Couples Therapist, Heal Thyself

The text discusses how helping others face marital conflict can be easier than facing it yourself.

Couples Therapist, Heal Thyself


It's sometimes easier to help someone else deal with marital conflict rather than do it yourself.



I decided to buy a puppy. I made a list of the traits I was looking for: friendly, non-shedding with a happy, easy walk, and minimal drooling. I spoke to dog-loving people, did research on trainers and read Zak's book 'Dog Training Revolution : The Complete Guide to raising the perfect pet with love'.

What I did not do was discuss it with my spouse. He likes dogs but, over the course of our more than 20 years together, he was adamant that a dog could not fit in our apartment, family, or lives. He thought we had too many children, a cat and an apartment.

I knew that the conversation would have to happen; I couldn't simply show up with a puppy one day. I pushed it off. I am allergic to conflict and try to convince myself that I do not want what I desire so I can avoid having to discuss it with my husband. When that doesn't work, I simmer in resentment, and silently rail at the injustice of having someone in my relationship with veto over major decisions in life. I eventually move into a silent despair - my husband and me are incompatible. But I love him, so what will I do? Get divorced?

Many people, including my clients, would be surprised by my ability to avoid conflict in my marriage. I am a couple's psychotherapist.

In every session I encourage my clients to express themselves. I tell my clients that you can be direct, concise and empathetic while being direct. Saying what you want and how you feel is not an attack or a mean thing. It's normal that the other person may not like what you say.

"There's such a thing' as healthy conflict," I tell them. "Pressure is what makes relationships grow and deepen." You won't get the emotional intimacy that you desire if you don't tell your partner what you're feeling.

My directness is a reason why clients seek me out. Friends of mine, and even friends of theirs, often ask me how to start painful conversations and say difficult things. They copy down my suggestions and repeat them verbatim. They say, "You're good at it." For some people, I'm good.

I've encouraged people who are conflict-averse, emotionally avoidant or people-pleasers to speak up. Women in particular say that they want to express themselves and let others know who they are, but don't wish to be perceived as 'difficult'.

I say. What's the problem with being difficult?

In my own marriage I did not advocate for my clients in a difficult way. I was difficult in a much more destructive way. I was secretive and resentful. I stopped telling my husband more than the minimum about how things were going with me. There were many other topics to discuss -- our teens, his work, the news -- I stopped talking about myself.

He didn't appear to notice. Our relationship lost the emotional intimacy that we once shared. As it happened, I began to feel increasingly isolated. I built a case in my mind against him (something I advise clients to avoid), telling myself he wasn't interested in me other than the role of helper I played in his world. Although our life together seemed harmonious and warm on the outside, I was feeling lonely and resentful.

Why did I help others in the same way that I needed to be helped myself? I'd be ashamed if anyone, not even my clients or friends, knew how little I asserted my self in my marriage.

If I kept a scorecard to see who had the greatest influence on our major decisions, it would be close. We live in Brooklyn, because he insists on it. But we had a second baby because I did. I still see him as unmovable granite. I also see myself as water. I need to move around him in order to get what I want. I slip through cracks and crevasses to avoid trouble.

We'll have to have that difficult conversation eventually. For example, a conversation about getting your dog.

One night, while out for dinner without my children, I said to them, "I have something to tell you, and I'm sure you won't be happy about it."

He was expecting bad news.

"I think we should buy a dog," I replied.

'You're kidding. Right?'

I shook my head.

Dogs can be so expensive. You always say we are already too busy. They're a lot of work. He took a big breath and ran his fingers through his hair like he always does when he is agitated. I don't know what to say. It's a bad idea. No.'

As usual, I cried and remained silent. My voice was shrill when I forced myself to speak. The kids will be thrilled. I don't understand why you believe that you [not a term I would use as a couples therapist] always get to make the decisions. You're a dictator.

He said. "Is this what you think?" You can do what you want and not tell me a thing. I will go along with it because I don't like when you are angry at me. You don't consider how expensive things are or how burdensome they will be. You make me look bad. This is not true.

I don't tell because you always say no. We'd never have kids, pets or do anything other than work if it were up you. We would still be living in studio apartments. You would still be eating Ramen and smoking Marlboro reds. This is also not true.

He then said something neither of us said before, and I was shocked to hear it: "I think we should have couples therapy."

It's obvious that I believe in therapy. My life has been changed by my relationship with my individual psychotherapist. I believe that couples counseling is especially important. I'm called to this work. Nothing is more important than our relationship. It is an honor to me that I have helped couples come back from the brink of disaster. I've seen how asking for more from both yourself and your partner can have a transformative effect.

However, I was afraid to attend couples counseling by myself.

I tell my clients that couples therapy is the equivalent of a cold plunge compared to individual therapy. I was afraid that my husband and me would split up if we discussed all of our issues. Even though things were bad, I still wanted to be with my husband. I love my wife. He is smart, sexy, and kind. He is devoted to my children and me. He is more loyal and honest than anyone I have ever met.

We went to counseling. The therapist said to us everything I tell my clients, and called out both of us for hurting our relationship.

You are creating distance between yourself. You must be willing to tolerate conflict, take emotional risks and open up. Staying silent will not save the relationship; it will destroy it.

Then I said to my husband, "She's right." You're being defensive and judgemental. You need to show your wife that you are listening to her and taking her concerns into consideration if you want her to feel close.

After many months of hard sessions, we are now talking, sometimes arguing and compromising. We have become closer. Trouble, a 20-pound canine with a lot of energy and affection is now part of our family.

Trouble will often pick up a walking stick and then drop it because he is trying to chew it while carrying it. I understand how he feels. I can't be in my marriage, and also see clearly.

When people ask about the name I tell them that we came up with it after seeing the mischievous expression on his face. We chose the name because we wanted to create some healthy trouble in our marriage. It turns out that we needed some trouble.