Marriage counseling report card - part one

If you can't say something nice...we'll start with the good:

"Linda" suggested/required each of us to go to an individual counselor in addition to seeing her as a couple. We had personal issues that we needed to address if we were going to have any success working on our marital problems. Linda referred me to John, and I couldn't have been happier with this choice. He was very helpful in working through my own issues, as well as a sounding board for my marital problems.

Linda asked tough questions. Her questions made us discuss subjects we had avoided talking about. Subjects that were sometimes embarrassing, loaded with shame, and more than a little tension. Our conflict avoidance was so prevalent, there was plenty to discuss. Once the subjects were broached, we did pretty well in opening up. Like so many other things, the stress and worry of anticipation is much worse than the actual thing you're avoiding.

I think just having a third person in the room was helpful, whether or not she was pushing us. When we were in session, J and I sat side by side on a couch facing Linda. I think it was easier to open up when we weren't facing each other. When discussing embarrassing or hurtful things, we weren't looking in each other's eyes. We didn't see each other's reaction, the crestfallen looks, any walls going up, etc. John actually recommended that we use this side-by-side technique by talking while out for a walk together. I made this suggestion a couple of times, but it didn't pan out.

When J initially mentioned moving out, Linda encouraged her to stay. Linda and I both felt that it was premature, and would only make working on our communication more difficult. Though J moved out a week or two later, I appreciated that Linda had encouraged us to work through things by staying under the same roof.

We met just about every week, 14 sessions in all, and we covered quite a bit of ground. Digging in to all the unsaid problems was a difficult journey, but I am better for it. It could have gone much, much better though. Most of things I appreciated about our counseling were pretty general and not specific to what Linda brought to the table. Next, the not so good.

Hard to break old habits

I've been talking with J on the phone a little bit recently because of the approaching home sale. I seem to miss her each time, so there have been several voicemails. I no longer say "Hey, its me" at the beginning of the message. I don't get to have that familiarity anymore. If there isn't now, there may another "me" someday soon.

The conversations have been somewhat awkward as well. The topics stay mostly to the business at hand with only minor personal updates. J called me this morning with a question on the escrow documents she was faxing off. I was still in bed - the alarm had gone off but I wasn't up yet, so I was understandably groggy. As she was signing off of the call, she stumbled over some words. I think she was about to say "love you" but caught herself. I could be wrong (I was half asleep), but that is how it seemed.

Inviting a stranger to the table

I was initially hesitant toward counseling. It was going to be odd sensation to be discussing our failings with someone in the corner taking notes. I am not comfortable talking about myself in general, and I wasn't looking forward to shining a spotlight on the things I felt shame about.

People go to counselors for many reasons. At its core, you have a neutral third party in the room. Couples that argue often may need a third person to act like a referee. Many other couples need an interpreter so they can learn to speak each other's language. Still others may need a counselor to help them focus in on one particular issue and act like a mediator.

We weren't really talking, much less arguing. What we needed was someone to ask questions about difficult subjects to get the conversation started. We don't often broach these subjects with friends and family, so we needed someone neutral to dive in and ask the embarrassing questions. Once we were talking, ideally she would guide us toward a solution.

Of course most counselors are going to resist outright telling you what to do. It isn't that easy, and it probably shouldn't be. Their answers often have some sort of "well what do you think" element to it. We needed to develop some skills to better understand and communicate with each other. Along with the push start, we were looking for some education as well.

Once you decide to take the plunge, where do you turn? Getting the right person can be critical. One of the only people I told early on about my marital problems was my boss. I had to change the way I worked and my pay structure as a part of moving forward. He confided that he and his wife went to a counselor a few years back, and after one session they were about ready to get a divorce. We were looking for someone to stir the pot a little, not throw a match on a powder keg.

We ended up with "Linda". Not the best choice, not the worst. We'll cover our time with her next.


J and I had been married for just over 7 years last November when she brought up counseling for the second time. She had brought it up once before in our second year, but I had been resistant then, and she didn't push it. About two weeks before she suggested counseling the second time, we had had some discussions that made it clear that something serious was wrong. So when she suggested counseling this second time, I agreed it was time to seek outside help.

Trouble had been brewing in the background for some time. Both of us tend to avoid conflict so we didn't confront some (any) of the lingering problems we were having. This is a recipe for disappointment and resentment. For my part, I wasn't holding back feelings of "when you do X it makes me mad/sad". It was more a feeling of numbness and incompleteness had crept into our relationship. I can admit now that I was depressed. I felt shame, pulled away, and walled off parts of myself. I was suffering, but I didn't realize how heavily it weighed on J and our marriage.

