An honest look at what can—and can’t—improve because of couples therapy.
Originally published on YourTango.com
Going to couples therapy wasn’t something my boyfriend or I had to wrangle the other into. Our rough patch was more like a slick of black ice, and we were careening towards a precipitous ending. We had moved in together almost a year earlier, and couples therapy seemed easier than breaking up. It would at least buy us time to figure out how to split our belongings while I looked for my own place in New York City.
I went into counseling thinking Ryan had to change. If he didn’t fix at least eight of the things that were wrong with him, I was out. What were my issues? Everything. An aspiring actor, Ryan had no job security, no savings account or 401(k), and a penchant for buying every new electronic gadget on the market. He lives and breathes sports, while I swore I’d never date a jock. He can stew for an entire day if the Red Sox lose a game—an act I deem ridiculous and infantile. Why don’t you try dealing with your real life for a change? I’d think. I accused him of being a man-child who slept all day and didn’t know what responsibility meant.
Meanwhile, I had a great-paying job that I despised, and managed to sock away 30 percent of my income into savings and retirement. Ryan said my planning for the future got in the way of enjoying the present. His proof: I would buy a purse for $150, let it sit in my closet for 29 days, and then, overcome with spender’s guilt, return it for a refund the next day. But, I reasoned, the world is far too consumed with materialism and I didn’t want to be sucked into it.
When we called to make the appointment Dr. Schaffer said her schedule was full, but she would have an opening in a month. I wondered what led to her calendar freeing up. Did couples leave happy and cured, with a better understanding of each other? Or did they exit just as disgruntled as when they walked in? Maybe sitting together in a room for an hour week after week was all the confirmation husbands and wives needed to finalize their divorce. I toyed with asking what her success rate was but instead accepted the appointment and hung up.
An hour before our first session, I left work at and walked the two miles to Dr. Schaffer’s office. I wanted time to clear my head and expel my nervous energy. I was scared and didn’t know what to expect. Would she pit us against each other? Would she take my side or his? What if she liked Ryan better than me? We’d been seething for weeks. Who knew what was going to come up? By the time I got there, I was shaking and sweating.
The waiting room was beige—beige walls, beige carpet. If there were pictures on the walls, I didn’t register them. Ryan was sitting in one of the chairs (beige), playing with his iPhone. He looked up when I walked in, and we gave each other a tight-lipped half-smile half-grimace. I wanted to be mad at him, but instead I felt surprising relief.
Before we entered therapy, it never occurred to me that maybe I needed to do some work on myself as well. The first thing I said as we sat down in her office should have clued me in.
“You should know that I don’t usually like therapists, so you’re going to have to earn my trust,” I said. (If she scribbled anything on her notepad it was undoubtedly, “intimacy issues”.) It wasn’t meant to be bitchy. I thought of it as a helpful FYI. This was a business relationship, after all, and I wanted to be as efficient as possible. Yes, I also have control issues. But in my defense, my boyfriend’s are worse. And at that stage in the game, everything was a competition. In my head, I was winning.
We started seeing Dr. Schaffer every Monday. Liking her turned out to be the easy part. In our minds, we’d won the psychologist jackpot—she was funny, compassionate, illuminating and sarcastic. But couples therapy is not one of those things that you look forward to on a weekly basis, no matter how many times you’ve been or how great your shrink is. It’s more like going to the gym. You do it because it’s good for you. You talk about things that in normal conversation you might gloss over—like stinging details from childhood or fears about the people you both might become. Sometimes it makes you feel great. Other times, it’s agonizing.
During one particularly wrenching hour we talked about Ryan growing up without his dad, and how he felt he had to take care of his mother. He was embarrassed by how emotional he felt, like he should have been over it. At that moment Dr. Schaffer turned to me and said, “Jill, is this hard for you to hear? How is this affecting you?” When I tried to express how sad I felt for him I began sobbing. Then she asked Ryan, who was also fighting back tears, what it was like to see me react this way.
The point wasn’t to make us dredge up the past, or to put us on the spot. Ryan and I were uncomfortable letting the other person see us at our most vulnerable, which is probably why we didn’t talk about these kinds of things in the first place. But bringing tough things to light and acknowledging how they shaped us helped forge a bond. I was reminded of the pain Ryan’s been through, admired the person he’s become, and felt more protective of him—which may or may not have been the objective. It didn’t make us any less cynical, and we certainly didn’t start broaching soul-searching issues nightly over dinner, but it did bring us closer—and maybe even made us a little less fearful of intimacy as well.
The thing is, we’ve all got baggage that influences how we think other people should behave and therapy kind of clues us in to why we hold onto these beliefs. It helps our partner understand where we’re coming from and teaches us both how to respect each other’s points of view. No one is right. No one is wrong. And it’s impossible to get your therapist to choose a side. (Secretly, I think she’s with me on Ryan’s sports obsession, and I’m sure it has nothing to do with the fact that she’s a Yankees fan).
A year later, we’re still in therapy, but no longer in crisis mode. In fact, we’re thinking about inviting Dr. Schaffer to our wedding. I quit the job that I hated. Ryan started a savings account. And, believe it or not, I even watch Red Sox games and enjoy them—on our new 50-inch plasma TV.