Conflict and Reality Therapy - The Theory

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

Conflict and Reality Therapy
The Theory

WHEN THERE ARE two opposing pictures in your quality world at the same time, you have a conflict. The more you move in the direction of one, the more you frustrate the other. There is no escape as long as you want both pictures. For example, I want to be thin, but I don’t want to diet or exercise. I have one ticket for the game of the year, and the girl I have been begging to go out with me for weeks tells me that’s the night she’s free. My office meeting is going overtime; if I leave now, the boss will be furious, but if I don’t, I won’t make it to my daughter’s school play in which she has the lead. It’s been a struggle, but I’ve been dry for a year; a good friend who has invited me for dinner shows me a fine bottle of wine and says, “This is a great wine; try a small glass, I just want you to taste it, that’s all.”

The list is endless, and the severity of the conflict is proportional to the strength of the conflicting pictures. When both pictures are strong, the conflict is very painful. The severest conflicts, which have been grist for plays and novels since the Greek tragedies, are between love and loyalty. Should Anna Karenina stay with Vronsky or return to her husband and son?

What makes conflict so severe is that there is no immediate solution. But there may be something you can do even though it does not solve the conflict. My great teacher, Dr. Harrington, said, “If it’s at all possible, when you don’t know what to do, do nothing in either direction.” At least, you won’t make things worse. In the end, time will move the conflict in one direction or the other, and the decision will become less painful. But there are many times you can’t wait; if you don’t decide, one of the pictures may be lost forever.

Another solution is good counseling. The counselor can’t tell you what to do, but he or she can frame the options. In doing so the counselor may be able to help you see that what seem to be equal choices are not in fact equal at all. And while you are talking to the counselor, time is passing. The talking helps you to stand pat for a while. But many times you decide what to do. You settle for one side and give the other up. Now you are miserable because the other side is still in your quality world. The suffering won’t end until you remove one or both sides from your quality world. The most common thing to do when you are in conflict is to depress strongly, and this may provide you with both the incentive to see a counselor and to stand pat. Seeing how down you are, the people around you may encourage you to seek help, giving you the support you need to go.

What the counselor may do, which I have done successfully in helping people in conflict, is to lead the conflicted person in the direction of a third option, one that is not in conflict and may lead to satisfying the same need or needs that were frustrated by the conflict. In this chapter, I show you how I used the reality therapy I introduced in chapter 4 with a forty-five-year-old woman who was suffering from her unsuccessful effort to resolve a severe conflict. I take you, word by word, through the first counseling session and, as I go along, explain what I did as I did it. By doing so, I give you direct access to the counseling process. By now you know enough choice theory to understand what I was trying to do.

Choice theory provides a framework for reality therapy, the counseling method I developed in the early 1960s. But it is only a framework; it does not tell me what to say. Each client is different, and I have to figure out how to tailor what I say so that it best serves the client. As I have already explained, through the use of choice theory, which explains how we function, I know a lot about any client I see. As with Todd, even before I saw the client discussed here, I knew that she had a severe relationship problem. I also knew that she was choosing to depress and that to help her, I would have to persuade her to make a better choice. As you will see, she needed to focus on getting something she wanted that was not in conflict. As long as she was in the conflict, nothing she chose to do would resolve it.

Most people who need help are similar to this client. They can’t afford months and months of counseling. Because so many people would benefit from counseling if they could afford it, it is important that the time for counseling be reduced. With the addition of choice theory to the reality therapy I have taught and practiced for years, a lot can be accomplished in ten sessions or less.

Most of what takes so much time in traditional psychotherapy is eliminated in the way I counsel. Specifically, what can be eliminated are the following:


1. There is no need to probe at length for the problem. It is always an unsatisfying present relationship. Usually, the problem is obvious, but even so, sometimes the client denies that it is the case. If I accept that denial, I may spend a lot of time probing for something else or someone in the client’s past. I should be able to handle that denial and get to the current relationship in the first session.

