Agatha’s Hidden Hope
Over the next few weeks Agatha told me many of the details of how she had been “trapped in a disastrous marriage” with a husband who both physically and sexually abused her. She had finally gone through the arrangements for a divorce when her husband was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Agatha gave up on the divorce and instead nursed him devotedly for the next eleven months while he continued to criticize and verbally abuse her. After he died she had a “strange mixture of missing him” and being “free of the bastard”. She was confused by her “mixed-up feelings”. She described how over the years she had often wanted to murder her husband but was too scared to do so because it would have “a disastrous effect” on her two children.
I discovered that I was the first person she had ever told about the abuse she had lived with every day for thirty-three years. She was feeling guilty about wanting to kill her husband and had had murderous fantasies from the time she was first pregnant. Her self-criticism and guilt were intense.
Providing her some relief from the intense internal criticism seemed important before we went further in our psychotherapy. I used the word “hope” to describe her fantasies of killing her husband — “hope to have some relief from the pain your husband repeatedly inflicted on you”. At first she did not understand and continued to feel guilty. In the next session she was again confused as to why she had wanted “to kill him all these years and yet I carefully nursed him to the end”.
Again I described both her fantasies and actual caring behaviour as hopeful, as “a way to have relief at a time when you did not have the internal resources to terminate a disastrous marriage”. She told me how she would “lie in bed imagining him dead….with a knife in his balls” and would fantasize getting a divorce “if I only had the money to do so and a place to go”. I explained how hope is often the unconscious motivation in people’s fantasies and that hope provides us with some relief from discomfort. Agatha began to think of her fantasies as a significant desire to be free of an abusive marriage and no longer as though something was evil in her.
Our conversations about the significance of hope helped her realize that all through her married life she had longed to return to university to finish the course of study that had been interrupted when she became pregnant. In out next session she told me how she again begun to imagine finishing her university degree.
As our sessions came to an end she was not confused. She had spent several sessions telling me the details of her painful story that she had never revealed to anyone. She was still embittered about her abusive marriage, still resentful about her children’s anger at her for staying in the marriage, but she was no longer self-criticizing nor feeling guilty. Agatha was hopeful about returning to school. We decided together that she would continue our psychotherapy sessions in September.