Why I Go To Couples Counseling
My first time was with a roly-poly, white-bearded marriage counselor named Jim. Jim had a cheerful smile and a cuddly exterior, but something about him made me nervous. Toy Story 3’s plush pink villain, Lots-O’-Huggin Bear, immediately came to mind.
None of it felt right: sitting in that fluorescently lit room, on that purple-green-and-brown striped couch, side by side but dimensions apart from my handsome husband. This was not where we were supposed to end up.
We had been together for seven years, sweeping things under rugs and congratulating ourselves on getting along so well. The idea of counseling had never crossed our minds — couples therapy was for people who probably shouldn’t be together in the first place, not cute couples who loved each other like we did!
Alas, we were adorably wrong. No amount of cuteness and love could save us. We were recently separated, completely confused, and afraid of what lay ahead. This was our last resort.
Our first session with Jim consisted of lots-o’ diagrams on a yellow legal pad. He drew while he drawled explanations, legal pad facing us. My husband was amazed that he could draw upside down without looking. I was distracted by his stick-figure technique: big circle bellies and little circle heads, shaky lines of limbs that looked alarmed at best, electrocuted for crimes at worst.
With each point we discussed, Jim added to the drawing: circles to show where our personal domains intersected, squiggly bombs of conflict, and a patch of scribbles over my formerly empty circle head, indicating the swarm of repressed thoughts, now hatching like long-dormant cicadas.
At the end of the session he gave us the drawings to keep.
Alone in my bare bones apartment, I contemplated the bloated figure that represented me: it reached out with electric arms, one towards my husband, the other away. We were barely visible beneath the storm of our spiraling problems. When did our relationship start to look like this? How could we ever untangle all these lines?
Now was the time for couples counseling, we conceded. Lots’o couples counseling. We went twice a week, paying Jim $200 per session to scribble woebegone portraits of us. I had recently moved out, had new rent, new bills, and no income. I couldn’t afford to buy meat or go out with friends, but those hours on Jim’s couch were worth every penny to me. I wanted my husband to understand me. I would empty my bank account for that.
After a year of counseling, attempted dinner dates, tearful meetings, and painfully long emails, we finally did understand each other. And we saw for the first time that the things we wanted in life were not the same.
Perhaps my now ex-husband and I would have discovered this before marriage, had we embraced counseling earlier. Or perhaps we wouldn’t have had an impossible number of knots to untangle.
It’s too late to regret, but I can do things differently now.
On Wednesdays I clamber onto the back of my boyfriend’s motorcycle. We weave through the neighborhood, taking side streets to stumble upon dream houses and extreme holiday decorations. After ten minutes of exploring, we arrive at our therapeutic destination.
It’s a new phase of life, a new relationship. We are doing things differently this time. We decided to check out counseling a little less than a year in, before the milestone of moving-in. So together, we picked a counselor who does not look like a bear. Together, we are learning how the threads of our relationship intersect. Together, we weave and untangle as we go.
My partner’s legs are long and there’s only one seat in the corner of the waiting room that’s high enough to accommodate. We cozy up there until our therapist’s little dog comes to fetch us, trundling in with old lady gait and eyes like a possum in the middle of the night. On cold days, she wears a jacket that makes her look like the mother of a lumberjack. I love that.
Imagine autumn sunshine in human form, and you’re picturing our therapist, Erica. Serene and comforting, she emanates a golden glow. We part within an hour, but she leaves us with that warm feeling you get after a walk with someone you love.
Sometimes we show up with specific topics, incidents, or differences to explore. Other times we have no plan at all. Sometimes we demystify intricacies in the ways our viewpoints interact (“Ohh, so that’s why we view the likelihood of infidelity completely differently!”). Other times, we like to imagine that Erica has to call her therapist-friends to get empathy for how boring we were (“I’m not sure we like board games the same amount…”).
Every time we go, we’re glad that we did.
We don’t go to couples counseling because we’re afraid our relationship isn’t working. We go because we believe in our future. We want to move forward with ears, hearts, and eyes open. Instead of viewing counseling as a last resort, we’re embracing it as an early step in caring for a long-term relationship. Preventative care, if you will.
I care not only about the future of our relationship, but the future of all of our relationships. And that is why I’m sharing. I wasn’t always a fan of couples counseling. I saw it as beneath me; I saw our counselor as a villain filled with fluff. But over the years, I’ve come to see how powerful a tool it can be, for any relationship.
Take any two people and an array of differences will arise, no matter how many similarities. My partner and I went to the same college, majored in the same two things, and are both left-handed. We are also very different people: he has three million Pinterest followers (I exaggerate not!), while I have days of forgetting what the internet is (that’s where all the cats live, right?).
We, like any two people converging, bring a multitude of differences and chances to misconstrue. It is these things that are worth exploring. By bringing differences into a therapy session, instead of allowing them to create rifts, we can use them as chances to expand our individual boundaries. We can construct bridges of understanding between our worlds.
I don’t go to couples counseling because it’s a cure-all — it didn’t save my marriage, and it won’t guarantee success for my new love. Nor do I go because my relationship is in dire need. I go because at this stage, it’s not intervention. It’s enhancement. It’s building understanding on a resentment-free foundation, so that when life brings its challenges, we will be strong.