How Couples Therapy Saved My Marriage from Collapse.
Vulnerability and letting go can rescue you from self destruction.
If you had asked me a year ago on Valentine’s Day what it was like being married to my middle school sweetheart, I would have given you a vague answer, something to the effect of “Totally amazing!”, and it would have been complete bullshit. As I gushed about how great it was being with the same person for 14 years, inside I would be thinking about how going home at night made me feel like I was walking on eggshells, how I carried a constant burden of guilt about never doing enough, never being enough, and how honestly, I just wished I could go back in time and start over.
A year ago, my marriage was on the brink of disaster. I was sure we would start down the path of divorce any day, and the thought of even being in the same room as my husband made my anxiety skyrocket. The phrase “You could cut the tension with a knife” became more than a familiar feeling. It became my every day.
If you had asked what was wrong, what exactly was going awry in our marriage, I wouldn’t have been able to point to any single thing. Truthfully, I felt like everything was wrong. We disagreed constantly. He was constantly disappointed by me and I was constantly feeling unappreciated by him. Household tasks, money, intimacy — you name it, we struggled with it. Or at least, we struggled to communicate about it. Our attempts to discuss issues always ended in screaming matches, desperately trying to prove to one another who was wrong and who was right. One of us would end up storming out. After days of the cold shoulder, we’d try to pretend like it never happened. That didn’t work. It was painful and ever-present, a game that continued on forever, with no winner and no end in sight.
When I finally had the courage to talk to a friend about it, she had encouraged me to attend couples therapy. She raved about how much it had helped her relationship and all but promised me it would help us, too. While I was happy for her, in my heart of my hearts, I knew there was no saving my relationship. So, I thought about therapy and I decided not to go. It wasn’t worth going through the process just to find out what I already knew: our marriage was unsalvageable. Despite my best efforts, nothing got better.
By the time February rolled around, I talked to the same friend again, confessing to her once more what I had mentioned to no one else: my marriage was a mess. I was completely miserable and feeling hopeless. Again, she encouraged me to try couples therapy. At that point, I felt like the only options left were to try therapy or get divorced. We tried therapy.
You might wonder how it is a couple who’s spent 14 years together could end up so unhappy. It’s something I often wondered myself. I knew this man to the core of his being, as he did me. We grew up together, quite literally, and experienced the biggest moments in life together. Graduating high school, attending college, graduating college, starting our first jobs, moving to a new city, getting married, adopting a dog. Not just milestones, either. We’d experienced extreme grief and times of loss, and also huge peaks of joy and times of happiness.
We had changed so much during our time together that eventually the expectation was everything was open for debate. Everything was open to change: every minute piece of our personality, all the ways we approached things like finances, chores, intimacy, communication, friendships, even decorating the house. Each of us believed that we were right and that if we simply defended our viewpoint long enough, we could convince the other of it, too.
When we first started therapy, I walked in with a long list of grievances. I had a lot of shit in my brain that I’d been tallying up over the past few years as our marriage gradually dissolved. I was ready to hash it all out, argue my side, and prove why I was right. As it turns out, that’s not exactly how therapy works.
Our therapist quickly had us nip the “You” statements and accusations in the bud. Instead, we were asked to speak from a place of “I”. After years of screaming “You, you, you” at someone, speaking from a place of “I” is really hard and kind of (extremely) terrifying. Instead of living life on the defensive, we were suddenly exposing — and oftentimes, discovering — our innermost thoughts, fears, and emotions. “You didn’t seem excited to go on a dinner date” turned into “I feel scared you don’t find me attractive or fun.” Yikes.
Mostly, in the beginning, it was a lot of digging in and answering the question why. Discovering the root of behaviors, thoughts, emotions, and beliefs. Unearthing belief systems and walls of shame that had been surrounding us for years. Realizing that we weren’t fighting against each other, we were actually fighting our fears. But because we refused to name those fears, the attacks had been landing on each other, instead.
The first few months were hard. Every time we left a session, I would ask my husband, “How do you feel?”. He always replied, “Worse.” I felt worse, too, and at first, I wondered if we were doing something wrong. Maybe our therapist wasn’t right for us. Maybe the techniques and tools she was providing us weren’t the right ones. Maybe we shouldn’t be sharing all our deepest fears and insecurities and instead should keep them stuffed inside like we’d been doing for years. I had a lot of doubts, but after a few months, things started to change. Instead of leaving feeling worse, we left feeling better, optimistic, even hopeful.
Over time, as shifts started to occur, one thing became clear: we loved each other. That had never changed. The only thing that had changed was that over time, we both became more and more afraid that we were actually on our own, despite sharing our lives together. We’d warped our brains into fearful, avoidant minds that created shame spirals out of every situation we encountered. We constantly, desperately wanted validation from one another, but were too scared to ask for it, so we ended up fighting instead.
Nearly a year later, the way we interact in our day to day lives has completely changed. Our communication styles have altered, the structures, boundaries, and systems we have put into place have morphed, and simple phrases we used to use all the time like “Can you” and “I feel like you…” have evolved into “Are you willing to” and “I feel sad because…” In the beginning, these changes seemed like tiny things. Semantics and nothing else. I truly didn’t believe they made a difference, but after nearly a year of putting it into action, I realize it’s all the tiny things that add up to the big things.
A few weeks ago, we walked into therapy and didn’t have anything to discuss. Our therapist was digging and digging and we were kind of stuck. We had all the tools we needed, we knew how to communicate. Any situation we could think of, we already knew how to address it. Suddenly, the things that seemed terrifying and life altering a mere year ago were no longer scary. We realized, despite our doubts and despite our fears, we had gotten where we wanted to be. Happily married with lines of communication more open than they’ve ever been. It turns out all the talking and blaming and accusing we were doing before wasn’t just getting us nowhere — it was getting us somewhere fast, and it was somewhere we didn’t want to be.
12 months later, a lot has changed. To be honest, I feel like I’m in a new marriage. The marriage that existed a year ago was fragile, rooted in fear and shame. It’s been replaced with something new, something stronger, something more rooted in honesty, curiosity, and compassion.
Valentine’s Day doesn’t feel like a charade anymore. This year, we’re both home sick and watching Grace and Frankie in bed together (romantic, I know). But if you ask me today what it’s like being with the same person for 15 years, I’ll give you the truth. It’s hard. We’ve done a lot of growing together and we’ve also had to do a lot of unlearning together, too. But it’s worth it, and I know now that marriage isn’t about being right. It’s about being vulnerable. The one thing I still can’t quite let go of, the one thing I struggled with all throughout therapy — I wish we’d started sooner.