want to be happy. Tell me what’s happening; begin anywhere you like.”

“It’s men, I want a relationship. I meet them easily. A lot of them don’t mean much to me, so for a little while we get along and then we just drift apart. But once in a while, one of them does mean a lot to me, and then I screw it up. That’s what’s happening right now with Tom. He’s just like all the others I cared for. We find out we’re interested in each other, and then I ruin it.”

“Be specific. I need to know as much as you can tell me about all that’s going on. Tell me everything; it all helps. How are you ruining it with Tom?”

Being specific is very important. Life is lived specifically; generalities like “I screwed up” are worthless in therapy. It’s all the details that count.

“We got off to a good start. With Tom even the sex was good from the start. But then I started making demands. I started criticizing him for a lot of little things. He told me that a woman where he works lives near him and asked him to take her home after work; she gets a ride to work but she needs a ride home. I blew my top and accused him of wanting to go to bed with her. It was off the wall—she’s almost old enough to be his mother—but when I blew I was serious. But it can be anything. All of a sudden I don’t like his beard, I hate the tattoo on his arm, he didn’t call exactly when he said he would. This goes on more and more. It all ends with me accusing him of not loving me. How the hell could he love me? We just met, but I accuse him anyway. I tell him he’s just seeing me because I fuck him; I get crude like that and it’s awful. The other night he blew up a little himself. He said, ’You’re right, I am seeing you because I like to make love to you.’ He didn’t say fuck; he’s not crude like me. He said, ’Of course I like to make love to you; I think that’s a marvelous reason to see each other. I can’t think of a better one.’”


“I went berserk. I told him I don’t want to just go to bed; I want something more. I started to scream and cry and beat on his chest. We were in bed; it was before we even made love. The poor guy got up, got dressed, and started to leave. I got up and ran after him and begged him not to go. So he stayed and we made love and it was terrific. It was the fight that made it so good. I was pretty good in the morning, but as I left for work, I’m on the early shift this quarter, I gave him a parting shot. I told him if he ever gets up out of bed like that again, we’re through. I didn’t need to do that. I was sorry as soon as I said it. There’s something wrong with me. It’s not him. I decided to see you because this guy is the best yet. He works and doesn’t drink. He’s divorced, of course; they all are except the married ones. I’ve tried them, too. I’m fucking up my life and I don’t know why.”

What’s missing is obvious. She doesn’t trust him, and I guess she hasn’t trusted any of them. I’d better bring it up right now. There’s no sense beating around the bush. She seems comfortable with me. Something happened in her life. Maybe she can tell me; I’ll see.

“What does the word trust mean to you?”

“If you’re trying to tell me that I don’t trust guys, you’re right. I don’t, why should I?”

“Maybe because of what you said: He’s a pretty nice guy, but you’re afraid to get close to him. That’s the usual reason, and it’s probably right.”

“Look, he’s divorced, he has two kids, and he’s paying child support. Is he going to start in again with a nut like me? What’s in it for him? Anyway, why should I trust him? Why should I trust any of them after what I went through?”

I’m not going to ask her. She’ll have to tell me. If I ask her, whatever it is, my asking will make it too important. She’s got to stop thinking about it, stop depending on it as a way to avoid getting close to men now. She’s thinking about whether to tell me. I won’t say anything. She went on after a long pause, but she kept looking at me as if to say, What’s wrong with you? Why don’t you ask me what happened?

“I didn’t have exactly a great upbringing. If I tell you all I went through as a kid, I’ll eat up the whole ten sessions in no time. I’ve read about lousy childhoods, how they screw you all up. Do you want to hear about mine? I guess you do; that’s where it all is, isn’t it? My childhood, what happened to me as a child. My mother says she’s sorry now but she didn’t seem sorry then.”

OK, it’s out now; I can ask her. She wants to tell me.

“Who was it? Your father, your stepfather, your mother’s boyfriend?”