2. Since the problem is always in the present, there is no need to make a long intensive investigation into the client’s past. For example, if a client never learned to trust people because he was abused as a child, it would be impossible for him to have a satisfying present relationship. However, if too much time is spent on the past, he may be misdirected and believe that he cannot solve his present relationship problem unless he understands what went wrong in the past. A long examination of the past may even lead him to believe that so much happened there that he will never be able to be effective in the present. It is much more important for me to tell him the truth: The past is over; he cannot change what he or anyone else did. All he can do now is, with my help, build a more effective present.

3. In traditional counseling, a lot of time is spent both inquiring into and listening to clients complain about their symptoms, the actions of other people, the world they live in, and on and on—the list is endless. The more they are encouraged or allowed to do so, the more important the complaints become and the harder it is to get to the real problem, what the client is choosing to do now. Choice theory does not deny that clients have legitimate complaints, but it teaches that the only persons we can control are ourselves. We can’t control anyone else, including our counselors, with these complaints. Reality therapy emphasizes what clients can do to help themselves and to improve the present relationship that is the problem. Doing so not only saves a lot of time but focuses the counseling and makes it more effective.


But finding the present relationship, avoiding the past and excessive complaints about the present, and sticking to what clients can do not only shortens therapy, it also helps clients understand that they are free to lead more effective lives. They are not free to have all the freedom they may want in a present relationship, but free to forget the past and stop blaming others, which is taking up a lot of time that would be much better spent making more helpful choices now in their lives. To do so, I begin to teach the clients choice theory, which they can then use to make better choices and learn to handle many problems that might have lengthened the therapy. It’s kind of a therapeutic stitch in time that saves nine.

To set the stage, imagine that in 1965 I had an office in a suburb of Des Moines, where a woman named Francesca* came for counseling. I began with a little speech to help her settle down. I could see she was nervousing, and I think what I said helped.

“I have your name and address, and that’s all I need to get started. On the phone, you told me you’ve never been to a counselor and you were a little nervous. The best way to deal with that is for you to start right in and tell me the story. Don’t worry that I’ll judge you. I won’t. Everyone who comes has a story. Please tell me yours.”

Quite often (especially in the fifties and sixties), people feel ashamed about coming to a counselor, as if they should be able to take care of this themselves without help. They worry about being judged inadequate, so I tried to dispel that concern.

Francesca then started to tell her story:

“About six weeks ago, I died. You are looking at a dead woman. I thought about killing myself, but then I realized I didn’t need to, I’m already dead.”

For me this is a new opener. This woman is seriously depressing and is trying to impress me with how down she is. She succeeded; I am impressed. Usually, I try to inject a little humor when people start out so far down, but I don’t think I’ll try that now. She may take it the wrong way. But part of her choice to depress is a test. She’s trying to see how I deal with it. Will I get nervous and show upset or will I be strong enough to deal with her misery? Right from the start I have to communicate that I appreciate that she is suffering, but I’m quite adequate to help her deal with her pain.

“Francesca, you drove fifty miles for a good reason. I’d like very much to hear your story.”

“I don’t know where to begin.”

“Begin anywhere, it doesn’t make any difference.”

“I’m married and I have two teenage children, a girl and a boy. We live on a farm in Madison County. Up to six weeks ago I was OK, not happy but OK. I’m Italian, I guess you can hear my accent. I married Richard while he was in Italy with the army just after the second World War. I came here as soon as he could make arrangements. He’s a good man, a very good father. We’ve lived on that farm all our married life. The farm does OK. We aren’t close, but we get along. But then, God it sounds so banal, about six weeks ago I met Robert. He was in the neighborhood and drove up to the house for directions. He was looking for a bridge. He said he was a photographer and had an assignment to take pictures of some of the old covered bridges around where we live. I was there alone, Richard and the kids had gone to Illinois for the fair. They’re 4H; they go to all the fairs with their animals. … Look at me, I’m a farmwife. I was in an old cotton house-dress. I’m forty-five years old, look at my hands, look at my face. I looked a sight.”

