I said I was going to post a series of pieces on couples therapy, and then I didn’t. I am the worst! But, my incredible husband, who sat those many hours on that couch next to me, put together this post sharing his thoughts on couples therapy. Thank you, my darling husband. (You can find him on Twitter @joshrutner
Let’s face it: even the strongest relationships can sustain heavy damage when something like infertility enters the picture. So many things that were, up until then, pleasantly out of mind, are suddenly front-and-center and making each partner work much harder than they did before to both hold themselves together and to be a support for other. I’m talking about things like shame (if one or both parties see themselves as “the broken one”), self-image/worth (if the idea of being a parent suddenly seems out of reach), physical pain (treatments can really take their toll), mental anguish (keeping secrets about your situation from friends combined with witnessing “everyone else” having brand new babies), and even something as simple as time management (treatments can often require tons of time away from the office), &c., &c.
It turns out that the biggest issue that Jen and I had to deal with — the thing that was needed in order to adequately address in any real way the issues above — was communication.
It was pretty simple, really: In times of high pressure or stress, my style was to allow myself to shut down any talk of the offending situation; to just put it out of my mind and think about other things. I’ve gotten quite good at it, in fact. This might be well and good (some will likely disagree that it is ever good, but let’s leave that aside) were I on my own, dealing with something that I could ignore and my life would remain more or less fine. But, of course, I am married: I have committed myself to my wife and so our problems are OUR problems, and if I choose to shut down, I’m essentially leaving her out in the cold while I bask in my compartmentalized comfort. Of course, I did shut down, I did ignore, I did put aside for later. And that lead to a none-too-pleasant cycle of resentment and even more avoidance and so on: Don’t Wash, Don’t Rinse, Repeat.
At a certain point, Jen — who, mind you, is a huge booster for therapy — thought that enough was enough and that if we were going to start addressing the big issues I mentioned above — the ones that were staring us in the face as we worked on treatments — we were going to have to get our asses on a couch in front of a professional listener.
She was right, of course, but it was hard for me to see, at first. My ability to put things off was still in full force after I finally agreed to join her in weekly sessions. More than anything, I will say, it was the plain and simple time commitment of weekly therapy sessions that kept me from throwing myself into them. We both had a lot going on, and the idea of one less free evening per week — for the foreseeable future, no less! — was, in my mind at least, a HUGE obstacle.
But we went. And we talked. Sometimes she would cry, sometimes I would; sometimes together. And there were nights when she would be angry, or I would, or we’d be angry together. Sometimes those feelings stayed with us for the subway ride home. Sometimes it was rough. But we went. And while it may seem like nothing in hindsight or to an outsider, we were facing each other and talking openly about our relationship and its discontents — many of which was merely thrust upon us as an accompaniment to infertility — for 50 minutes each week. Some weeks that was all we were able to muster. Some weeks we would manage to get some “real talk” in at home. In tough times, one must often start small and work slowly. After all, it took a long time to build the layers of resentment, sadness, distrust, etc., so it makes sense that it will take time to remove those layers: Wash, Rinse, Repeat.
I am no expert in therapy, nor would I claim that my experience is necessarily archetypal. However, in case it’s helpful to anyone reading this, I’ll lay out some takeaways that might be useful:
THINK OF THERAPY SIMPLY AS MEDIATED COMMUNICATION. That’s all it is, really, and it can be helpful to think of it that way, particularly if you’re a proud person or one who might think that therapy is only for crazy or emotionally helpless people. It’s just you and your partner, talking to each other, with an impartial pair of ears listening and helping you out of ruts, if you get stuck in them, and pushing you to put into words how you feel if it seems that you’re holding back.
TAKE SERIOUSLY A PARTNER’S REQUEST TO GO TO THERAPY. Some people are not so lucky to have a partner who is able to identify problems and want to fix them (rather than just up and leave when things are rough). If your partner asks — or pleads! — that you go to therapy together, put down what you’re doing and make some calls. At worst, you’re paying for valuable time together which — let’s face it — you probably aren’t making time for at home. At best, you’re rebuilding a relationship you are committed to and re-establishing lost skills, trust, &c.
COUPLES THERAPY IS NOT ALL ABOUT YOU: LISTEN. You and your partner should be there for the good of the couple, and both of you deserve to be heard in full by the other, but also have the responsibility to listen to the other. Listen as well as you speak, reserving judgment while the other person is speaking. (You’ll hear them differently.)
WHEN YOU DO SPEAK, SPEAK UP. If you want someone to know something that you feel, it is best to just get it out there in a safe space and knead it together.
MAKE SURE YOU’VE GOT TENDERNESS BENEATH YOUR HONESTY. Paul Simon wasn’t kidding: “What can I do / Much of what you say is true / I know you see through me / But there’s no tenderness / Beneath your honesty.” It’s tempting sometimes to lash out with a litany of complaints, particularly if it seems like you’ve recently been “called out” on something. Just remember to keep some tenderness beneath that honesty.
IF AT FIRST YOU DON’T SUCCEED… Couples therapy need not be a lifelong thing, but it’s also not likely a one-time-was-all-it-took-and-we’re-all-better-now type of scene either. Depending on how your communication is at home, the causes of what communication breakdowns do exist, and your collective willingness to put effort into the process, it can take some time.