The Throwaway Line

I did not realize anger was in the room until they were walking out the door. A step ahead of her, looking away and with an edge to his voice, he said: It’s time for you to just get out.

Was I meant to overhear these words? I wasn’t sure, but they surprised me. Only moments before, as their first mediation session ended, they had reached an agreement to postpone the decision about which parent would remain living with the children in the marital residence. In my presence, they concurred that for the time being they would both remain under the same roof.

For fifteen years these marriage partners had struggled to draw closer. Now, the husband’s unrelenting bout with depression tipped the balance and appeared to be the catalyst for their mutual decision to end the relationship.

During the first hour we all met together, and they were amiable and calm, nodding and smiling in affirmation as each spoke. This negotiation would go smoothly, or so I thought.

Then I met alone with each of them during our second hour. With chagrin, the husband revealed that over the past year his wife had literally turned her back on him, even cringing at his touch. He knew it was time to move on. I asked about counseling, but although he’d sought treatment for depression, now they both rejected that path. He was sure that with autonomy would come the return of his emotional equilibrium.

The wife’s immediate concern, spoken in confidence, was her husband’s outbursts aimed at their troubled adolescent son. She feared that when she was no longer present to step between them, their belligerent exchanges would escalate.

The comment he made as they left my office, almost as an aside, confused me. On its face it made no sense, a perplexing contradiction of how they had presented earlier. The situation was not as it seemed, both of them on their good behavior, but in turmoil just below the surface.

I’m no stranger to an apparently casual but cryptic message that actually carries import. My husband’s oft spoken throwaway line was usually addressed to my back as I worked in the kitchen or sat at my desk: I’m going for a walk.

Was that an announcement or an invitation? Unable to read his mind, I would nod, silent but hurt, feeling excluded. Over time and after some difficult conversations, I learned to ask: On your own or do you want company?

He usually did. But not always. When he returned from a solitary time away, he was often ready, even eager, to talk things over. His earlier statement, as he turned to leave, was more than a casual aside. Obliquely it let me know that either companionship was being sought or that he needed to mull over an as yet unspoken concern. An important though unclear message when, for whatever reason, more direct communication was difficult. For the two of us, ever seeking a balance between connection and autonomy, this somehow worked.

My clients are not seeking a way to come together but a way to part. When they returned a week later, I asked the husband to clear up the meaning of his hostile parting words. It opened the door to important stories and even provided an opportunity for each of them to empathize with the depth of the others’ disappointment.

Throwaway lines. Spoken into the air as someone is walking away, offhanded and ambiguous. Attention should be paid.