“I think you looked OK to Robert.”

Francesca burst into tears and sobbed uncontrollably. Of course, she looked OK to Robert. She was a good-looking woman. Even if she wasn’t dressed up, a photographer would see that in a minute. I could see that she had made an effort to look good for me. Whatever she may want to do with her life, her looks would be an advantage. I waited while she cried for a few minutes, and then I interrupted. She was suffering, but it would do no good for her to cry too long. Her tears would take up too much of her time. If crying would do any good, she wouldn’t be here. What I’ll do with her is what I usually do, try to go on with the counseling while she is crying. She came for help, and I owe it to her to get started. Once she starts talking, she’ll be OK.

“Tell me more of the story; you can cry while you talk, you came here for help.”

“I’m ashamed.”

“Tell me about it.”

“It’s a short story. I fell in love with him. We had four days, and then he left. And now I’m dead.”

“You sent him away?”

“I couldn’t go with him. I thought about it. I wanted to, but I couldn’t just up and leave my husband. My kids. How could I? I don’t see how anyone could do that.”

Now we see the oldest conflict in the world, the conflict between loyalty and love. She is being torn apart by it. There is nothing I can do immediately to help her resolve it. Only time will resolve it. But I can help her take a good look at it and maybe help her choose to do something need satisfying while she waits that has nothing to do with the conflict.

“It was hard, but you made a choice to stay. And you made a choice to come here. I’ll bet this wasn’t an easy choice either.”

In recognizing that she made a difficult choice to come here, I’m appreciating the fact that she is an independent person who is used to trying to solve her own problems, not to reaching out for help, but that her decision to come here may have been a good choice.

“You’re right. I hung up that phone after I dialed you a half a dozen times before I let it ring. Some woman at the church had mentioned you about a year ago. For some reason your name stuck in my mind. But now that I’m here, I keep thinking, what for? What can you do? What’s the sense of going through it all again? It happened, it’s over, he’s gone. I’m not here to ask you how to get him back.”

The reason my name stuck in her mind is that she was unhappy long before Robert came into her life. I won’t mention this to her now, but I’ll keep it in mind. And as she began to talk, she stopped crying. That’s good. She asked an important question, “What can you do?” I have to answer it.

“I’m here to try to help you deal with what brought you here. I have helped a lot of unhappy people and I should be able to help you. All you have to do is to talk with me, think about what we both say, and be honest. It may be difficult for you. If I get off base, tell me. This much I know. He’s been gone for six weeks. You haven’t been able to talk to anyone about what happened. You’re in pain. You need to talk. As long as you keep talking, listening, and thinking, I can help you.”

That was the truth. Robert is not in the past; he is very much in the present. If she talks, listens, and thinks, I will help her. I think it’s important to tell this to clients as soon as possible.

“But I feel so hopeless. I feel dead.”

“Think about this: Suppose I could wave my magic wand and whatever you had with Robert would never have occurred. You’d be the same woman in the same marriage on the same farm as you were before he came to your door. Would you like me to wave the wand and make it all disappear?”

As bad as she feels, I have to establish that there was some good in what happened. If she’s “dead,” at least she didn’t die in vain. If she can tell me that she doesn’t regret what happened and I don’t put her down or criticize her for what she did, she will see that I am on her side. The only use I have for what I hope will soon be in the past is if there is something good in it.

“No, no, I’d never give up those four days. They were the best four days of my life. Please, don’t even suggest taking them away.”

“I was hoping you’d say they were good. These things happen, but there is usually some good in them. If there weren’t, you wouldn’t be so upset. Sometimes the woman who’s left behind is so upset that she doesn’t think what happened had any good in it. And sometimes there isn’t, and she hates herself. I think the way you feel about what happened is better. You say you’re dead, but when you think about him, you seem alive.”

