Like everyone else, I’m obsessed with Esther Perel’s raw, intimate couples’ therapy podcast, Where Should We Begin? When I first started listening, I had just moved to a new city with a (newish) partner. Since meeting a year and a half before, we’d moved in together, gotten engaged and relocated to Boston for his new job (which meant temporarily giving up mine). The stress of these changes left our relationship frayed. To be brutally honest, it also highlighted what had become perilously obvious: We simply didn’t know each other that well. We had yet to become familiar with each other’s triggers and were still rooting through emotional baggage. Our fights escalated quickly both because the stakes were so high (I left my socialized health care for you!) and because we hadn’t yet learned how to argue well. After a particularly brutal fight on his birthday that ended with a waiter awkwardly sliding a free dessert complete with lit candle between us as I wept silently into my wine, my partner announced: “I think we need to go see someone.”
I’d been wanting to try premarital counseling even before falling for Esther’s podcast, eager for a framework in which we could constructively address the big ticket questions — money, babies, debt — that go unasked in the bloom of early love. I’m also a big fan of therapy, which has been vital for managing my mental illness and enabling immense personal growth. But I’d never been to therapy with a partner. Before our first session, I made him promise that he wouldn’t let our new therapist break us up. “Remember, we love each other!” I hissed in his ear as we walked into her office. I had the urge to perform our love — to basically sit in his lap on her couch during our session as he shifted uncomfortably and tried to extract his hand from my sweaty death grip. I was petrified that she’d excavate some invisible fault line I didn’t know existed, or diagnose us with an insurmountable conflict and present us with a prescription for immediate separation.
She didn’t. Abby, our therapist, is lovely — intelligent, insightful and real. She has gently wielded her magic therapy wand and endowed our relationship with new levels of intention and happiness. We look forward our sessions more than date night. I evangelize about therapy to anyone who will listen, but if you don’t have the resources or just aren’t sure that it’s for you, I present you with five lessons I’ve learned in my six months of couples counselling so far.
1. It’s Okay to Go to Bed Angry
I am someone who burns hot, so the idea that all arguments should be wrapped up before 9 p.m. has always made me itch. Sometimes I need to stew in my cauldron of righteous fury before I’m able to see a situation clearly. Our therapist has taught us how to recognize when it is time to shelve an argument: If we’re talking in circles or escalating a fight, we’ve become adept at slowing down and saying, “Let’s bring this to Abby.”
This isn’t a quick fix, but it allows us to diffuse the situation. By the time we’re next on the couch, we’re likely calmer, more willing to hear the other person’s side and more clearly able to articulate our true feelings. If you can sense that a fight is taking on a life of its own, don’t be afraid to call a timeout. Drink a glass of water, eat a few cashews, take a walk around the block. Do what you need to do to take care of yourself, and if that means waiting until the morning to figure it out, go ahead! Everything is better after a good night’s sleep.
2. “The Cat Is Just a Metaphor”
Tim Riggins is a totally unhinged ball of ginger fluff that I rescued as a kitten from a basement in Queens. He came with me into our relationship, and try as my partner might, he hasn’t been able to crack this cat. Watching the two of them at a standstill breaks my heart, and having to live with a maniacal animal makes my partner crazy. When we brought this to Abby, she gently floated the possibility that there was more going on here than just a disagreement over a (totally innocent!) pet. This is both true and not: Sometimes we are really fighting about the cat, but much of the time, the cat (or whatever the fight is orbiting around) is a symptom of something deeper — in our case, my rabid and anxious need to fix everything and his desire to have autonomy over his moods and actions.
Therapy has provided us with a venue for unearthing these issues, which allows us to tend to them even in the midst of heightened emotions. Now I’m much more likely to take the time to ask my partner why he feels the way he does, rather than rushing to fix the problem or assert my own point of view. Try treating your relationship like an archeological dig: Are you really fighting about the fact that she bought vanilla almond milk when you clearly asked for original, or could there be something else going on?
3. Accountability Is Key
In one behavior study, people using a cafeteria were twice as likely to clean up after themselves when posters featuring human eyes were hung around the space. Unsurprisingly, we behave better when we think someone is watching. I can attest to this: Since starting therapy, I’ve often noticed myself thinking, “What would Abby say?” Mid-argument, I’ll imagine Abby shaking her head sadly as I come close to undoing all our hard work. There’s no therapy report card (IS THERE, ABBY?!?!?!) but I’m a chronic overachiever, so simply knowing that there is another person out there expecting me to behave better makes me want to ace my relationship. If you aren’t in therapy, it can be helpful to simply think about how you’ll look back on this fight in a few hours. Will you be proud of how carefully you listened or ashamed of your low blows?
4. You Partner Is a Beautiful Stranger
There are moments when I could tell you exactly what my partner is thinking, and then there are times when he might as well be an entirely different species. I find both of these truths completely magical. I’m thrilled by the prospect of getting to know him more intimately and also relish the secret folds of my own heart that he has yet to discover. This comes up again and again in therapy: I’ll believe that I’ve understood exactly why he did or said such and such, and yet in that room, on that couch, he’ll provide an explanation to our therapist that will completely blow my mind.
Coming to terms with the eternal mystery of other people has been immensely helpful in being able to let go of a lot of my expectations about what a relationship should be. Your partner is just as complex as you are, and it is rarely possible to understand the full permutations of another person’s thoughts and behaviors. When we argue now, I try to remember that there is more happening under the surface than I can see, and that asking questions — without judgement — is the only way to learn more.
5. Therapy Is for Everyone
The most common reaction we get when we tell people we’re in therapy is a confused, “But aren’t you happy?” We are, indeed, really happy — and we want to stay that way. I believe mental health check-ups should be part and parcel of preventative health care, and I COULD GO ON, but instead I’ll simply say: It is easier to shore up a whole and healthy relationship than it is to fix a broken one. My partner and I are learning tactics now that will, fingers crossed, enable us to weather the inevitable challenges ahead — challenges that will only increase as we start a family, build a home, and get old and dusty. It is both a luxury and a gift to be able to devote those 50 minutes to tending the gentle animal of us, and I cannot recommend it enough.
Photo by Krista Anna Lewis.