Randy (not his real name) had a bad relationship history. Oh, he had plenty of relationships, but everything fell apart as soon as he and his lady friend lived together.
Randolph was almost — almost — the perfect boyfriend, up until the moment of cohabitation. He was tall, handsome, thoughtful, considerate, funny, and generous. Randy made a good living and made time for anyone he loved.
But living together was a wholly different and painful experience. He joked that his family had come from Slobovia, a fictitious country of his own invention, and that was why he was called a slob by some, at least regarding his spacious and expensive apartment.
Randy claimed that his family came from “Upper” Slobovia — the Slobovian nobility — and therefore became accustomed to lots of servants picking up after them. When the revolution of the “Lower” Slobovians finally came, the family fled the country in order to survive, but discovered that they had lost the ability to do the housework. Thus, he explained, he came by his messiness honestly. It was all a joke, of course, one that got stale pretty quickly.
Nor was it consistent with the fact that Randy kept his clothes clean and crisp, his shoes shined, and his personal hygiene tip-top. It was all the rest that went to hell, which his girlfriends always thought they could change about him. None succeeded and so he became relationship shy, at least to the extent of ever wanting to make a permanent residence with his romantic partners again.
He simply could put up with more clutter, more clothes on the floor, papers in piles, and the occasional cobweb in a dark corner than the more fastidious and beautiful women whom he dated.
Randy was about 35-years-old and looked a bit like Richard Gere at that age when I met him and his girlfriend Jill in relationship therapy. Jill reminded me more of Laura Linney in The Truman Show: blond and pretty, but not drop dead gorgeous. More of a healthy, attractive, girl-next-door type than a seductress.
When we started, Randy told me that he really loved Jill, or so he said, and it was clear that she was crazy about him. Jill (not her real name either) was not a cleanliness nut or obsessive compulsive, but she was neat, didn’t like piles of books and papers or CDs growing like some in-home land-fill.
This young, accomplished, and very pretty lady wanted her bathrooms hygienic and the mess swept away before their friends began to think that his apartment was actually a larger than normal room of a teenaged boy. Nor did she desire to be a slave to keeping up the house cleaning. Randy needed to do his part. She couldn’t just leave the dishes in the sink in the evening, which was Randy’s habit, home and away, when he spent his nights with Jill. Order was important to her and Randy was indifferent to it except regarding his work and his appearance.
The man realized that he was at risk of losing his girlfriend once again, which was a good start to treatment. He was still leery of moving in with the woman he loved, but said he’d give therapy a try. It wasn’t until I’d seen photos of “ground zero” taken by Jill that I understood why, despite his other fine qualities, Randy’s mini-Slobovia was a relationship-killer. The Slobovian told me that he would put everything he had into this process, because he knew Jill was something special.
We’ll see, I thought to myself. Talk, as we know, is cheap.
We made a behavioral contract that both of them signed involving various tasks and elimination of clutter. Certain activities that Randy enjoyed were contingent on his fulfilling the contract and he agreed to forgo them unless he kept his part of the bargain: things like watching movies with Jill, going to concerts, and the like were forbidden unless he did. The contract worked briefly, but after a few weeks it was clear that Randy was still Randy. He’d found other things to fill his time and so wasn’t sufficiently motivated by the deprivation of the fun stuff he had put aside.
Neither one wanted to give up sex, at least while there were other possible therapeutic interventions that might work, so my suggestion about making sex contingent on the cleanliness and order of his apartment was dropped for the moment.
I’d noticed the apparent contradiction between Randy’s grooming and his messiness around the house. Indeed, he was even more fastidious about his appearance than I first realized. He got, and could afford, a weekly straight-razor shave at a high-end, specialty barber shop, where his hair was also trimmed regularly. He always wore patent leather shoes except when lying about the house or playing sports, the kind that dazzle the eye with their shine and that most of the rest of us only sport at our daughter’s wedding to complement a rented tuxedo. His finger nails were even manicured with some frequency and he had a monthly deep-muscle massage.
As you might have gathered by now, Randy lived the life he wanted to live, a life most of us can’t afford, and had a more than healthy dose of self-love, something all of us need in a smaller amount. If Randy’s narcissism could be measured by the cup of a typical morning coffee, he’d have three cups to everyone else’s one or two.