“If I didn’t think about him, I’d really die. I think about him all the time. I keep seeing him, feeling him. That’s why it hurts so much. That’s why talking about him hurts so much. That’s why I was so nervous about coming here. I knew I’d have to talk about him. But I also knew I desperately wanted to talk about him.”

Here, you can clearly see the thinking component of the total behavior of depressing. How could she have normal brain chemicals thinking and feeling as she does?

“Francesca, we weren’t created to suffer alone. Talking about him with me will help.”

She seems a little more relaxed after I say this. She’s found out she can talk to me about him and feel safe, that I don’t judge. Maybe I can lighten things up a little; it’s worth a try. The heavier the going gets, the harder it will be for me to help her. If it can get a little lighter, she will be able to think more clearly. If it stays real heavy, she’ll just be aware of her misery.

“It’s like something from a storybook, isn’t it? Like he turned you from a frog into a princess, and now you think you’re going to have to go back to being a frog.”

“But that’s it exactly. I hated being a frog. I was a frog for so long I’d even stopped thinking I could ever be a princess. Robert came in for a drink of water and talked to me. When he did that, suddenly I was a princess. There’s not much talk around our house. We’re all frogs. We go brrrp brrrp. In my house it’s brrrp the farm, brrrp the kids, brrrp the parents, the blue ribbons, the high school, the price of corn, the worn-out tractor. All day brrrp brrrp. Robert talked to me, he was interested in me, he made love to me over and over. I’ve never felt that kind of love; I didn’t know it existed. And he had a life; he traveled with his camera. I went with him to the bridges. He asked me my opinion as he took the pictures. I loved being something more than a pair of working hands. I can’t tell you how good it felt to be alive for four days. When he left, it hurt so much. I could go on and on, but what good would it do? He’s gone and I’m dead.”

I understand her pain. But if the session focuses mostly on pain, I may do her more harm than good. And she is talking. The brrrp brrrp showed a little spark of creativity, which is always encouraging. But I have to figure out a way to get her to where she can see some hope. I have to practice what I preach—try to show her she has some satisfying choices even in this painful situation. She can’t change what she or Robert did, but she can control what she chooses to do now. I have to try to find something she wants now, something that she has control over, something that depends only on her and that no one can take away. This is the way to live through a conflict. Don’t focus on the conflict. Focus on something possible that isn’t part of the conflict. That will give her time and maybe some hope. It’s about the only way a conflict can be successfully resolved. Things change, and in time most conflicts get diluted and forgotten. But right now I’ve got to get her to see that there’s more to life than the conflict.

“Francesca, think for a moment, why did you choose to come to see me? You knew I couldn’t undo what happened.”

There was a long pause, but I had introduced the word choose in a positive sense. I intimated that she made a good choice when she finally let my phone ring. Now my job is to steer the conversation around so she sees that something good actually happens in this hour. I don’t know what it can be, but I’ll keep thinking and something will come to me. Or maybe to her.

“I came to see you because I had to tell someone. You know that, you just said I had to talk. There is no one in Madison County who could even begin to understand why I would do such a thing. I’m not sure you understand how bottled up I was. That house was on fire for four days. Then my husband came home, and it was cold as ice again. I’ve tried to put up a front, but I haven’t been able to do it. I’ve been a zombie. He knows something’s wrong; the children sense it. I can’t go on like this. I didn’t come here looking for a miracle. I’m not asking you for a happy ending. The way I feel right now I’ll be satisfied if you’ll get me back to being a frog.”

“I agree you had to talk, but there is more to talk about than what happened with Robert. Suppose you had come a year ago, what would you have talked about then?”

“I didn’t come a year ago. Frogs don’t go to therapists.”

Frogs don’t go to therapists. Good. Another spark. I think we can get off the misery track.

