Everything You Wanted to Know about Couples Therapy But Were Afraid to Ask

First, I want to cop to the fact that today is the first day of journaling on the mind/body syndrome plan.  I am supposed to write about my unconscious rage for 45 minutes, 15 minutes this morning, and 30 minutes tonight.  I have to make a list of all the things in life that could be potential sources of rage.  OMG!  I am not the person who says, “What rage?”  I’m like, I am REACTIVE!  I have so many things to be pissed about 45 minutes may not be enough!

This is, of course, why I have been diagnosed with mind/body syndrome.  The theory is that if you have all this rage–and many people do, especially reactive, over-responsible perfectionists–your mind puts it into your body because your unconscious is afraid you might become a serial killer.

I totally get that.

So, I’m going to write about couples therapy.  If this doesn’t make sense to you, well, just accept it as the way I work.  Or you might guess that psychotherapy of every kind is one of the things I have unconscious rage about.  And conscious rage.  And if there is another kind of rage to have about therapy, I probably have that, too.

If you’ve guessed this, YOU WOULD BE RIGHT.

But, on to couples therapy.

I had a halfway decent individual therapist in the mid 1990’s, when my partner and I were interested in the couples work of Harville Hendrix.  This therapist told me that couples therapy is very primitive, that no one knows what works with couples, and that because of that, most couples therapist are walking blind–and, get this, they don’t have the HUMILITY to know that they’re walking blind.

In other words, couples therapy usually doesn’t work.  The therapist teaches communication skills, assigns exercises, and the couple has some improvement AS LONG AS THEY ARE IN THERAPY.  But the improvement doesn’t last, because the communication model is 1) unnatural,  2) dependent on the therapist’s intervention, and 3) often doesn’t address the deeper underlying issues.  Basically, it’s all bandaid work.  The two extreme types of couples–idealized and degraded–both trigger the shit out of each other and lose control of their behavior.  In other words, they are all REACTIVE.  The idealized couple shuts down and stops talking when they are triggered; the degraded couple has screaming fights.  Finding a way to manage the triggers, to notice them when they occur, to hold onto yourself and have choices about whether to fall into triggered behavior–these are very hard things to teach and learn, especially in the arena of intimacy, where the stakes are so much higher, because of how much we care, because loss and failure to connect matter so much, because without our partners we are alone.

Then, couples therapists will try to negotiate deals.  Your partner has abandonment issues and becomes very critical and toxic when he feels that your attention is elsewhere.  So, the couples therapist asks you to take time every day to connect so your partner will feel more secure.

NO!  It is not your job to take care of your partner’s abandonment feelings!  If you do, you’ll hate him and he never has to grow up!

I have always enjoyed the idea that intimacy is an adult-growing experience.  Meaning, all the ways we’re not mature, all the ways we’re flawed or hurt or scarred, they will find their way to the surface if we’re intimate with another person.  There’s nowhere to hide.  Like, there are no secrets in families, just things that aren’t said out loud.  Everyone knows everything about each other.

Meaning, if you’re going to do intimacy, be prepared to step into the fire.  Be prepared to grow up.

Of course, this comes from a woman who complains constantly about going to couples therapy, so take that under consideration.  Also consider that I deeply wonder if the couples therapists (we’re on #2 this round, having given up on the first one) have any idea what they’re doing.

My partner and I did a workshop on Intimacy and Desire with David Schnarch and Ruth Morehouse.  Boy do those two love to talk about sex!  BUT, the theory is way confrontational, and so is David Schnarch.  He believes in marital sadism, that we know what our partners want, we know how to hurt them, and if we’re not mature, we knowingly (if subconsciously in some cases) use these things to gain power in inappropriate ways.  We withhold, we dominate, we insist, we punish.  He says loving is hard.  Being known and keeping hold of your behavior in the light of the full gaze of intimacy is the challenge of adulthood.  He believes that holding onto our integrity in intimate relationships is harder than anywhere else, and that the way couples grow is by each member confronting herself or himself out loud in front of his or her partner.

I’ve tried it.  I’m still trying it.  The vulnerability is searing.  The feeling of being known is mind-blowing.

Thing is, I don’t really want to do it in couples therapy.  Because okay, while I accept that I can’t blog about my partner, I can say that the current couples therapist has run over by at least 10 minutes every session, has lowered her fees for us, and has suggested a phone check in between sessions and WE’VE ONLY SEEN HER 3 TIMES!  GET A BOUNDARY, WOULD YOU?  This is why I’m planning to put my chair near the door.  I’d quit, but I am extending my sainthood to attending at least one more session because my partner has asked me to.  And there is this: I love my partner.

Therapy or no therapy, it comes down to that.  I think that’s why every time I put the words “couples therapy” in the title of a blog, the number of readers goes exponential.  We want to figure out how to do it.  We’re so afraid of being alone.  We long so deeply to be loved.  I’ve been with my partner for 24 years, some great, some rocky.  I hope that we find a way to lurch into the next level of intimacy, that we accept our existential aloneness so we don’t depend on each other for meaning, that we listen and talk better, that we deepen in respect for each other.  I’m not sure couples therapy is the way to do it.  So.  We are doing meditation together, and yoga, and we are taking time each day to check in beyond, “How was your day?” and we are trying to listen and drop the defensiveness…or the marital sadism, as Schnarch would say.  And I am doing my comedy routines as I always do, because our ability to laugh at our own absurdity goes a long way toward preventing divorce.

More to say about loving each other, about finding our way to each other, always, always, always.

Metta for all human beings, coupled or single, as we long for love and struggle to be loving.

Metta for me, as I go to write about rage for the next 15 minutes!


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