“Not my father. He left when I was six. It was my mother’s boyfriends—three of them. It started when I was nine; it didn’t end until I left home. I was seventeen. I left home, my mother gave me a little money, I guess she felt guilty. She pretended not to know, but she knew what was going on. I guess she was afraid she’d lose her boyfriends. If you think I’m a wreck, you ought to meet my mother. She knew where I was when I left; we’ve always kept in touch. For a while I lived with a girlfriend; it was tough, but I was out of there. I got this job in a market. I’m smart. As soon as I was eighteen, I moved up to checker. I’m good at it. It’s the one good thing in my life. It’s how I meet guys. The market’s in a good neighborhood; I meet guys that have some things going for them. The guy I have now works in a sound studio; he makes out OK.”

She’s pretty up front. She has every right not to trust men, but her genes have no memory; they don’t know she was molested. They want love and sex, and they want it now. She has sex. She says she enjoys it, and that’s good. But if choice theory is correct, I have to go forward. If I go back through all the abuse, what good will it do? She has a life and she is on some kind of terms with her mother, and that’s good. Maybe her mother should have protected her, but she didn’t. The men shouldn’t have done what they did, but they did it. I can see she expects me to go back through the past. To blame her trouble with men on what happened. But if I do, where is she? Can she do anything to undo what happened? Will it do any good to blame her mother? She sees her mother as helpless, and maybe that’s the best way to see her. I’m not going to go in that direction. It’s enough that she lived through what happened to her once. She doesn’t need to go back through it again. It’s obvious she has some strengths. I’ve got to help her build on them.

“OK, I get the picture. I’ve counseled women who’ve been abused, some not as bad, some worse. Tell me, what’s good about working in the market? You say you have friends at work?”

“What’s good is I get good pay and benefits like seeing you. I like the people I work with and I like the shifts, it’s open twenty-four hours. You meet different people on different shifts. I met Tom at four in the morning. There was no one waiting, so I had time to talk. My boss is pretty good. He knows I’m a talker and thinks it’s good for business. When it’s busy, I’m fast as lightning and I can still talk. I enjoy meeting and getting to know some of the customers. I’m lucky to have this job.”

“When you came in, you said you were miserable, but sitting here talking to you, you don’t seem so miserable.”

“I’m not miserable here with you. It’s hard to be miserable when you’re talking about yourself. But I was miserable the other night when Tom got up out of bed to leave. I like this guy and I’m going to drive him away. That’s why I’m miserable. Last night I held it all in. I didn’t say anything when he called me from the studio and told me he was going to be three hours late and then it was four. He didn’t get there till almost midnight, but I didn’t say anything. He loved it; I could see the scared look on his face when he came in. But I felt like I was all bottled up. It felt like it did when I was young, with those men, all bottled up. We ate and then made love, but it didn’t work that good for me. It’s like, if I had really let him have it, the sex would have been better. I kept thinking, Here I am being all sweet, and it wasn’t as good as when I’m a bitch. You can see why I’m here, can’t you?”

I’ll take a chance and give her the answer she’s looking for but give it in a way that shows I don’t think she’s been ruined for life. She is a talker, and that’s good; she’s easy to know and she opened up quickly. She wants happiness; relationships are important to her. She seems comfortable with me, and I feel comfortable with her. I can feel that what I think about what happened is very important to her. I’ve got to come across to her as someone who doesn’t think that what she went through has damaged her permanently.

“You’re here because of your childhood. You had bad experiences with men, and your mother didn’t protect you. You think that’s what I’m looking for—that that’s the reason you don’t trust men. Well, I agree; I think that’s the reason. But it’s not the cause. The abuse is over. If you read the pop magazines, you get the message that you’re supposed to be messed up for good if you’ve been sexually abused unless a therapist can fix you. Right now, that’s what everyone believes. Do you think you’re messed up for good?”

“Well, it must have done something, I’ve been messed up with men ever since. I came here to get unmessed.”

“Suppose I told you that I can’t do anything about what happened.”

“Then maybe I’d better see someone else.”

“You want to go back through all that happened, all that helpless bottled-up feeling again? Wasn’t one trip through it enough?”

“I’m just supposed to forget about it, as if it never happened?”