“You’re wrong about that. A lot of frogs come to see me, but I can’t help them. I don’t think a counselor can do much for a frog. But what you just said, if you came to see me, it means you still want to be a princess. There’s a place in the world for princesses, even miserable princesses. I’ve helped more than a few of them.”

“There’s no place in the world for me. The world left with Robert; the world is gone.”

“The world is gone? I’m not so sure of that. If you go home and your daughter has been hit by a car and is in the hospital asking for you or your son is there telling you his girlfriend is pregnant, are you going to sigh and tell them the world is gone? Francesca, the world is very much here. What may be gone is your marriage. You had a visit from a messenger. Was that the message?”

“What are you telling me, that I should leave my husband?

“I’m telling you that we have to take a look at your marriage. You looked at it hard for four days with Robert; you took a good look at it as soon as he walked in the door. You came here to talk about your marriage and we had better get started.”

If I can persuade her to take a look at her marriage, I think we can make progress. She can’t do anything about Robert, but she can do something about her marriage. If she is to stay married to Richard, that marriage has to change. She knows it. Change doesn’t have to be the end of the marriage. That will be up to her and up to him, too, if she can send him the message that the marriage, as it is, isn’t working.

“The children need their father.”

Good. She’s accepted my invitation to talk about her relationship with her husband. That’s something over which she has some control. There is little sense wasting time talking about things over which she has no control. I’ve got to deal with her as if I may never see her again. Time is precious; we’ve got to make some progress.

“All kids need their mothers and their fathers. But they don’t need them together if they are miserable with each other. You thought about that. It crossed your mind that they may all be better off if you dropped out of their lives, if you went off with Robert.”

“I did, but I knew it was a fantasy. I told you I could never go off with him. I couldn’t leave my husband, my kids; I couldn’t. I told you.”

“I didn’t say you could. All I’m saying is you thought about it. Your mind opened for a moment to that possibility. But Robert’s gone. Have all the possibilities in your life gone with him? You’ve had six weeks and you know how you feel. Do you really believe you can just go back to the way you were?”

“What else can I do? What reason do I have to leave? It wasn’t his fault that Robert came in the door.”

“Let’s not talk about the reason to leave. Let’s talk about the reason to stay. What do you have with Richard?”

“I have a family. I have my children.”

“And right now, the way you are, what do they have with you?”

“Not very much, a zombie, a dead woman.”

“Excuse me, for a moment I forgot you were dead. I was beginning to hope you were thinking about looking for a new life. Francesca, this is what I do. When people come here and tell me that their old life isn’t working, I help them to figure out a new one. If your old life was working, you wouldn’t have gone to bed with Robert. He wasn’t some traveling seducer. He did what he did because he could see your life wasn’t working. You had it written all over your face. He couldn’t miss it when he walked in the door. But it wasn’t only Robert you fell in love with; it was also the idea of a new life. Robert is gone. Are you prepared to give up the idea of a new life, too?”

“You’re being cruel.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Dangling a new life in front of me. The way I feel right now I’m better prepared to be dead than to even think about a new life. You’re talking as if I can just shuck all this pain like you shuck an ear of corn. I can barely get through the day; I can’t even think of what to make for dinner. A new life is as remote to me right now as the far side of the moon.”

You can see the power of depressing. It’s so immobilizing. What she is struggling with as I talk about a new life is the third reason to depress. It’s easier to continue to depress than even to think of a different life, much less a new life. She’s preparing herself to spend the rest of her life depressing, and if I don’t help her, she may. Part of the reason she came here is to reassure herself that counseling can’t help her. I’m now saying it can, and she calls it cruel. That’s the way depressing works; the misery destroys hope. To say nothing, when I know she may choose to depress for the rest of her life, would be more cruel. If I can do something about it, I’m going to. By calling me cruel, she’s trying to scare me off, but I don’t scare off easily. She’s finding out how persistent I am, and I think she likes it.

