The Truth about Couples Therapy….Finally


So, the Poodle, or Couples Therapist #3, this round.

First, to state the obvious, you don’t go to couples therapy if your marriage is in good working order.  You go because you have hope, love and a need for a change you can’t make happen on your own.  You go vulnerable.

My partner and I have been together for twenty-four years.  We have had huge ups and downs, and we’ve had times of evenness.  I loved the evenness, the daily life that stretched into months and then years, the closeness, talking, laughter, quirkiness, inappropriate jokes, the times lying in bed laughing our heads off.  It’s hard when things get rocky and you don’t, at first, or maybe ever, understand what made you fall off the plateau.

Because there are plateaus.  At least, this very long marriage for me has been about growing into different levels of closeness, slipping back into old patterns of relating, being sorry, learning what love is, and what it isn’t.  Or, we’re always just getting a little less crazy, rather than ever becoming the poster couple for queer longevity.  Mostly, over and over, we learn what’s inside of us still to be healed.

Then we go to the Poodle.  In the moment, I’m just…in the moment.  But when she told us our relationship was dysfunctional, and then told me I might have a couple skills to rub together, I didn’t hit the roof right away–I felt hurt.  I felt disrespected and pathologized and diminished, seen as less than who I really am.  I was shocked, because we heard about the Poodle through the network of therapists who bring Buddhist mindfulness into their practice; and Buddhist psychology refutes the disease theory.  In Buddhist psychology, pathology, symptom and diagnosis are replaced by a practice of knowing, and going deeper, and finding what’s there.  It’s a spiritual practice, at least from what I’ve read, not a medical practice.

Consider how much I must love my partner to endure the search for a therapist who will not disparage us.  Consider the inevitability of being diagnosed and pathologized, because THAT IS WHAT THEY DO.  I keep trying to put words on how much I hate it.  I mean, to be a human being is to struggle, all your life, with the paradox of your own possibilities for darkness and light.  We have addictions, we betray ourselves and each other, we are unconsciously manipulative, we shame and judge each other, we play one up competitive games, we use each other to fill the wounds left by people in our past.  We do this.  And we love each other, we witness, we extend kindness, generosity.  We are capable of both murder and heroism.  I hate therapy because every time someone tries to put a diagnosis on me, my partner, or both of us, they ignore the truth of our human contradictions.  It becomes the medical model–what is wrong with you?  (Pathology.)  I’ll tell you.  (Diagnosis.)

I am a terrifically flawed human being.  I have faults, and darkness, and struggles.  But I just don’t think there’s anything really wrong with me.  Yes, I’m afraid of intimacy, and it’s hard to be vulnerable, and I can be reactive and bossy.  But does anyone really believe that I’m going to eradicate these very human faults once and for all?  I mean, get real.  Isn’t love about being in the ring with each other’s faults, having humor about them, learning to accept, not take personally, the other person’s struggles?

I have investigated healing because I so deeply needed it.  The first 20 years of my life were difficult, full of unexpected losses, sudden change and real pain.  Healing is terribly difficult, painful–a lot of the time you don’t know what you’re doing, or if it’s right, or if it will really help.  You have to take a lot on faith–a faith that something inside you does know the way, and the wild intuition that makes no sense is actually a guide.  I have healed.  Certainly not everything, not even close, but I have healed.  I mean, profound change, entering the unknown, coming out different, really feeling I had something to offer the world.  The hardest thing in my life now is that often in normal life there’s no place for that knowledge, not enough people to share it with–I can feel alone with what I learned.  I can say I entered the cave of darkness, but what I really feel is that I entered the sacred.  There is a state of consciousness in which all of what you are can be held, felt, and accepted.  Some people would say integrated.  I have known that place and I am different because of it.  So really, how dare some therapist, in the first session, tell me that I might have a couple skills?  It takes real heroism to heal and grieve.  I felt, looking out of that knowledge at Couples Therapist #3, that she knew nothing, and how dare she try to diminish the place in me that knows the sacred, that has learned how to heal?

