In addition to her husband, Peter, and her child, Gabe, Muriel’s significant relationships included her divorced parents, her younger sister Rachel, and an extended family of aunts, uncles, and cousins. She reported no close friendships outside of her family, although she and her husband regularly attended a Baptist church. Muriel noted that her family moved a great deal while she was growing up due to her father’s work, leaving her with no long-term friendships. Also, Muriel felt that the demands of her extended family and of her special-needs child left her with little time to pursue friendships outside of the family.
When asked to describe the quality of each of her significant relationships, Muriel responded that following her parent’s divorce, she felt that she became her mother’s caregiver, a role her father had fulfilled prior to the divorce. Following the divorce, Muriel’s mother became severely depressed and depended upon Muriel for emotional as well as functional support. Muriel resented that her younger sister, Rachel, did not share this responsibility with her, but she also felt guilty for having these feelings given Rachel’s history of mental illness.
Rachel was diagnosed with schizophrenia when Muriel was a sophomore in college. Muriel quit college to be close to her family and to provide emotional support to her mother following Rachel’s diagnosis. Once Rachel’s condition stabilized, Muriel hoped that family members would turn some attention to Muriel’s needs, or at least, now that she had her own child to care for, take over some of the caretaking roles in the family that Muriel had assumed since leaving college and since her parents’ divorce. Muriel expected family members to spontaneously offer to help her, as she often stepped in to help them without being asked. She believed that they did not provide her with support or help because they either did not care or because they were too overwhelmed with their own problems to help her.
Muriel’s relationship with her father was strained. While she was angry with her father for hurting her mother and putting Muriel in a caretaker role, she also felt sorry for him since the woman with whom he had had an affair left him following his diagnosis with cancer. Muriel’s father had a child from his relationship with this woman, for whom he often asked Muriel to babysit. Muriel felt that her father expected her to be a “big sister” to this child, but she resented this expectation given the child’s parentage and the circumstances of his birth. Muriel felt that she could not speak up to her father for fear of angering him (he had been verbally abusive when she was growing up and she feared his anger), and because of her religious training to “honor” her mother and her father.
In her own marriage, Muriel reported that since her son, Gabe, had started school, she and her husband Peter had begun arguing. Muriel felt that Peter should be doing more to understand Gabe’s needs and to be more of a father to him: take him on outings, express an interest in his school curriculum, and take him to some of his physical therapy appointments. However, Peter thought that Muriel should be their son’s primary caregiver as she did not work outside the home. Muriel also resented Peter’s pursuit of interests outside of the home. However, since these activities were work- or church-related, she felt she could not ask him to stop or limit these so that she could pursue her own interests. Anything that Muriel wanted to do outside of taking care of her son or extended family members seemed to her to be indulgent in comparison to Peter’s pursuit of “legitimate” goals such as providing for their family and providing leadership within their church.
Muriel described difficulty expressing anger appropriately within her significant relationships. She would often withdraw from others and binge eat, letting resentments or hurts build up until she became enraged, shouting and saying hurtful things. These periods of uncontrolled rage frightened her and caused others to be confused by or dismissive of her anger, saying things such as, “You’re just crazy, that’s what you are.” These outbursts and the negative effects they had on her self-esteem and on her relationships caused her to try to hold her anger in even more tightly, resulting in an unfulfilling cycle of pent-up resentment and angry outbursts.