“If you’re dead, you don’t have to get through the day. Dead is the perfect excuse for doing nothing. Robert brought you back to life. If he was here, he’d tell you, I’m gone, Francesca, but please stay alive. I know he would.”

“But look what happened, look at me. I looked in the mirror this morning and I saw my dead face. If this is what being alive for a few days ends up doing, I don’t want any more of it. I know what you’re getting at. It’s not so bad; take another chance. What else can you say? I don’t blame you, you have to say something. You offer a new life, but to me it’s just words. Go ahead, tell me what you mean. What would a new life for me be like?

I’ve taken her to the point where she’s asked the real question. She’s beginning to doubt the depressing she’s choosing. She wants specifics, something tangible. She’s calling my hand. Is it all talk or can I offer her something? And she wants to be offered something. She’s interested, she’s depressing much less right now.

“OK, I can tell you this. It would be a life in which you were in control of some of it. For you, that would be a new life. When you married Richard and came here from Italy, you gave up what little control you had. He’s been in control. From his standpoint, he’s done all the right things, but have they been right for you? He just took it for granted that you wanted what he wanted, and it’s not really his fault. When did you ever tell him anything different? You made the same mistake with Robert: He came here, he loved you and you loved him, and he left. I doubt if anyone had ever loved him like you did. But he was in control. He knew as soon as you went to bed with him that you were giving him your heart, and he took it. And he left with it. After you made love, did he ever say, ’My God, Francesca, you really love me; tell me what do you want. I don’t know if I can give you what you want, but please tell me; maybe I can do something.’”

“No one has ever asked me what I want. No one, ever. My God, why are you telling me this? I feel awful. How can you do this to me. How?”

She burst into tears again. She cried much harder than before. I didn’t say anything. But I was ready to tell her something as soon as she stopped. After about five minutes, she slowed down and then stopped.

“Now you’re making sense. You’re crying for something you can do something about. You can’t do anything about Robert or Richard—what they did or what you did with them. But you can do something about your life right now.”

“What can I do? What do you mean? I don’t understand.”

“I mean like coming here to see me. You did it; you didn’t ask anyone else, you didn’t depend on anyone else. And you haven’t hurt anyone else. No one in the whole world is going to get hurt because of what we talk about. This is all for you.”

“But what if I decide I want a divorce? Won’t Richard get hurt?”

Now we are at a critical point. Right now, a million men and women are at this same point—if I leave, won’t I hurt my husband or my wife? Of course, Francesca’s husband will be hurt. But there is another question that must be answered: Doesn’t Francesca also have some responsibility about how she feels and what she does in this situation? Is Richard all right and Francesca all wrong? The answer is that neither is all right and neither is all wrong. That will always be the answer to that question until we evolve into a race of perfect people. Francesca’s problem is not whether she will hurt Richard or Richard has hurt her. The answer to that question, if it is to be answered, is what Francesca can do now that may help her and may also have the potential of helping the marriage. She chose to stay behind; she was too loyal to leave. But does loyalty also mean accepting a life she can no longer live—the life that led her to Robert? She changed her life when she fell in love with Robert. Now, if she chooses to, she can figure out how to have a better life with Richard. It can’t be the same as it was. And in figuring out how to have a better life with Richard, she has to have some help from him. Not just his help for a better life for her, but his help for a better marriage, which would mean a better life for him, too. This is the direction in which I want to try to take the counseling—the direction that all marital counseling should take. I may not succeed, but it is clear that without some good counseling, she may never get any further than depressing by herself.

“We’re not talking about doing anything right now that will hurt anyone. We’re trying to figure out how you can help yourself. If you can do that, maybe you can help Richard, too.”

“What do you mean help myself? You’re talking about me leaving the farm. I do a lot on that farm. He’d lose all I do for him. He’d be devastated.”

