As a kid, I used to watch in awe whenever magicians tore up playing cards at birthday parties and restored them a moment later, as if the destruction had never happened. I loved how they could pull vanished coins out of the air. Or saw a box in half without causing the person inside any pain, and then put the box—and the person—back together. Magicians were human, yet they could still access a miraculous universe of possibilities, transforming something into nothing—or nothing into something—with a few key words, or the wave of a wand.
My own childhood universe held little magic. On good days, my father, mother, brother, and I avoided each other until dinnertime, and then sat in our chairs at a small, round table chewing in silence. On bad days, my father criticized my mom for spending more time raising money to protect the environment than raising her own kids—or else he praised whatever she hated, usually Ronald Reagan and the NRA. In the space of a few seconds, the yelling would begin and something would break: a wine glass against a wall, or one of my mother’s favorite plates. On those days, I ran to my room, hid in the closet, and sang old campfire songs: “Rose, rose, rose, rose, wilt thou ever see me wed? I will marry at thy will, sire, at thy will.” I dreamed of shimmering fairy dust drifting down our chimney, reversing the spell of whatever dark curse was gripping my parents’ hearts.
Years later, after trying my hand at a few unsustainable careers, I went back to graduate school and began working as a relationship therapist. It seemed like the right fit for me. Armed with the secret hope that what I’d been through growing up could fuel my passion to help others, I was sure I had what it took to repair severed connections between couples using the seemingly magical revelations therapeutic tools can create. Conflicts would turn into forgiveness. Love would be reignited. I coached couples on developing more empathy, expressing feelings, admitting fears, and envisioning ideal relationships. I was sure that transformation could happen for them—if I worked hard enough.
Many of my clients believed this, too. When I caught them gazing at me the way I’d once looked at magicians—expectant and hopeful—it motivated me to expand my repertoire of clinical interventions. There had to be ways I could generate the big, dramatic shifts that turned unhappy marriages into happy ones. I went to conferences all over the country just to watch respected therapists showcase miraculous work with clients on the brink of divorce. Achieving this kind of success meant attending even more trainings, I concluded, rehearsing new strategies, getting better through repetition, experience, practice, and sheer will.
- - - -
Eddie and Sharon broadcast their need for magic the moment they walked in my door.
“You’re our third couples therapist,” Sharon said flatly. “Either you help us get along, or we need to call off the engagement.” She was striking to look at—part Elvira, part Orphan Annie—shaking a head of bright, red curls as she sauntered across my office in a floor-length black skirt. It was easy to see why she got callbacks as a stage actress in New York.
“I won’t tolerate lying,” Eddie said, in what seemed like a non sequitur. A successful Manhattan real estate mogul with bushy eyebrows and a ruddy complexion, he rearranged the cushions on my couch with the proprietary air of a man who was used to owning things. For all I knew, he owned the suite we were meeting in, which I was leasing with two other therapists.
“I won’t tolerate lying.” Sharon imitated his voice and facial expression perfectly, even capturing the high-pitched Bostonian pronunciation of tolerate. Then, she burst out laughing—a cascade of full-throated, unapologetic glee. “Sorry,” she said at last. “It’s just you both look so serious.”
“Let’s pause here,” I suggested, trying to ignore the dull, pulsing ache in my lower back—a sign I was getting anxious, even though they’d just sat down. “How do you think Eddie feels when you imitate him in that way?”
“I have no idea.” Sharon dragged her fingers along the corners of her eyes, where the eyeliner was heaviest. It must have been waterproof; none of it smudged. “She doesn’t care,” Eddie said. “She thinks it’s a game.”
Skipping right over my usual opening act—a one-comment ice-breaker about the weather, a reminder about the bathrooms, a palliative dose of psychoeducation—I asked Sharon, “Can you tell me what you think frustrates Eddie most about you?” I’d learned this technique in my couples certification program as a way of bypassing blame and defensiveness: ask each person to share what they think frustrates their partner most about them. Usually, it was something I worked up to with a little more finesse, but my anxiety got the better of me, and I pulled this question out of my hat like a limp white rabbit.
