We hadn’t been married that long when we first sought the help of a couples therapist. Our son was a toddler. I remember that the therapist had covered an entire wall of her office in framed photographs of the same black horse. It seemed borderline obsessive to me, but what did I know? I was the one who couldn’t stop yelling at my husband when he irritated me, which was often. And he couldn’t refrain from yelling right back. We knew this wasn’t good for our child.
“Do you love each other?” the therapist demanded, fixing us with a steely stare. It was the first thing out of her mouth. Mark and I sat speechless in our respective chairs, staring back. Did we love each other? Good question, but wasn’t that what we were there to find out?
The therapist told us that we had landed in her office “just in the nick of time,” but that’s about all I remember from our sessions together, which numbered only a few. She dispensed what we’d later come to find was boilerplate couples therapy advice: use “I-statements” instead of accusations (“I feel bad when you say that” versus “You’re an idiot”), don’t take each other for granted, go out on date nights.
We’d leave the therapist’s office rolling our eyes at some comment she’d made, making light of the whole corny process, stepping into the elevator wrapped in a kind of mischievous intimacy. It was us against her.
In that way, I guess, she did something helpful.
The same could be said of the half-dozen therapists we would sit across from in the following years. We’d start out serious and committed, earnestly writing down what we loved about the other, pausing and counting to 10 instead of going on the attack. But by session three or four or six, we’d tire of the energy it took to be relationship paragons and start making fun of the therapist.
There was the young woman in Houston with the incongruous henna tattoos on her hands, still doing her doctorate in psychology. She was shy and quiet, almost pathologically so, prompting me to want to grab her notebook and ask, “What’s the trouble, dear?”
Then there was the dashing doctor in the Don Johnson suit who told us true love was being dependent on your partner without him or her knowing it — pretzel logic that Mark and I could never quite figure out.
He was followed years later by the 20-something woman who’d never been married, who pinned our relationship trouble on my habit of watching “Seinfeld” every Thursday night. She’s the one who counseled us to say “Purpose?” whenever one of us said something hurtful, as a way to unearth hidden motivations. Of course, we turned it into a private joke, spouting “Purpose?!” whenever one of us said something even remotely snide.
Not to forget the little Jewish grandmother who told Mark that he needed to quit bugging me about my drinking. (Man, did I love her!)
Inevitably we’d stop making appointments. Life would crest up and float along happily, then eventually descend, taking our marriage along with it. The issues we tussled with were garden variety: money, sex, parenting, control. Nothing truly interesting or warped. Really, I don’t know how therapists stay awake.
I suppose something worked. This fall, barring a disaster, we’ll celebrate 30 years of marriage, a chunk of time that has been part bliss, part hellscape, with lots of regular life thrown in. Perhaps bits of our therapists’ wisdom sneaked past our cynicism and slipped into the corners of our relationship, flattening out some of the kinks.
But I really don’t believe that. I don’t know why some people stay married while others don’t, but I’m pretty sure it’s not because the former become adept at using I-statements and “emotional mirroring.” Maybe it all boils down to neuroscience, like everything else seems to these days.
In our case, it certainly didn’t hurt that I got sober five years ago. Since then, I have continued to faithfully attend my recovery group. And Mark and I have each done individual therapy as well.
But even people in recovery divorce. Even people who do individual therapy divorce.
Maybe all that marriage therapy functioned as a kind of glue. After all, each time we showed up to take our places on the therapist’s couch, we sent a silent but powerful message to each other: I’m not giving up on you.
When Mark and I were watching “Titanic” in the theater and that guy hit the propeller on the way down (wow, talk about a bad day!), others might have been shocked when I blurted out a laugh, but not Mark. He knows I’m twisted; like two gnarled oak trees side by side, we’ve grown twisted together. After 30 years, even with all the bumps on our path — perhaps because of the bumps in the path, since scar tissue only makes you stronger — we’d both do it all over again.
But hopefully our therapy days are done.
Melissa Fletcher Stoeltje is a reporter at the San Antonio Express-News.