What is with these people?

I sincerely wonder if they would know healing if it hit them over the head.  Repeatedly.

Couples Therapist #1 raised her eyebrows in disbelief when my partner and I started talking about the good times.  WHAT?  It’s impossible to have trouble once you’ve found a way of relating that feels good?  That is happiness, for a good long while, even though there is still work to be done?  And really, in a marriage, when is there not work to be done?

On Monday, we are supposed to go back to see the Sheepdog, and truth is, she doesn’t have that super edge of one-up diagnosis and pathology.  She doesn’t seem to categorize us so extremely.  I don’t like her boundaries AT ALL, but maybe because she herself is gender queer, she’s given up on the idea that there’s a one-size-fits-all mental health definition.  Maybe she knows that health is…something that exists alongside our craziness, and that we can have a day of real health followed, at some time later, by some real fucked-upness.  I hope she does know this, even if she does turn into a dog in between sessions.

Last night my partner said she’d read an article about psychotherapy being a very new art form.  The article said that no one really knows what works, and there are all these schools of psychotherapy, and every school believes they have the answer.

Science has recently told us that the brain is endlessly plastic and human beings are capable of changing all throughout our life cycle.  But here’s the thing–we have a 50%+ divorce rate.  Someone’s not changing somewhere.

I recently did this crazy thing and went on the FB page of someone from my past.  When I knew her, she was this insane party girl, not terribly moral, very flirty, didn’t really like other women that much.  On her FB page?  She’s in her mid-forties, writing about tailgate parties and getting a stiff drink after, well, pretty much any life experience.  It was painful to read.

Like I said, someone’s not changing somewhere.

I know people can change.  I’m Irish, and I saw it fairly early when my uncles started getting into AA. (There are so many alcoholics on my father’s side of the family they started their own 12 step program called “Families Anonymous.”  I have always wondered if people not in my family were allowed to attend.)  You want to see someone change?  Watch an addict get sober and stay that way.  That’s change.

And what do 12 step programs have that therapy lacks?  A spiritual foundation.  Addicts self-diagnose, and then they are given a spiritual practice of honesty and humility.  True, addicts can and do pathologize themselves.  But everything I know about healing is that it has to involve the sacred.  HAS TO.  You can’t make it through the darkness alone.  Something has to lead you, and it’s not a human being, or not just another human being.

We get so stuck.  We are afraid we can never change.  I’m afraid I can’t change, even though I’m so different from the 19 year old girl who stood on the edge of Mount Lemmon in Tucson, Arizona, the sun beating down, the desert stretched like a sea of beige and rust below my feet, the sky so big, everything seeming possible and sad at the same time.  I have her spirit, her longing, her big hope, but when I turn away from that vista, and walk back into my life, it’s a different life, and I can feel it when I smile at a stranger–I am no longer so completely alone.  I no longer have such distance between me and the rest of the world, even when I’m lonely.

I only know this: diagnosis and pathology are not an answer to loneliness, or relationship struggles, or spiritual searching.  Healing is, perhaps, not often found in therapy.  (I read a study that showed therapy didn’t change behavior, it just made people feel better.)  But it is to be found.  I know this, too.

Metta, metta for all of us who need to heal, to deepen, to find each other.  In other words, metta for all sentient beings.  We need it.

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One thought on “The Truth about Couples Therapy….Finally

  1. Research shows that if you compare schools of psychotherapy, none are more effective than other ones, but the single most important ingredient in determining whether therapy works is the quality of the relationship between the therapist and client. Or clients, in this case.

    Hope you find a couples’ therapist who meets your needs. There are plenty of lousy ones out there, but there are good ones, too. There are also ones who are good for someone else, but not good for you.

    Incidentally, I am a therapist, and I agree with everything you said about the disease model and pathology. It has its purpose at times (getting sessions paid for) but it’s a very limited and not always useful way of viewing people and their problems.

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