“About me?” Sharon asked, playing along. “It probably frustrates him that I won’t sign a prenup. And I don’t laugh at his jokes. And I’m always late, according to him.”
“What about you, Eddie?” I asked. “What frustrates Sharon about you?”
“I hate drama.” Eddie examined his nails. “And I keep things to myself—I’m a private person. Oh, and it bothers her that I don’t take her on more vacations.”
“That’s bullshit!” Sharon pointed at Eddie, her face flushing red. For a split second, I was back with my mom and dad, again, at a small round table, waiting for something to break. I resisted the urge to run and hide. “I don’t give a damn about vacations,” Sharon shouted. “But I do care when you spend a week in Mexico partying your ass off without even telling me!”
I steadied myself, feeling woozy. Sharon seemed to follow my lead: she closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Maybe I needed to change up the act a bit, lean on the magic I’d come to believe would inevitably unfold when couples shared their individual family history. “Sharon, when you said it frustrates Eddie you won’t sign a prenup, or laugh at his jokes, and are late to things—would he say you can be uncooperative, judgmental, and irresponsible, sometimes?”
Eddie sat up straighter, vigorously nodding his head.
“I’m sure he would,” Sharon muttered, deflated.
“Was cooperation an important value in your home, growing up?”
“Ha!” Sharon intoned dramatically, but her mirth was gone. “Both my moms were drinkers.” She was methodically shredding a tissue into a growing pile on her lap as rainbows from her engagement ring splintered across Eddie’s face. “When I was 11, one of them fell down a flight of stairs and my other mom just slept through it. I had to call the ambulance.”
To my horror, Eddie lifted his cell phone and began tapping the screen.
“Is there something uncomfortable about Sharon opening up like this?” I asked him.
“She’s a good actress,” Eddie yawned.
“I guess you’d know,” Sharon sneered. “After all the orgasms I fake with you.”
- - - -
That was the tenor of our first session—a three-person expedition into a house of mirrors where doors opened a crack, anxiety rose and fell, and doors slammed shut.
Subsequent sessions didn’t get any easier, though we did manage to open a few doorways and take a peek into the rooms. Even after discussing Eddie and Sharon’s case with my supervisor for an hour every other week, I still couldn’t seem to guide them into any real progress beyond engaging in basic reflective listening skills or eking out the occasional, begrudging acknowledgement of one another’s perspective. Still, I was determined to try all the different strategies I’d learned from master therapists over the years—going with a couple’s resistance, challenging it, inviting younger parts to speak, guiding dialogues and portrayals.
Eddie and Sharon’s relationship haunted me. I thought about it—and them—a lot. Given my own childhood, I was intimately familiar with the weave and texture of their defenses: the well-honed façades, the grandiosity and inferiority, the intellectual maneuvering, the passive-aggression, and searing judgments. In my 20s, after my mom had divorced my dad, he told me he’d always thought I was another man’s child. His admission helped make sense of the invisible carapace I’d grown around my own heart: an attempt to hide the core conviction that on some fundamental level—starting at birth—I was wrong. But even after these and other insights, I’d still spent far too much time and energy laboring to prove my value to anyone and everyone in my life. And now here I was, doing the same thing with Eddie and Sharon.
“What hurts most about our fights—” I offered tentatively during one of our sessions, gesturing for Eddie to complete the thought in his own words. I’d invited him to fill in the blanks of sentences I started many times before in the hope of guiding him into more vulnerable self-disclosures, but mostly he’d ignored me and gone off on his own accusatory or defensive tangents. This time, he turned to Sharon and said, “What hurts most is not being able to trust you. There’s no one I trust. I’m always alone.”
“And what hurts most about being always alone—” I said softly.
Suddenly, Eddie covered his face with his hands. A quick look of surprise passed between Sharon and me. “It’s sad,” he sobbed, his shoulders shaking. “Just sad. What’s the point? No one’s ever there. No one. All my dad ever did was work, and when my mom died, it was like I didn’t even exist. All he cared about was money.”
