When I was in elementary school, my report cards would consistently come home with notes from my teachers saying that I was a great student but would probably benefit from being a little less chatty. I always had a lot to say. I guess that is because talking, writing, communicating, in general, is how I process my feelings. So, it should come as no surprise that I have spent most of my adult life in therapy. The ability to open up in a safe environment, allow myself to explore my vulnerabilities, and process the various aspects of my life has always been critically important to me. Even in the days when people were ashamed to admit that they were in therapy, I was a loud advocate, openly sharing my experiences because I believe so deeply in the benefit of talk therapy.
When my marriage was first beginning to deteriorate, ironically, my ex was the one to suggest counseling. Even though I was, at the time, seeing my own therapist and had asked her to recommend one for us both to see, I was wary. The first time we attempted it, I melted down in the car on our way to the session. It was an unexpected reaction and, after thinking about it a lot, I realized that I was afraid to confront the decline of my relationship. Rather than go and begin unpacking our issues, we got into a big fight (instigated by me) and turned around and went home. We never rescheduled that appointment.
In the following weeks, I discussed my reaction and behavior with my therapist and did my best to gain some insight into my surprising resistance to going to counseling with my ex. It took me years to fully understand what was happening. At that moment in time, I was in deep denial and could not even fathom the idea of leaving my husband. What I didn’t recognize at the time was that going to counseling would have forced me to confront some truths about my marriage, about my husband, and about myself that would also make me address the likelihood that the marriage could not survive. As many times as I had fantasized about being divorced, the stark reality of raising two young children on my own, emotionally and financially, was terrifying. It was many years before we attempted counseling again but, when we did, I was in a very different headspace and knew it was time to tackle the elephant in the room.
When we walked into the therapist’s office the second time around, he asked us what our objectives for therapy were. My ex went first and shared that he was there to fix our marriage. He believed we had major communication challenges and, if we could overcome those, we could right the ship. Despite the fact that I had raised the topic of divorce with him, he insisted that I had to be open and willing to save the marriage for him to agree to participate in therapy. I thought that was a fair request and I still struggled with my own feelings. When it was my turn to respond, I was honest and shared that I wasn’t clear what the outcome might be but I wanted to go through the process to see where we landed. My ex was not happy because I violated our agreement, not willing to say that my hope was that we could fix our problems. I would have been lying had I said that because, in my gut, I knew our problems were significant and I wasn’t sure we could fix them.
By this point in our marriage, my ex had been suffering from severe emotional issues and was having difficulty pulling his life together. He wasn’t working steadily, he was depressed, and he didn’t have the ambition to make the changes necessary to get his life back on track. This resulted in him lacking any empathy for me and each day became more difficult for both of us. I was feeling lonely and abandoned, and saddled with far too much responsibility. He was feeling guilt and shame and, I believe, hanging on to our marriage as his final life preserver. The more he clung to me, the more I wanted to move further away from him because I was feeling suffocated. He was pilfering my oxygen and leaving me gasping for air. As the weeks progressed in our counseling, my only desire was for him to see that we had moved so far apart from each other and had actually become completely different people than we had been when we first united. On the spectrum of life, he and I could not have been further apart. I saw it. The therapist saw it. My ex did not. My ex could not. Because I had already begun the separation process in my head, my hope was that the therapy would ultimately reveal how far apart we had become and help him recognize that there was nothing left to our marriage.
When we first started discussing counseling, I thought about what I had always heard about couple’s therapy – it is usually the last station stop before divorce. And, for us, that was very true. As our therapy progressed it was clear that we could not communicate. This should have been no surprise to us since we had been fighting ineffectively since the beginning of our relationship. The evidence was mounting that we did not have the tools nor a shared understanding of how to communicate with one another. Despite how hard I worked in my own therapy, and in my professional life, to become a more mindful and respectful communicator, I could not inject those skills into my marriage. I did not like to argue or yell and found that the only person with whom I had that dynamic was my ex. In all of my other relationships, open and direct discussion was how I was working through conflicts. With my ex it was a circular loop of arguing about the same old problems again and again with no resolution and no forgiveness. As the weeks went on I began to lose faith in any outcome other than separation.
Over the past 20 years, I have had two significant therapists – our couple’s counselor and, prior to him, a wonderful woman who helped me recover from a very difficult childhood. As she and I dug into that work, I began to see myself differently and started to investigate my life from very different angles. I had a newfound confidence in my feelings and emotions which was great for me but became a threat to my ex. Since we began our relationship in a similar place – both licking our wounds from dysfunctional families – it was jarring (for both of us) that we were no longer operating from the same manual. My focus was clear and, while the journey was by no means without its ups and downs, I stridently pursued a life free from the scars of the past. I was learning forgiveness and acceptance. I chose to abandon old ways of thinking about myself and my relationships. I was deeply engrossed in my therapy and committed to the process. When my ex and I started counseling, I expressed to him my concerns that I was farther down the road to recovery and that might put us at odds in our couple’s therapy. He accused me of thinking I was better than him. He was threatened and I understood that. Unfortunately, my instincts were right and our sessions were terribly imbalanced. Often, my ex would say that he felt ganged up on by the therapist and me because we were both having similar observations and experiences. And, admittedly, I found myself frustrated in our sessions because I began to feel less like a participant and more like an observer in his counseling sessions. Very little of our sessions included my feelings or challenges and, instead, we spent most time rehashing my ex’s issues. In our very first session, my ex said he felt like I treated him like one of my employees and was “managing” him. I didn’t agree with his characterization at the time but, upon reflection, he was right. I was managing the relationship so I could try lower the stress level and survive. And that was no way to exist inside of a marriage.
After months of circular discussions, our therapist suggested that my ex should have individual sessions and that we should take a break from couple’s therapy. So, we gave ourselves a break and he started seeing the therapist for one-on-one counseling. However, nothing was changing and it seemed like the problems were getting worse. Finally, after about a year of him seeing the therapist on his own, we went back in together and it was if we were back at our first session. I was crestfallen and devastated. I implicitly understood that our marriage was ending. It was no longer a matter of if but when. My ex stopped seeing the therapist. We discontinued our couple’s therapy and I made up my mind that I would simply wait it out until my younger son graduated from high school – in 3.5 years.
Early in 2019 I reached out to our couple’s therapist and asked if I could come in for a session. Since he knew my ex intimately, I felt like he was the only person who could counsel me. I needed him to help me sort out how I was feeling and help me chart a course forward. Even though I had committed myself to sticking it out for a few more years, I had no plan for how I was actually going to make that happen. It was clear that my ex and I were not functioning as a partnership and, every day, that became more intolerable. This marriage could not be saved. And so began my expedition towards acceptance that divorce was far more imminent than I had previously thought.