“I’m not saying that. You know it happened. Remember it as long as you like. I’m asking you to forget what you’ve read that you have to do about it. It was terrible, but it’s over. Do you think it’s going to happen again? If you think it’s going to happen again, then I would advise you to keep thinking about it, to be on your guard.”

“It’s not going to happen again. But it did happen and it’s got me all messed up.”

“How? Tell me how it’s gotten you all messed up.”

“With this guy, the way I act.”

“The way you choose to act. Why do you think you choose to act this way?”

“Because of what happened to me. I keep telling you that. Didn’t you listen to what I said?”

“What happened to you isn’t messing you up with Tom. It’s your choosing to keep thinking about it that’s messing you up.”

“But I can’t help thinking about it?”

“I’m not sure of that. You think about it because you’re afraid to trust a man, to trust Tom. What good does that do? Is Tom like those other guys? What happened is not permanently stuck in your brain; you choose to think about it. What good will it do you to push Tom away?”

“But that’s it; it is stuck in my brain. I can’t help it. You’re supposed to get it out.”

Now she’s talking about it, but she’s not getting any help from me to keep thinking about it. She can see that it’s not as important to me as she thought it would be. That’s got her a little puzzled and a little angry. I’ve got to convince her that she can stop thinking about it only by doing something different with Tom. If she keeps doing the same thing with him that she’s done with the others, she’ll never get it out of her head. If I go back through all the abuse, all her feelings about the men and her mother, a lot may come up that she doesn’t want to deal with. It’s not at all what she thinks: get it out and then it goes away. It’s the opposite. The past doesn’t intrude on the present unless we choose to hold on to it. Later, when she reads some choice theory and I explain it to her, she’ll understand. But now I have to teach her to be careful but to take a chance and trust this guy. If she can, she’ll find out that her past has not damaged her. It is her thinking about it now and her choice not to trust men that is causing her difficulty and that I can help her to stop. I answer her last request about helping her get it out.

“I think I can if you’ll help me. When are you going to see Tom again?”

“Tomorrow night we’re going to see a movie. He picks them; I like the ones he picks.”

“After the movie, where do you go?”

“My apartment. That’s why I’m so broke, I have a nice apartment.”

“If you do what you usually choose to do, do you start picking on him at the movie or do you wait till you get home?”

More and more I’m introducing choose and choice. They are very empowering words that help us all to understand that no matter what happened in the past, we can still make a better choice today. The men who abused her are not waiting around to do it again. They are waiting only in her mind. The idea of choosing can help her choose to get them out.

“We’ll go to a late-afternoon show and then come to my place and make dinner together. He’s the chef, but I help. I start in after dinner a little; then I really get after him right before we make love. Like I said, the bitching gets me in the mood. He senses that’s what I’m doing and appreciates the lovemaking that goes along with it, but I don’t think he likes it. It’s a little bizarre, and I’ll lose him if I don’t stop. Nuts like me are fun for a while but not fun enough to get serious with.”

“You say the bitching gets you in the mood for sex. But do you like the bitching itself? If you could have good sex without it, how would that be?”

“I don’t know. Good sex is important. It’s not that easy to have good sex, at least for me it isn’t.”

“I asked you, do you like the bitching? I know it makes the sex better.”

“Of course, I don’t like it. I’m going to lose him if I keep it up.”

“When you held it in the other night, even though the sex wasn’t that good for you, was it OK for him?”

“I guess so. I don’t think he noticed that much. I made up my mind to put on a good act. I think a lot of woman are good actresses. When there’re no customers at night, I read Cosmopolitan. I know all the things to do, and they work.”

“Do you want him to change?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean to like it when you pick on him. To be able to tell you that if it makes the sex good for you, it’s OK with him. Is good sex all you want from this guy?”

That question got to the heart of her dilemma. Sex she could handle. That was easy, but she wanted more. She wanted to trust him enough so she could love him without all the testing and game playing. Love was her problem, and I was getting close. I didn’t say anything, I just waited.

“Maybe, I don’t know.”

“Why maybe, why don’t you know?”

“Because that’s sick; there’s something wrong with that. He shouldn’t have to put up with that from me. He’s never treated me badly.”

