Inching into unknown territory, I replied, “Sometimes, anxiety has to do with not wanting to be in therapy at all. Sometimes, anxiety has to do with fear of moving into high-conflict topics. And sometimes, it has to do with not having the desire to respond to your partner’s request. Can you tell me what percentage of each is true for you?”
Immediately, Tom began rambling on about how compatible he and Betsy were. “I really value her friendship,” he said. “And we’ve been good parents together.” Not a word about what the anxiety might signal. The temptation was to allow him to continue on like this, especially since Betsy was nodding along as he spoke, seeming not to pick up on what I was sensing.
Could I postpone my probing for the real story? After all, I was tired. I could slow down for now and hope that between sessions, Tom might tell Betsy the truth. But my instincts told me that wasn’t going to happen. Plus, they’d come to me for help, not for self-protective silence. After years of doing couples work, I knew that sometimes what we must offer, at least initially, is pain.
I turned to Tom and simplified my earlier question. “Sometimes spouses are afraid to grow and change, while other times they’re afraid to reveal something painful,” I said to him. “I wonder which of these is more true for you?”
At this, Betsy sat up straighter and looked directly at Tom, who grew silent for what seemed like an excruciatingly long time. Still he said nothing. He appeared to be deliberating whether this was the time to wreak havoc on his marriage. My dread was mounting and I imagined his was, too. Finally, he said, “The last thing I’d ever want to do is hurt Betsy.”
I nodded. “You deeply value the friendship you’ve created with her,” I said. “Are you concerned that you might say something that will hurt Betsy or lose something meaningful?”
Eventually Tom revealed what he’d been struggling to contain: he didn’t want to be married to Betsy anymore. For years, he said, he’d given up his desires for long backpacking trips into the wilderness, returning to Wisconsin to live on the lake where he’d spent his childhood, and leaving the business world to become a chef. Now that their youngest child was graduating from college, he wanted to explore a new life. He said to Betsy, “I’ve worked for years to support you and the kids at a job that’s bored me to death.”
I could see Betsy struggling not to break down into tears. Tom looked glum, barely moving a muscle. I could see the dawning realization of a devastating awareness spread over Betsy’s face. What was I to do now? In graduate school, I’d spent many hours role-playing how to help couples compromise and arrive at mutually agreeable goals, but here was no easily resolvable disagreement. Tom had been preparing himself to make this speech for a long time. His mind was made up.
Betsy began to weep uncontrollably. “I thought you were finally coming to therapy so we could get some help,” she sobbed. Tom slumped in his chair, rubbing his face with his hands. I sat with them in the rawness of the moment. I was watching a dream being crushed, and felt I’d somehow helped to trigger its destruction.
When the hour was up, they got up heavily. “Well, I guess that’s that,” Tom murmured. While keenly aware how much easier it would be to let them go and avoid the pain of watching them dismantle their 30-year marriage, I insisted they return. So much was left unsaid between them. These weren’t two people who hated each other; they were two people who didn’t know how to process intense feelings.
Over the next few months, I’d witness more heartbreak and raw emotion as Tom finally dropped another bombshell: he’d realized that he was gay and had secretly begun to explore relationships with men. He’d been wrestling with his gayness for years, fearing rejection from his kids and friends. To Betsy, it seemed impulsive. I knew that unless they could process this complexity together, they’d never preserve their friendship and care for each other. And I knew that, left alone, they’d never process feelings they’d avoided during their marriage.
Over time, we continued to slog through the grief and sadness of ending their marriage. They did eventually divorce, but with hard work, they preserved much of the good from their marriage, and I’ve since watched them share weddings, graduations, and grandkids with mutual kindness and good spirits.
Before beginning my work with couples, I had no idea how much could suddenly be at stake in a single session. I hadn’t become a therapist to inflict pain, but I’ve since learned that sadness, anger, shock, and disillusionment can be part and parcel of therapy with couples in serious trouble. Good couples therapy sometimes hurts.
Fear of Fatal Errors: Peter’s Experience
Over more than three decades in the field, I’ve studied and practiced just about every therapeutic approach on the planet. I’ve worked with all types of couples in all kinds of configurations—from weekly therapy to ongoing couples groups to workshops of all lengths and stripes. Over time, I’ve become adept at helping partners connect in the office and take their connection home with them, but I can still blunder so badly that I lose a pair of clients, and for the couple dropping out of therapy without having faced basic issues in their relationship, the stakes are much higher, more potentially damaging, than the loss of clients is for me.
I’d been working with Richard and Tina off and on for about four months. During their 11-year marriage, Richard had done a slow disappearing act on his family responsibilities—which had caused grinding tension between them. But we’d started to make progress on this front: Richard was cutting back on playing weeknight and weekend basketball and hockey games, and was taking on more parenting and household chores.
Then, early one Thursday morning, as the couple walked in and took their usual seats, I saw their faces were tight with misery. Tina began the session in a trembling voice, telling me that she’d caught Richard on the Internet looking at porn. “I can’t believe you’d do this to me!” she hissed at him. “You need to stop and stop now! I will not allow that filth in my home, and I will not tolerate you looking at it!”
Richard nodded, his hands clasped tightly between his knees. “I won’t do it again, I promise. I know it was wrong,” he said, sounding like a severely scolded child trying to convince his parents he’d be good from then on.
I now had two problems. First, I knew that Richard would be unlikely to keep a promise made on the hot seat. Second, Tina’s edict left no room for discussion. What now? I could go along with Tina’s demand and Richard’s promise and pretend the issue had been tolerably managed, or I could risk going further and try to open up a fruitful discussion of a taboo subject.