What No One Told Me About Couples' Therapy
I believed couples therapy would pretty much guarantee that the two of us would work out all of our issues as a couple. Spoiler alert: It didn't.
My boyfriend and I had been dating for over a year. After separating for a couple of months, we happily rekindled and decided together that we should enlist an impartial professional to help us work through some communication issues and learn how to fight better. An older, mutual friend who my boyfriend and I both respected had shared with us that before proposing to his wife, they agreed to couples counseling. "You know," he said, "to make sure that we weren't dragging any dead bodies into the relationship. No lingering resentments, secrets, or issues. It was just what we needed," he told us. I felt my hopes skyrocket.
So, once a week we'd meet in a tiny, dimly lit office and unpack all of our past hurt and childhood wounds under the guidance of a psychologist. She studied our dynamics and how they were preserving patterns that were driving us crazy. Because ours wasn't a last-ditch effort to mend the relationship, I thought that it would just make what was good better. The beauty, it seemed, was that we were in this thing together.
In the first several sessions, I looked forward to digging deeper into the inner workings of our relationship. We were in love, and I naively believed that love was all a couple really needs.
"Often, underlying concerns that have not been acknowledged will emerge [during couples therapy]," Sonny Kalis, a licensed clinical professional counselor who specializes in relationships, tells me. "It is often surprising to people to discover that actually bringing things to light makes the resolution much easier. The hard part is for each of us to know and acknowledge our truth. This is often very scary. Vulnerability and intimacy are closely interwoven, but we are often self-protective and defensive about revealing our truth to ourselves and to our partners."
More issues were revealed as our sessions continued. When I wanted to sit down and discuss the hard things, he didn't. When he wanted to talk, I could never find my footing or my voice. We both cared deeply about the other person, there was a shared history and some semblance of hope for the future—but the trust was disappearing. When things got too uncomfortable or hard, my go-to reaction was packing my bags and running for the hills or the spare room in my friend's apartment or my parents' house a few miles away. When it came to fight or flight, I was always opting for the latter.
There comes a point in couples' therapy when you have to be able to answer some hard questions: Am I still willing to do the work together?
When it came to tackling our disagreements, we tried what I thought was compromise. He wanted to spend time exploring his interests; I wanted to spend time as a couple outside of therapy. So I became interested in the things he was doing in his spare time: long-distance running, CrossFit, learning how to adopt a paleo lifestyle, and training for a triathlon. I joined the same gym, bought a road bike, and learned how to make cherry cobbler with an almond flour crust and a whipped cream topping made out of coconut milk. My friends wondered why I stopped reading my poetry in local cafes and hanging out with them on Sunday mornings eating pancakes. I told them that I was really into perfecting my handstand pushups and living a healthier lifestyle. In many ways, this was very true, but what I couldn't see yet was how far away from myself I had gotten.
About four months in, I understood that the fairy-tale ending I was hoping for was probably not in the cards for us. The therapy that I thought would bring us closer together only showed us why we needed to spend some more time apart. In fact, it became clear that my boyfriend and I were no longer on the same page of the narrative I had crafted. I kept thinking that if I could just fix these things about myself that drove him crazy, if only I could change a bit faster, or evolve the right way, then we would be fine. I'd get my happy ending. I was white-knuckling the process, hoping something would eventually shift us back into that happy-on-the-surface-and-still-very-hopeful couple who walked in the doors of therapy for the first time. This is not to say that the therapy wasn't working; it just was not working the way that I wanted it to. We were learning more about each other and our dynamic; we just weren't liking what we were finding.
There comes a point in couples' therapy when you have to be able to answer some hard questions: Am I still willing to do the work together? Do I want to keep searching below the surface? Do I have the courage and compassion to really lean into the ugly and uncomfortable?
"Once that doubt about the marriage creeps in, it becomes harder to remember the reason you got married in the first place," says Eddy Wooten, a licensed marriage and family therapist. "Once in session, the goal is usually to stop discussing what the spouse is or isn't doing and to focus on what each person is contributing to the marriage and how they can contribute more. Couples that do come in to see me often question their compatibility. However, during the therapeutic process, they begin to realize they were working way too hard to get their spouse to please them, resulting in them forgetting what it takes to please themselves. These, as well as most couples I encounter, begin to find happiness in their marriage again when they finally decide to accept their partners for who they are and feel free to live their lives without judgment from their spouse as well."
I spent so much time trying to navigate my way through the relationship that I lost total sight of myself. We eventually stopped attending joint sessions, and I began going on my own. Within a year, our relationship finally came to an end. I think on some very subconscious level, we both knew that we needed out, and as the old saying goes, the only way out was through. Through the wonderfully sweet moments, through the painful separations, through the doors of therapy.
No one told me that couples therapy could lead to the end of a relationship I so desperately wanted to work—or that breaking up could actually be the best thing for the both of us. Although I didn't know it at the time, the therapy had worked: It had delivered us our relationship's much-needed culmination, which I know looking back was, in fact, the healthiest path forward for us.
Sometimes I wish I could sit down with that terrified, codependent young woman who'd first sat down on that psychologist's couch and share the outcome with her. Not the end of the relationship but the beginning of an entirely new chapter of her life. The heartache will be awful and scary and probably worse than you're imagining, I would tell her, but there is so much joy and peace just on the other side.
I'd like to remind her of the long game she was playing, that by letting go of this relationship, she was saving the one she has with herself.
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