Lost in The Tunnel of Love: My Time in Couples Therapy
There are topics you can't talk about at cocktail parties because it’s not “polite conversation". Things that you hold in until you feel like you might choke on your own neat kemptness in an effort to keep everyone else from feeling uncomfortable. So let's get real. My husband and I just graduated from couple’s therapy.
We started going about three years ago. We had just gotten back from a vacation with friends in the Bahamas.
There’s something about couples in trouble and the Caribbean. An unspoken belief that the sun and sand will somehow breathe new life into a choking, gasping union. I came to this realization while sitting on the beach alone one night after a particularly bad fight. I started counting the couples I knew that returned from vacation and immediately divorced. Turns out the Caribbean is a relationship graveyard. It’s where bad marriages go to die.
When we returned home I told my husband I was either calling a therapist or a lawyer. It was his choice.
Not knowing who to go to for a recommendation, I clicked onto psychologytoday.com and looked up therapists in our area. I decided a man would be best because I didn’t want my husband to feel ganged up on. There was only one guy who had a picture. He had a really warm, sort of goofy smile that made me instantly like him. I went with my gut and made an appointment.
Think back on your most socially awkward moment. Perhaps you congratulated a woman on her pregnancy when she had simply put on weight. Or you introduced one couple to another and called the second wife by the first wife's name. Now take that awkwardness and multiply that feeling by a thousand. That's how it feels to go to couple's therapy for the first time. And the second. And the twenty-second, come to think of it.
I’m not a Jewish woman from the Upper East Side. I’m an Irish-Catholic from New Jersey. We don’t talk about our problems. We cloak ourselves in them until they harden to a shiny, impervious shell. Remember that scene between Matt Damon’s character and his girlfriend (Vera Farmiga) in “The Departed?” “If we're not gonna make it, it's gotta be you that gets out, cause I'm not capable. I'm f***ing Irish, I'll deal with something being wrong for the rest of my life."
We enter the therapist’s office, ring a little doorbell mounted to the wall in the waiting area and take a seat. I pick up "Real Simple" and pretend to read it. My husband stares blankly at pages of "Time." A few minutes later the couple in the time slot before us comes out. We all smile sheepishly, trying to pretend we don’t see each other’s guts all over the floor. Then my husband and I go in and sit down. I stare at the therapist. He stares at the therapist. We examine our shoes, make small talk. I’m not going to lie. It’s uncomfortable. I think of what Sigmund Freud said about the Irish: "This is one race of people for whom psychoanalysis is of no use whatsoever."
Add to this symphony of awkwardness that my husband travels a lot, leaving me to go to couple’s therapy... alone.
Now there’s a situation that can make you feel kind of crazy.
Therapist: How are you guys doing?
Me: (MOTIONING TO EMPTY CHAIR) “I feel like we’re getting closer. I think this is really helping.”
There were a lot of things to talk about. A lot of reasons to be resentful and angry. A lot of wounds that had never healed over the years because they were never cared for, apologized for. Like the time he had the nerve to… (deep breath). OK, (ahem). I’m still working through some stuff.
The main thing, though, was that we weren’t seeing each other. You can be sitting right next to someone on the sofa, sleeping next to them every night. But when that someone -- the person that's supposed to love you and cherish you-- doesn’t even see you, you can be the loneliest person in the world.
It looked really bleak for us for a very long time. But this past fall we turned a corner, and we haven’t looked back.
We still stumble. We still take each other for granted occasionally. Like the time he… (deep breath). Moving on… When that happens now, we know how to point it out. How to tell each other what we will and won’t tolerate. How to tell each other what we mean to each other. I can honestly say I never thought we would get to this point.
I was at a cocktail party last weekend. Someone said, “Hi, how are you? What’s new?”
And I answered, “Well if you want to know the truth, I was on the brink of divorce, my husband and I went to therapy and did a lot of work, and now we’re happier together than we've ever been.”
Heh heh. Just kidding.
Actually, I said: “Fine. Not much. How are you?”
Part of me wishes I had answered truthfully. Because when we talk about these things, sometimes there’s that moment of recognition in another person’s eyes that tells us we just made that person feel a little less alone.