My plan then was to get Randy to agree not to go to the barber, not to get the weekly straight-razor shave, not to wear his patent leather shoes, and to forgo manicures and massages until he did the weekly chores that would make his apartment look less Slobovian. I think this would have worked, but while we were still negotiating the details (with expected reluctance from Randy) something external intervened.
Between one of our weekly couple sessions Randy discovered that he was not as much the king of his castle as he thought. An infestation of termites had been discovered on the window sill of the hallway. Once this was verified by the landlord, Randy was told he would have to vacate the premises for three days while the exterminators did their job. Randy would be compensated for his required hotel stay, but before he needed to vacate, the property manager decided that since all the occupants would be out of the building, it was a perfect opportunity to do some remodeling which was expected to be finished in “not too long” a time.
Well, if you’ve ever had remodeling done, you know that “not too long” should be translated as “way too long” or “much longer than we promised.” Randolph also had concerns about what kind of poison might be used to kill the termites, and whether it would really be a wonderful idea to return to his place after just three days and risk contaminating himself. Moreover, he usually worked from home, and thought the renovation during the day time would make his work impossible. He talked about this with Jill, who graciously, but with a little trepidation, invited him to stay at her small apartment for as long as it took.
It took six or seven weeks, a period that tested both the lovers. Could Randy respect Jill’s desire for neatness and order? Would the two of them get into fights over it? Or perhaps they would find that her place was simply too confining and that he was cramped by a space much tinier than his own?
Something pretty remarkable happened. Randy saw, close up and every day, that Jill was doing everything she could to accommodate him and make his unexpectedly long stay pleasant for both of them. He knew that Jill was a teacher, but had never seen her do the tutoring she always did on Thursday night. The man observed the woman’s way with her struggling students, her patience, the manner in which she made work into play; but with a steady hand that ensured the work would be understood and completed, fun or not.
Randy tried hard to change his ways and realized that he had been too self-involved all along with the women he had known. The phrase he had used in his younger days — that “A woman is like a bus. If you miss this one, there will be another one along in ten minutes” — certainly didn’t apply to Jill. He was used to the attention of attractive women and the (for him) never-ending line of them waiting for the chance to know him. He realized, too, that he didn’t want to know any other women ever again; that Jill was his one and only.
One day, at our weekly therapy session with the couple, he said, “I know that I will age and Jill will age and that there will probably be other younger women available to me. Some might be richer or poorer in some ways, but I won’t ever meet someone who has as good a heart as Jill — who loves me as much as Jill, who makes me a better person, and whom I love as much as I have come to love her.”
Randy returned to his apartment and to the lease he had signed months before and lived out the time there until his obligated stay was fulfilled. But he was neater now and he didn’t require much encouragement on that count. He wanted to do it because he saw himself more clearly, saw his selfishness more clearly, and wanted to please the woman he now knew was the love of his life. They then searched for a place together and were expecting to move in when therapy ended.
Still, as a therapist you never know. All the old axioms apply: “The proof of the pudding is in the eating” or “Time will tell” seemed to fit this circumstance the best. I was, as I usually was in my therapeutic career, pretty sure, but not certain that things would work out for Randy and Jill. As it happened, they sent me a note about a year later, thanking me and saying that their life together was better than ever. And, in another few years I received a referral via their recommendation of my services to a friend. She was told by them to report to me that they were still doing very well. Randy had permanently surrendered his Slobovian citizenship and now there was a little one in the home.
Therapists only succeed when their patients want to change more than the therapist wants them to change. As the old joke goes, “How many psychologists does it take to change a lightbulb?” The answer is “One, but the lightbulb has to want to be changed.”
Counselors, in other words, can’t do everything, but we can do some things. Still, I never had a case quite like this one. Narcissists rarely have the kind of epiphany that Randy had. And there is more that made this special, because it was not even Randy or Jill or I who had to play our parts, but termites that made it all possible.
The top photo is not of the couple described in the essay. It is called After the Kiss: James Cospito and LiAnne Cospito at the Brookly Art Project Meetup, October 1, 2009. The picture was taken by See-ming Lee and uploaded to Wikimedia Commons by russavia. The second image is Laury Linney, taken at the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival by gdcgraphics. The final picture is a Bus taken from the AIGA Symbol Signs Collection commissioned by the U.S. Dept. of Transportation. Like the other pictures, it was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.