Couples therapy taught me that no one can change someone else’s habits (which is pretty much the only goal anyone has when they go to couples therapy,) but you can shake things up for the other person. Just change what you do yourself—it’s like a system of inter-locking gears. If you turn one gear, all the gears respond. Small changes you make to one habit ripple through to others in unexpected ways.
The first couples therapist my husband and I went to was a jerk. We were there because I felt detached from my marriage. My husband and I were busy with three kids and two careers. I had found myself attracted to a guy I met through work. I recognized this as unhealthy for my marriage, which I nonetheless thought was pretty solid.
The therapist told me I had rose-colored glasses about my marriage. He told me I was angry. He suggested I was full of resentment.
I told him he was wrong.
He wasn't. I just wasn't ready to admit it yet, even to myself.
What I didn't know what that my husband was already cheating on me. Had been cheating on me since pretty much day one of our relationship. And while I'm not convinced the therapist knew, he sensed something wasn't right. So while he might have been a jerk, he wasn't an idiot.
Nonetheless, once I found out about the cheating, I found this therapist's confrontational attitude more than I could stand in my fragile state. What's more, I wasn't sure I wanted to stay married. It seemed dumb to spend time with a gruff, unsympathetic therapist to save a marriage I thought wasn't worth saving.
So I fired him and put my husband on notice.
The next guy, about two years later, suggested that my husband was bisexual, though my husband insisted (and continues to insist) he wasn't. His most frequent recommendation for our marital distress was "wine time" – an hour or so at day's end during which we were supposed to decompress and reconnect (and, apparently, polish off a bottle of wine). Might work for garden-variety relationship issues but we felt little incentive. It felt like we were skating on the surface of a pond that still held some monsters.
We waited another couple of years – during which we continued to, sporadically, have individual counselling.
By the time we found our current couples therapist, we were on solid ground individually. We were through the agony of the early post-D-Day period, had made our way through the plain of lethal flatness, and felt fully committed to being in our marriage. We were looking for someone to help us clean up some residual stuff, like my trust issues. Like my husband's desire to pretend I didn't have trust issues.
From the beginning, she was wonderful. She made it clear that she wasn't there to pick sides. Nonetheless, I thought she was secretly on my side and my husband felt that she was secretly on his side. She has a masterful way of getting each of us to really examine our behaviour within the relationship, and ask ourselves whether it's getting us what we claim we want – a deeper intimacy with each other. Suddenly, fighting over who did the dishes more often seemed a distraction more than the problem itself. She was equally masterful at getting us to peel back the layers of our problems to get to the root beneath it. For me, usually, it was about fear. For my husband, usually, it was about fear. I suspect, for most of us, our problems are rooted in fear. Fear of abandonment. Fear of not measuring up. Fear of intimacy. Fear, fear, fear.
Thing is, once you pull that fear into the light, it loses its power. Put under the microscope, it seemed easy to see that fear was stopping me from getting what I wanted. Stopping my husband from getting what he wanted. It was a wall between us that prevented us from letting each other into the most vulnerable parts of ourselves. It held us back from a deeper compassion for each other but especially for ourselves.
And that is what Penelope Trunk is getting at in the quote above.
Couples therapy might seem like the chance to get an ally in your battle to prove that you're right and your husband is wrong. It's so tempting, especially if you've long felt silenced in your marriage, to give voice to your complaints and be rewarded with someone who agrees with you that your husband is an ass. And sometimes, it's necessary to point out when either partner is truly being an ass, especially when one of those partners has betrayed the other. There's no way to split the guilt with that. He cheated. That's on him.
But if we're genuinely interested in rebuilding a marriage, couples therapy is the chance for each of us to examine the role we play, which gear we turn by our actions. And by shifting our own behaviour within the relationship, we can often move the whole relationship closer to one that serves our needs and feeds our soul.
You can never change another person. Going into therapy with the desire for that person to suddenly see the light is a waste of everybody's time. That might happen, absolutely. But it more likely won't.
However, going into couples therapy with the goal of learning where you fit in, what role you've played and even whether or not this relationship is is worth saving, can absolutely change your life.