A few months ago my fiancée and I watched an episode of “Thirtysomethings” when Elliot and Nancy start seeing a marriage counselor. At first they are both embarrassed and ashamed, and neither wants their circle of friends to know. But as it goes in a television show, the secret gets out and they both feel like crap.
Call me a stereotypical New Yorker, but I love therapy and never understood why people are embarrassed or ashamed about it. I also never got why people wait until they feel like breaking up to start couples’ therapy. Therapy got me through adolescence, depression, disorder, and my relationship with my fiancée.
Long before this very special episode of 1989 TV drama, I knew my parents went to couples therapy, as well as my aunt.
I remember sitting in her car one evening, about 10 years ago, as she told me that she and my then uncle were trying to work things out. It all seemed very logical to me. If you have a problem, try to fix it, especially if the problem is in your relationship.
Nicole* and I started having problems about a year into ours. In late summer 2009, the honeymoon period was over, and we were adjusting to co-habitation. It started with having sex less frequently, and then it spilled into tiffs about the dishes, then about how many pets we could have. I was allergic to cats, but had gotten along well with her cat and developed an immunity to him. A few weeks after we moved in together, we impulsively adopted another adult cat, and a week after that Nicole brought a newborn kitten home. We also had her two guinea pigs in our tiny apartment. I was so overwhelmed with pets and allergies and food prices that I lost it. We eventually gave away the second cat and kept the kitten, but it was the start of a series of issues we had yet to address.
A year later, Nicole and I moved into a new place, which I bought with some help from my parents. Nicole had just quit her job as a social worker, and I stayed at my job that I didn’t like. We became domestic partners so Nicole could sign on to my health insurance. I was stretching my salary to help support her, and it was really difficult. Again, we started to snap at each other. I was really stressed out, overwhelmed, and our sex life was non-existent. We needed help.
We had talked about couples’ therapy before we moved into our new place, but never quite got around to it. Sure, it sucked that we weren’t screwing each other like rabbits, and had some budgeting problems, but we were happy and communicative. Or so we thought.
I volunteered to search for a therapist, and I started with my insurance company. I looked online for therapists that were in-network. I also searched on Psychology Today’s website (http://therapists.psychologytoday.com/rms/) which has a therapist directory. I spoke to a couple of different ones over the phone, but scheduling wise we could never make it work. Finally, a friend recommended her therapist to us. I scoped Claire* out on her website, and after I contacted her via email, she agreed to take Nicole and me on as her clients.
Our first meeting was awkward. Neither of us knew what to say, or how much to say. Nicole was cracking jokes as a way to cope with her nervous energy, and I was very serious. Claire took our wacky behavior in stride though, and assured us that we were doing fine and giving her good information about our relationship and why we were in her office. She also told us that we seemed to have a good foundation, and she was hopeful we would work things out.
Two months into therapy, as we dug deeper into our sex life and financial issues, things started to unravel. Little did we know that beneath the lack of mojo were feelings of guilt, resentment, and miscommunication. I learned that Nicole was hiding some serious debt from me, and was in over her head with bills. She learned what a control freak I was, and couldn’t understand why I got so upset over some dirty socks and dishes. I also learned I was a total pushover, and would later get upset over something I agreed to do too quickly.
As we progressed in therapy, we had a difficult five to six months. When her older cat was sick and spent a week at the vet, I had to take out a credit card to pay for the bill because her credit was so bad. I was having sex dreams about men, and fantasized about the ones I saw in bars. I was terrified I would get drunk at a bar and kiss some guy, and it almost happened once. Whenever I tried to explain my feelings and how difficult it was to experience them with Nicole, she would get upset and both of us would end up in tears.
With Claire’s guidance in individual sessions with her, I started to figure out that the sexual dreams and fantasies about men were my response to stress in the relationship. It was actually relief, because it explained why I also had similar feelings in my past long-term relationship. Nicole also realized she needed to get on top of her finances and organize her business, not only for herself, but for us. After trying various methods, she found one that worked for her. We also divided up the housework so the apartment was clean and looked pretty to Nicole’s liking. I let Nicole decorate, but asked that she seek my approval before any big changes, like painting the walls or buying new furniture. We also agreed that she would split the vet bill with me, and start paying me back the money she owed me from a big vacation the year before. I learned to think before agreeing to something that affected both of us, and really be okay with the decision. I also learned to say no and ask for help instead of always doing things for Nicole.
When we started therapy together, we both thought we were in amazing shape. We had trust and love, but our behaviors and communication needed to be adjusted. Those few months of discomfort were really tough, but we managed to push through and be patient with each other and ourselves. We’ve been in therapy for over a year now, and have made so much progress. We understand that when we are stressed out together or individually, our sex life takes a nosedive.
Throughout the process, I’ve told my friends and family about our sessions with Claire. I was really happy to find out another aunt and uncle were in therapy for years before they got married, and that some friends have also been to therapy with their boyfriends and husbands. I think realizing that we were committed to making our relationship work helped us greatly in the process, and now we feel prepared for whatever challenges we will face in marriage.
Have you and a partner ever tried couples therapy? How was the experience for you?
*Names have been changed