Confessions of a Couples Counselor
Sometimes with couples I feel like the surgeon in the operating room, who, upon seeing the spread of the tumor, closes the patient back up and sheds a silent tear. The patient had waited too long to seek treatment.
Likewise, many couples enter counseling as a last resort, having allowed their malignancies of resentment and hurt and bickering to grow for years on end. Such instances leave me sad and frustrated, and scared for them and their children. Sometimes the best I can do is patch them up and send them on their way, because they need more than I know how to do.
I’ve learned a lot from my first marriage and from some of these couples sessions about how a sweet love can turn sour. That’s why Shelley and I have tried to make sure to express the things we might tend to withhold from each other; those things that, left unsaid, would fester and morph into resentment. We both learned this lesson the hard way the first time around. In my earlier marriage, we suffered from the “Lumpy Rug Syndrome”: So much of our issues got swept under the rug that soon neither of us could walk across the living room floor without tripping over something.
As with liberty, eternal vigilance is the price we each must pay for a happy long term relationship. Airing grievances can be difficult, but is essential. The other option is to feed our resentments by ignoring them.
Often in my office, I find myself rooting for some couples, and against some others. (You think therapists are always unbiased? Do you also believe in objective journalism?) Of course it’s not my business to impose my opinions, but some couples should stay together and some shouldn’t, and sometimes I catch myself making these judgements and struggling with how much to let them influence the therapy I do. Kids of course complicate the conundrum: Would they be better off with both mom and dad at home, or would continuing to see their parents in a cold marriage hurt them in other ways?
Couples counseling is about three times as difficult as individual, and although I do some of my best work with them, I sometimes find myself overwhelmed. There’s so much to keep in mind! Structuring the communication; keeping their personality styles in mind, their individual needs as well as their “we” needs; their family of origin issues; and attempting to uncover any unstated (or unconscious) agendas on one or both their parts – sometimes this can all crescendo on me in a session and I’m like a deer caught in the headlights. Only the headlights are from two cars approaching a head-on collision.
And then there are the cases that really push my buttons, like a very narcissistic, abusive or controlling husband, or a particularly manipulative, castrating or blame-aholic wife. At such times it’s all I can do to keep from yelling at their partner get out now!!You can do better! I did! Then I have to remind myself that there are no innocent victims in relationships. Often one person plays the helpless victim and it can look like that on the surface. Then I dig a little deeper.
In some relationships, words are the problem. Either words spoken out of hurt and anger that sting and cut, or words spoken in the name of “communication.” People seem to think that communication is about speaking their mind. That’s self-expression. What I’ve slowly been learning is that communication actually is about listening: listening deeply enough into what your partner is saying that you empathize with them and get where they’re coming from, even as you may disagree with them. And then, when you get really good, it becomes about speaking in such a way that will open your partner up to your words. These are not skills we were born with, however, and they often take a lot of time and practice to learn. But such skills can save a relationship or marriage, and they do every day.
Sometimes ego is the problem. In these cases, both partners treat me like I’m the judge as they’re presenting their case. “If I can prove that I’m right,” they seem to be thinking, “he’ll tell my spouse and that will settle the argument once and for all!” They don’t realize that if one person wins the argument, both lose. Put another way, we have a choice: We can be right, or we can have the relationship; not both.
Sometimes, NYC is the problem. Modern life can grind a couple down, and the city is modernity on meth. The three-days-worth-of-work-and-chores-in-a-day schedules; the financial strain of the rent or mortgage; the constant shuffling around of the 8 year old in an effort to quickly construct an über child to compete with his counterpart in Delhi — couples quickly lose their sense of exactly-why-I-married-this-person-in-the-first-place. So instead of the couple, I wind up treating their schedules.
And sometimes, it’s simply a loss of perspective. One couple I know kept bickering in my office about messes in the apartment: his socks on the floor, her dish that still had a spot after she washed it. They actually would spend sessions haggling about these things as if they were crucial and non-negotiable. Finally I couldn’t take it anymore and said…
“Look – compared to the other 7 billion people on the planet, where exactly do you think you stand? In terms of your health, your options, your possessions and money in the bank? In terms of how long you’ll probably live? When you think about it, you and I are sitting on top of the world! Think about all you have to be grateful for.” Admittedly this can be irritating to them, because I’m invalidating their complaints, but it usually wakes them up.
And doing couples work keeps me awake and on my toes. It’s become the most satisfying work I do, or perhaps have ever done. Saving relationships has become part of my small attempt at saving the world.
Sometimes I even succeed.