“He’d lose what he gets from you. He’d lose the work you’ve given him for over twenty years. And you’re right, he’d be upset. But I’m not talking about the work, I’m talking about him losing you. If you are as miserable as you are now and don’t say anything, that’s not being fair to you or fair to him. Tell him the truth. Tell him you are unhappy. Not unhappy with him, that would be cruel. Unhappy with the life you lead on that farm. Would you be willing to tell him that?”

“He wouldn’t understand. He’d say, ’What are you talking about? You’ve never complained before. I don’t understand.’”

“So tell him. He’s not here, so tell me. What would you say to him about your life on that farm? It’s safe; you can say anything you want to me.”

“I’d tell him I can’t stand the loneliness, the drudgery, the same thing day after day. The constant worry about the weather, the bugs, the bank. I want to talk to people who don’t farm and who don’t care about farming. I want soft hands again and pretty clothes once in a while. I don’t want to watch every goddamned cent I spend. Look at this pink dress. I bought it for Robert, but I bought it for myself, too.”

Francesca sat forward in her chair and looked at me. She was tuned in; things were much different from when she walked in. She had just described a new life. I’ve got to say something that will get her to think about a little action and something that might get her mind off Robert.

“Do you want to go back to Italy?”

She must still have relatives in Italy. She must keep in contact with someone. That’s what family is for when you need someone, when you need comfort. That question can’t hurt her, and it hasn’t. It hit her hard, but she liked it. She’s taking a long time. She’s thinking, but this is good thinking; it’s forward thinking away from Robert.

“I’ve stopped thinking about that. I brought it up a few times, but he always says we can’t afford it. The farm seems to eat up everything. I’ve stopped asking.”

“But you haven’t stopped thinking about it, about taking your kids and going for a visit.”

Now I can see that something new has opened up. I’ll follow up on it, maybe use it as a way to get her off the farm. We both know she has to get off the farm.

“He’d still say we can’t afford it.”

“Tell him you’ll earn half the money and that the kids can do what you do; they are both big and strong.”

“But how would I earn the money?”

“I don’t know, get a job; there are plenty of jobs in Des Moines. It’s not that far. You’d probably enjoy the ride. Go to an employment agency, tell them you’re used to hard work. I think it’ll take you no time to get a job. Sales, maybe, but a job where you’ll meet people and wear pretty clothes. You’re here, go out today and look around. And don’t get stuck. If the job you are offered isn’t right, look for another one. Don’t settle for what you don’t want. I’d like you to see me again next week. Will you come?”

“I’ll come. I’d like to think about this. I feel better.”

“Next week at the same time is good for me. Call me during the week and tell me what’s going on. Call me a little after noon. I usually pick up the phone then. I don’t want you ever to think you can’t talk to me. Bug me a little; you need the practice. You won’t call too much; I’m not worried about that. “

I dealt with her conflict by diverting her to an area over which she had some control: Get out and start a new life. I’ll bet as many farmwives work off their farms as on them. Even if she has to pitch in and still do some work on the farm, she will have regained control of a big part of her life. Once she settles into a life separate from the conflict that brought her in, she will be able to put that experience into perspective and talk about it without tears. What came to my mind, but I didn’t mention it because she’s not ready for it, is that she could hook up with a travel agency and lead tours to Italy. Farmers travel plenty in the winter and, in that setting, she may even like being with them. She’d be the leader; she’d be in control. If she went for a visit and liked it, I might mention it then. I have no qualms about suggesting things to clients if they seem to make sense. They are always free to accept or reject my suggestions.

Let me review this session with Francesca. First, I stayed strictly with the present problem. I did not take her back through her unhappy life with Richard or the lost fantasy of a life with Robert. There was no point in going through her childhood, why she left Italy or her relationship with her mother and father. But there is a point in seeing her family now when she may need them. My counseling technique works in the present. I don’t believe it does any good to revisit the past in the hope of finding something there that corresponds to the present problem. I disagree with the usual psychiatric thinking that you can learn from past misery. When you focus on the past, all you are doing is revisiting the misery. One trip through the misery is more than enough for most people. The more you stay in the past, the more you avoid facing the present unhappy relationships that are always the problem. But if I do go into the past, I look for a time when she was in effective control of her life. We can learn from past successes, not from past misery.