“Why shouldn’t he have to put up with it? Men have treated you like shit. He’s just a man. What do you care what he has to put up with if it’s better for you?”

“Because he’s not just any man. He hasn’t treated me like shit. He treats me better than I treat him.”

“OK, I’m a therapist. I’ll listen to anything you want to say. Do you still want to tell me about the men who abused you? About your mother who should have protected you? About how you dealt with that situation? If you do, I’ll listen.”

Now she had to think. She had just admitted that this present guy was a good guy. I could see this was quite an admission. Now I was giving her a chance to tell me all about the bad guys, about her mother. What they had done that she could never change. Maybe what she had done that she could never change.

“But don’t you have to know what happened?”

“I know what happened. You know what happened. If it will help you, I’ll listen. But don’t tell me because you think I need to know. You’ve told me enough; I don’t have to hear any more.”

There was a long pause. What I said was sinking in.

“Can I see you again?”

“You’ve got nine more visits.”

“You don’t think I’m all fucked up.”

“It’s over. If you keep thinking about it, you’re fucking yourself up. You’ve met a nice guy. Be careful, but give him a chance. You’ve had your head screwed on backward for fifteen years. It’s enough.”

“Some very bad things happened.”

“I’m sure they did. But is anything very bad happening now that you haven’t told me? I mean now with this guy. Have you been holding anything back?”


“What if he drops you? He might, you know.”

“It’s not going to happen right away. It’s later I’m worried about.”

“Do you feel better?”

“I feel a little strange. I think it’s better.”

“I’ll see you next week. This time OK? You can call me anytime.”

Terri feels strange because she’s getting rid of the way she’s been thinking since she was nine years old to deal with the abuse and its aftermath. All this time, she’s been convinced that her inability to get along with men is the result of what her abusers did to her. In this first session, I’ve helped her to become aware that the actual abuse is over. What is keeping it alive is how she is choosing to deal with those memories. It’s this new awareness that feels so strange. She’ll have some relapses, but if she can keep thinking in this direction, she can begin to gain effective control over a part of her life where she’s never had it. She can choose to stop treating all men as if they are potentially abusive. This guy may drop her, but he is unlikely to abuse her. She may have to find someone else, but the next man may get better treatment from the start, and that will help. She has a lot to offer. If she’s cautious but learns to trust again, some good guy, maybe Tom, will stick with her.

In future sessions, we’ll talk about choice theory and we’ll talk about how to use the book. A lot of the next nine sessions will be devoted to how much, even with her childhood, she has already done for herself and how she may go further. Maybe she’ll move up into management; she’s really into the supermarket business. I’ll help her to figure out how to get along better with her mother, whom she has never removed from her quality world and whom she now pities more than blames. Mothers are the first to come and the last to go from our quality worlds.

Suppose she had come to me with the same problem but no recollection of ever being abused. Would I try to dredge up a memory that I suspected she had repressed? I would not for the following reasons. First, I don’t believe that we can repress the memories of abuse, neglect, or rejection if it occurred after age three or four, and hers started at nine, especially if she is in a counseling situation where she feels safe. The need to survive would keep those threatening memories accessible. If it had started when she was two and ended at three, it might have been forgotten. Even if I suspected that this is what happened, I would not search for that memory. I would focus on what was going on now because that, not the abuse, is the problem she has to solve. It would be better if the man she is with now is worth loving. But part of what I’ll try to teach her is how to recognize the difference between a good man and a creep.

With a client who was having a sexual difficulty but reported no previous abuse, her lack of trust would lead me to look for an abusive man in her life right now or recently. Again, I would focus on what was unsatisfying about her present relationship or relationships and not try to dredge up the past. If her present relationship was abusive, it would come out. If she had been abused in the past but would not admit it to me, it would be up to her to bring it up. If she did, I’d treat her like I treated Terri. If she didn’t, I’d treat her like I treated Terri minus the abuse. Therapy should always move forward, never backward. Because Freud did it that way doesn’t mean we have to keep doing it. I would still ask the question about trust because no matter what did or didn’t happen, that is where she is now.