We started counseling in the middle of December. Not knowing who would be best to step in to help, we went to a counselor based on a recommendation. I will call her Linda. Linda suggested we start with four initial sessions and then see where we wanted to go from there. We met once as a couple, then we each had a separate session with Linda, then had one more joint session.

We drove separately to our first joint appointment. Not the best start, but it was a morning appointment and J would be continuing on to work afterwards. We were in the midst of last year's cold snap, and the roads were a bit treacherous. I was following, and the route J had chosen had me concerned as there was a hill that was likely icy. I tried calling her, but she did not answer. I flashed my lights and put on my turn signal to take a right at the next light. She ended up pulling over, and when I rolled down my passenger window to explain my concern, the window shattered. Apparently the top had frozen to the seal and once the motor tugged it down, the window became thousands of tiny safety glass pebbles. I tried to ignore the symbolic omen.

Our first session was largely meet and greet and giving the Clif notes version of why we were there. J had her solo session first a week later. I don't remember much of the details of my solo session with Linda. I'm sure she asked about my viewpoint on our marriage, what our problems were, what my complaints might be. I remember shouldering much of the blame for what had become of our relationship. I'm sure she asked me for specific complaints about J, but I doubt I had much to say. It wasn't her I was dissatisfied with - it was what our relationship and marriage had become. I expressed determination to do whatever it took to save our marriage. I still had a great deal of hope for us.

The one thing I do remember clearly is that towards the end of the session Linda said it was much worse than I knew. Tears welled up and I said something like "sweet" half under my breath. She asked if I was being sarcastic. I don't know if she was being intentionally dense, but when I told her yes it was sarcasm, she didn't follow up with any sort of point she was trying to make. Things she said and did would continue to baffle me in the future. We were off to a rocky start all around.

Can people really change?

That was one of the implied questions when we started going to a marriage counselor. Since many things hadn't been discussed before, we ended up spending lots of time on what needed to be changed. But once things were out in the open, could we affect any meaningful change, or would we just need to learn to accept the shortcomings we both have?

The self-help industry thrives on the promise of the New Year's resolution, that it is never too late to start over. We can change our bad habits, lose that weight, be more organized, spend more time with friends, call Mom on a regular basis, etc. But for some reason that belief is not so generously granted to others. People throw up their hands in frustration to their spouses, family, bosses, companies and government. A leopard can't change his spots, a scorpion can't help who he is, you will never live up to expectations, etc.

Even if we (falsely) agree that people can't change, bad habits are also viewed differently depending on who has the shortcoming. If it is someone else, it is a defect in character. If it is yourself, it is "I can't help it, it is just the way I am" or maybe you can classify your flaws as a disease.

As I mentioned, we both went into counseling thinking I was the one who needed to make the most changes. I believed throughout that I could make changes to improve, both for myself and for our marriage. Though I volunteered (and made) several changes, I didn't blindly promise to change anything and everything. It wouldn't have been sincere or realistic, and I don't think that is what she was looking for anyway.

I have just started reading a book called The Silver Linings Playbook. Pat's wife Nikki has left him and he is spending their "apart time" trying to do things that will make her happy when she "inevitably" returns. He works out 10 hours a day because he thinks she will like him more if he is buff. He begins reading all her favorite books so that he can "drop knowledge on her" by quoting lines, thus impressing her and making him more desirable. He is the only one who believes she will be coming back, and all those around him consider him crazy and desperate.

I too was desperate to save our relationship and our marriage, but I knew superficial changes and empty promises wasn't what we needed. I wasn't trying to create a mythical, perfect person, tailor made for her to love. I was looking to become a better, more honest version of me. But at the end of the day, I would still be me - and she did fall in love with me once. Whether you believe in nature, nurture or a combination of both, we have become who we are over a long period of time. Real change is difficult, but I believe absolutely attainable.

But it is difficult. There will be many false starts and incomplete projects. When I decided to start writing a blog, I went looking for an appropriate (and available) title. It turns out there are lots of blogs dedicated to documenting change that didn't get very far. There were many with phrases like 'divorce', 'a new me', 'year of change' and 'starting over' in the title that only had one post. I won't shine the spotlight on someone who didn't follow through by providing links, but it shows that people with the best of intentions do stumble along their path to progress. But stumbling is not failure. I'd like to think they are making progress even if they aren't writing about it online.

Whether she went into counseling believing I could change or not, J said she was impressed with all I had done to improve. It wasn't enough though. I don't think it was "too little too late", it was just "too late". The challenge going forward is to affect change and improve myself without the tangible reward of saving my marriage. Unfortunately, many of the things I needed to improve on are how I communicate and interact with my partner. I wasn't able to work on this during counseling, and now it's kind of theoretical work at this point. By the time I get to the practice phase of my education, I hope I remember everything I've learned this year, and that I've made lasting changes.