Second, Richard is worth talking about; he’s still there. Robert is not worth talking about; he’s gone. If he resurfaces or if she decides to go after him, then he will be worth talking about. There is no sense talking about people who are not involved in her life and in what she chooses to do with it. It has not yet crossed her mind that Richard could be different from the way he’s been for years, so I’ve worked with her on the ways she can be different. Richard has surely noticed her choice to be a zombie and he may be concerned, or at least curious.

If she can follow through and tell him she’s tired of being stuck on that “sacred” farm, that may get his attention, especially if she seems happier. I can’t predict what Richard is going to do, but if he becomes supportive, she may be able to work things out with him. Especially if she can get some kind of a life off the farm. Old dogs can learn new tricks, but someone has to teach them, and if she’s happy, she is in a better position to do it than if she’s sad. I didn’t see any rush for divorce, but from what I did, you can see that I think there is some rush to get her new life started.

In the next session she told me she had been a schoolteacher and wondered if she should go back to teaching. We talked about it and why she quit. The problem with discussing teaching is that it’s a part of a past that she didn’t like so much. We decided that since she has a college education and good references from the school district, she could get a good job easily. If she wanted, she could always go back to teaching school.

Even before Robert, she was suffering from trying to force herself to accept the life she has with Richard. She can’t do it without depressing. I would never imply or promise that others like Richard in a client’s life will change without the client changing what she is doing. I tried to establish in the first session that the only person we can change is ourselves. And people can change. Most people who are able to come to a counselor’s office on their own are competent people. They are looking for happiness, not just pleasure. It is the counselor’s job to treat them as if they can do something more with their lives than what they have been doing.

Clients come to counseling believing they are helpless, and it is not the counselor’s job to perpetuate that belief. Their pain and misery are the ways they have learned to deal with their helplessness and to tell others about how upset they are. No one, not even counselors, should allow clients to control them with their choice to suffer. As much as this goes against our common sense, misery is their choice; our job is to teach them better choices. By the time Francesca left my office, she was thinking about a much better choice than to sit home depressing. All her strength was being consumed by the depressing. She doesn’t need drugs; she should not be taught that she is mentally ill and dependent on a counselor. She needs to learn what she can do to help herself and begin to do it. Ten sessions spread out over the next six months should get her well on her way. We’ll decide how often she should see me, and we’ll spread the sessions out so I can help her deal with problems that may arise at work or with men she may meet.

After a few more sessions, I will start to teach her some choice theory—that no one can make her miserable; only she can do that to herself. When she changes, Richard may start to depress to try to get her to stay on the farm again, and she can explain the choice theory that she has learned in therapy to him. She can treat him well but tell him that she is not responsible for his or for anyone else’s misery. She can ask him to see me or come in with him. There is a good chance that choice theory will make sense to him, and then they can both use it.

Since all people who come for counseling have at least one unsatisfying relationship, it is incumbent upon counselors to form good relationships with all clients, to let the clients know that they care for them and that if the clients are willing to talk, listen, and think about all that goes on, the counselors will be able to help them. All clients are lonely when they come in and have to have a friend and ally in their counselors. As the counseling proceeds, the counselors teach them, as I began to teach Francesca, that they are responsible for their own lives and that others may change, but they can’t depend on it.

It is also crucial to teach clients that life is not fair, that in the real world some people give more to relationships than do others. If counseling is successful, the client will have worked to improve old relationships or create better new ones. To be happy, we all need a few good, close relationships. Our genes demand that we work on them all our lives.

* As you may have guessed, I took the liberty of using the main female character, Francesca, from James Waller’s The Bridges of Madison County (Secaucus, N.J.: Warner Books, 1992).