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  • Becky Diaz LMFT

Therapist Thoughts: On Swan Song, and finding a way back


I found myself reacting to this movie, over and over and over. That's the reason I am choosing to write about it. I can't say whether it was the acting, the cinematography, or the story itself. The story is what resonates with me right now, so I'll set my focus there. Throughout the film we move between past and present, memories, present experience, and the actors did a phenomenal job of getting me to ask myself the tough question, what would I be willing to do, and to lose to spare my loved ones from grief and loss? While we are wrestling with that question throughout, we also find ourselves falling for this family. Often I will ask clients, how did you meet, and the smiles that come across their face always awaken the hopeful part of me.

With the couple, Cameron, and Poppy we were taken on the journey of their couple story, from their "meet-cute" on the train to their relationship with Poppy's twin Andres, their son Cory, a new baby on the way, and a secret cancer diagnosis that leads to the impossible choice. We don't always get multifaceted couples in movies. In my opinion media does a disservice to couples by showing perfect couples, disaster couples, and in general couples that don't fit what shows up in my life, or in my therapy room. Couples with complexity, some grit, wanting to be heard and maybe not seeing the other as much as would be helpful.

John and Julie Gottman teach us that it's not about the couples with hot button issues, or the ones that fight the most, the ones who have lots in common or not. It's about whether or not they can come back to one another and repair. In this film we see a couple who has drifted. Understandably so. Life has rocked them with loss and a devastating illness. This is in addition to raising their child and making lives for themselves.

One of the things couples therapists often ask each other, is how do we teach repair? How do we help couples to come together instead of turning away, especially when at some point most of us have learned the lesson of turning inward when facing problems rather than reaching out for help. For this reason, my heart was so touched when Cameron was watching Poppy and Jack, and Poppy spontaneously had what Sue Johnson might call "a bonding moment". It was also a reaching out in a way that so many couples find terribly scary. She shared her feelings, took accountability for her distance, even though she could have justified it. She could have said too bad, I lost my twin."She could have blamed it on his work schedule, his distance, and excuse after excuse. It reminds me of something that Terry Real so eloquently shares with clients. "You can be right or you can be married, what’s more important to you?” While it may sound harsh to some, it resonates because there is much truth within that statement. Ed Tronick also adds to this with his statistics on discord. Parents and children are out of sync about 70% of the time. And this is ok, necessary, and right for building competence and a sense of agency. To really put a nail in this John and Julie Gottman also have found that 69% of the differences among couples cannot be resolved. So, despite the belief in our society that our partners need to be our perfect, responsive other half, the reality is we don't always get it right. We aren't always available and attuned partners. This is what I liked so much about the movie. They weren't perfect. They were fun, sweet, and they certainly enjoyed each other at different points in time. But they still lost their way. As we all do, as is normal, as we all suffer.

What would happen though if instead of turning away in self-righteous indignation, in blaming, or withdrawing, what if we turned towards, with open heartedness? What holds us back? What keeps us from accessing the other and reconnecting?

I'm a couples therapist so I know the answer to this, fortunately or unfortunately. What stops us is fear. Fear that we are being too vulnerable, too much, fear that they won't meet us halfway or use it against us, and maybe a belief that it's better to be alone inside than to experience the unknown that comes with the outreach. Maybe that's why the movie reached me in such a profound way. Seeing a couple do it on their own, with their own weaknesses and resiliencies, served to inspire me and support the part of me that tries to carry the hope for clients until they're ready to take that on themselves. Dick Schwartz often says that we as therapists are the hope merchants in therapy. I find that to be very true. This movie helped to show why we remain hopeful. The humanity in our clients, their suffering, and successes help us to stay hopeful. So maybe the story is the acting after all, I hope both Mahershala Ali, and Naomie Harris get many more leading roles. The way they made the story come alive for me is very appreciated. I hope others watch it and see a couple find their way back, just like I did.

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