Marriage therapy is not something we talk about. It’s one thing to admit you’re struggling; it’s another to admit that you are paying a total stranger to mediate your relationship with the person you chose to be your “other half”.
Well, here I am, doing just that. I’ve been in marriage therapy several times. Kids, unemployment, mental health struggles, and life transitions have all created major wedges in our relationship. We’ve been married 10 years now, and I’m fairly positive that we would not have made it this far without the help of some wise and caring therapists.
There was certainly no magic involved. It took a lot of hard work, introspection, and commitment.
Marriage therapy is time-consuming and expensive. And for all that time and money, you get an experience that is frustrating, emotionally draining, and painful. But, with the right therapist, it can also be enlightening, character building, and, well…therapeutic.
Each time we’ve turned to a therapist, the same questions arise:
“Are we up for this kind of financial and emotional commitment?”
“Is it really bad enough to justify the investment involved?”
“What is he/she going to tell us that we don’t already know? (After all, ‘been there, done that!’)”
Obviously, each time we’ve opted to go. And each time, the therapist helped us come out of our rut and saw us re-convinced of our compatibility and efficacy as a team. There was certainly no magic involved. It took a lot of hard work, introspection, and commitment.
Reflecting on my experiences, a pattern has emerged. The emotional process always follows the same five “phases”:
Sounds like: Maybe if someone else explains it to him, he’ll finally understand that I’m right!
In other words: This conversation keeps going in circles. Why doesn’t he get what I’m telling him?
Often, what gets us in the door is the sense that we feel like we just can’t live with the other person unless they change. We are hurt that the behavior persists despite the fact that we have explained repeatedly why it is damaging. It seems that the other person is either hurting us out of malice or simply doesn’t care enough to acknowledge or accommodate our needs. Everything they say or do to justify or explain their actions only confirms these assumptions, because it is perceived as victim-blaming or blatant denial of our emotional experiences. Resolution seems impossible.
Sounds like: Stop making excuses!
In other words: If you get it, why are you still not doing things my way?
We eventually get to a point where we actually feel heard. We get the impression that our partner understands what they are doing to hurt us and wants to make a good-will effort to avoid inflicting pain. When they inevitably fall short, it feels like the ultimate betrayal. (Now we know it is malicious!) There’s a small bandage on the wound, but any agitation will quickly reopen it.
Sounds like: Huh…I never thought of it that way…
In other words: You are coming at this situation from a completely different angle. No wonder my repeated explanations and suggestions did not bring us any closer to resolution.
This is where the deep work and true healing begin. We are able to step out of our own pain and really hear what our partner is telling us without taking it personally or ascribing our own meaning to it. We start to realize that the resolution we envisioned was imbalanced and incomplete. Resolution seems attainable, but it will take time to uncover and understand what each partner really needs. Through introspection, discussion, and trial and error, a resolution slowly comes into focus.
Sounds like: My being right does not necessitate your being wrong. And vice versa.
In other words: This issue is more complicated than I realized or acknowledged. Understanding your perspective has helped me clarify and refine my own opinions.
Our defenses are fully let down. We do not experience the disagreement as a personal attack. Now we are having a true conversation where each partner is able to validate the other’s experience and feelings and feels safe enough to express their own. We are able to admit our part in the dynamic and accept and respect our partner’s needs.
Taking ownership for our part in a dynamic is scary, but also empowering.
Sounds like: I’m sorry I let my own pain and anger blind me to your emotional experience.
In other words: I insisted that you not only validate my feelings, but agree with my analysis of the situation. In doing so, I denied your right to a different opinion. I also may have formed my opinions with false assumptions I did not realize I was making.
We have achieved a paradigm shift. We appreciate that being part of a team is as enriching and expansive as it is challenging. We have a healthy and productive partnership, where we are collaborating instead of vying for control. We take responsibility for our role in undermining the partnership, and resolve to avoid those mistakes in the future. We agree to both avoid irritating and actively soothe each other’s wounds in the aftermath of this conflict. Our hope is that future conflicts will come to resolution more efficiently and with less collateral damage.
We each come into a conflict thinking that we’ve got it all figured out, and it’s the communication that’s failing. Realizing and admitting that we were each missing something all along is the core of the hard work.
It’s embarrassing, confusing…and shockingly eye-opening and transformative. Taking ownership for our part in a dynamic is scary, but also empowering. It is the pivotal moment in the process which allows us to approach and resolve the conflict as a team instead of engaging in the conflict as individuals.
The more I think about it, the more I realize that this is roughly the same process that people go through almost every time they have a conflict or encounter something foreign or uncomfortable. It’s the process that takes us from talking past one another to having a mature, respectful conversation; from argument to dialogue; from contempt to compromise; and from opposition to connection. Ultimately, it’s a process of growth and expansion through which we become more empathic and less self-centered.
This increased awareness and maturity impacts and informs all of our relationships—as parents, children, siblings, friends, neighbors, and citizens of the world.
Change in a dynamic comes about by consciously choosing to make room for something or someone we thought could not fit into our worldview. What’s incredible is that each time we make that choice, we become a little more primed to repeat it—each cycle makes us more open to how vast and varied the world outside our own minds can be.
There is much to be gained in marriage therapy, but I think the greatest reward is the understanding that our tiny universe has an infinite capacity to expand. Our hearts and minds have more space than we ever imagined, and the more we choose to let in, the richer our lives and relationships will be.
(Author’s note: If you are in an abusive relationship, please seek help from a licensed professional. It is not your fault, nor is it your responsibility to fix it. Everything I state in this article applies only when both partners are invested in fostering a safe, healthy, and fulfilling relationship. I am not a mental health professional, and this article is solely a reflection on my experiences in marriage therapy. It is not to be taken as relationship advice.)