Regardless of what has happened to us, choice theory does not focus on the past as the cause of our present difficulties. Many clients want to stay in the past. They are afraid to deal with the present problem and are happy to escape into the past to find someone to blame for their present unhappiness. It is the job of the therapist to ferret out this present problem, not to go into the safe past. I say safe because clients use the past to avoid facing what is really happening in their lives now. Many female clients are unwilling to face the fact that a present male friend or husband is treating them badly and look to the past, his or their own, to avoid dealing with an unpleasant present that they would have to do something about now.

The present problem is much more accessible than trying to recover memories of things that may never have happened. When a person goes to a traditional therapist who is trained to focus on the past and keeps probing for what may have happened that is causing the present problem, the client is often more than willing to help the therapist do so. To blame is much easier than to choose to change. Too many adult clients have been so convinced that they can’t deal with their present misery until they can recover a forgotten memory of childhood abuse. Unfortunately, what they do “recover” is a false memory of abuse that never happened. This memory has been created by the client’s creative system to try to please the therapist and/or to avoid dealing with the present. Neither the client nor anyone else has any way to know that it is not a true memory. To the client, it seems as if it happened. That is how our creative systems work. In my dream, I was really an astronaut.

The false memory may be even more real to the client than if the event had actually happened because it is fresh from the client’s creative system and tailored to what he or she wants now. This is why so many clients believe it happened and are so distressed when the memory is proved false. There is no difference between this kind of a memory and a delusion. It was created in an effort to satisfy a need or needs and seems as real to the client as if it had actually happened.

These delusional memories are a common phenomenon in court, when witnesses create perceptions to fit particular cases rather than recall what they actually saw. The witnesses may be trying to satisfy their need to belong or their need for power. We should never rely on any memory that cannot be verified because there is no way to find out if it is real or created. Memories that are elicited under hypnosis or drugs can be equally faulty. There is nothing in hypnosis or drugs that makes a memory more truthful than what is remembered or forgotten without the use of these procedures. At times drugs and hypnosis can actually encourage the person to remember what didn’t happen. Just because these exotic procedures are used becomes a powerful suggestion that something must have happened. When the client gives in to that suggestion, it is a short step for his or her creative system to take over and provide what he or she believes must be there. There is also no truth serum; that is another external control fantasy.

Reality therapists are not detectives. We do not set ourselves up to separate the truth from what is false. We know that there are enough real problems in the present, and we look for them. We know that these problems can be dealt with without knowing any more about the past except when the client was in effective control. These strengthening memories, which are usually true or can easily be checked, make therapy more effective. There is no reason to believe that we can’t help clients because we don’t know much about them besides what they are choosing to do now. This is why the use of reality therapy can substantially shorten the time needed for therapy to be effective. I did not think that Terri’s ten-session limit was a block to good treatment. If she needed more, I would have worked out a way for her to pay.

Reading this book can be a good way for many people to handle family relationships that are unsatisfying. If each party in the unhappy relationship can learn choice theory, stop blaming the others in the relationship, get into the solving circle, and subordinate his or her own demands to the needs of the relationship, they all could get along much better than they do now.

*Many years ago I created a drug abuse prevention program, called the Choice Program, that is suitable for children aged ten to fifteen. It includes a videotape of a cartoon that the children watch and a workbook that they fill out afterward. There is also a parent component in which the child teaches the parent the choice theory he or she is learning. In those days I called the theory control theory, a name I later abandoned because it was misleading. But the material is accurate; all you have to do is explain the name change to the child. This is good material for a school, church, or youth organization. It was used with over 100,000 students and worked very well. I am selling this material at my cost. You get a videotape, two booklets, and a teacher’s guide. You can copy all I send you and use it over or share it with anyone you want.

Carleen, my wife, has a booklet, My Quality World Workbook, to teach choice theory to children who read at the third-grade level. She also has The Quality World Activity Set for teachers and others who work with children who read at the fifth-grade level. All this material and all my books and other materials are available through the William Glasser Institute. See the appendix for information about the institute.