Sharon touched his arm. His shoulders kept shaking, but I noticed his body shift toward her ever so slightly. The movement was small—almost imperceptible—like tectonic stirrings deep in the earth’s crust. But it was a good sign.
After that session, while handing me his credit card, Eddie said, “I know we’re not easy.” Sharon stood in the waiting room instead of heading toward the elevators without him.
I felt exhilarated by this small moment, carried away by the possibility that I could, after all, save them from the avoidable pain they continued inflicting on each other, and protect them from the pain of breaking up. And I suppose I also wanted to protect myself from failing them. Because if I couldn’t help them, what good was I? I had to be able to make a difference.
But what I made instead was a huge mistake.
- - - -
In my defense, I’m not a morning person, and Sharon and Eddie had switched from an afternoon to a morning time slot soon after Sharon had started rehearsals for her latest off-Broadway play. I woke up early, waved at my husband on his way out the door, and did my hair and makeup. Leaving the bathroom that morning, I took a liberty I should never, ever—not in a million years—have allowed myself to take. I reentered the bedroom, stretched out on the mattress, and closed my eyes. A moment later, I sat bolt upright. Sunlight streamed into the room. What had felt like a moment had been an hour. I’d overslept.
Teleporting wasn’t an option, so I grabbed my purse, stumbled outside, and ran six blocks to the ferry. The ticket master stamped my pass. Collapsing into a window seat, I berated myself with should-haves, what-ifs, and why-didn’t-yous. My phone was still plugged into the wall by my bed; I couldn’t even tell Sharon and Eddie what was happening. For the first time in my career as a therapist, I was about to arrive late to a session—and with the one couple I would’ve given anything to succeed with, or at the very least, given anything not to fail.
Shame cycled through me—tension, queasiness, and fear. Would Eddie and Sharon still be there when I arrived? What would they think of me now? Could they respect me when I’d proven myself to be as neglectful as Eddie’s father and as unreliable as both of Sharon’s moms? How could I tell them the truth? At the same time, if I lied—if I said the ferry had run out of gas, or the dog had eaten my alarm clock, or my husband was deathly ill—how would I ever look at myself in a mirror again? Lies had contributed to so many of their problems already. What ethical professional helped clients embrace their deepest truths, and then overslept and lied about it?
I raced past the front desk of my office building, shoving myself into a too-crowded elevator to the sound of clucking tongues and shuffling feet. At my floor, I broke into a jog down the hallway and stumbled into the waiting room, tripping on a sound machine one of my suitemates must have left plugged into the wall.
Eddie and Sharon were sitting on the couch. If they’d been on display at a wax museum, the caption beneath them would’ve read: Angry Young Couple, Tired of Waiting.
I raised my voice so they could hear me over the sound machine. “Hello! I overslept,” I blurted out, before I could say something else against my better judgment. “I’m sorry.”
Sharon squinted at me from the couch, her head tilted at a peculiar angle. Something about my appearance seemed to unsettle them. The color had drained from Eddie’s face.
“Thirty-five minutes late,” Sharon said. “Why didn’t you text us?”
“I forgot my phone,” I said.
The sound machine hissed. My armpits felt cold. My shirt was soaked with sweat. A few strands of hair tightened against my cheek. Was my mascara running? I resisted the urge to check myself in the mirror over the couch and fix whatever else might be wrong. Finally, Eddie cleared his throat and stretched a limp hand toward my office door. “Maybe we should get started,” he said flatly.
“I feel terrible,” I muttered, fumbling with my keys. “I won’t charge you for today, of course.”
Eddie sat down by the radiator. He loosened his tie.
“I’m exhausted,” Sharon said, sinking into her chair with a loud exhale.
“Let’s take a moment to connect with our intentions,” I managed, pressing my feet against the floor to steady my trembling kneecaps. Was this how haggard magicians felt at the end of their careers? Did they stumble onto the stage disheveled, in shabby costumes that belied whatever persona they’d intended to play? Suddenly, my therapeutic toolbox felt like a bag of cheap tricks.
“My intention is to listen to Sharon, I guess,” Eddie said coldly.
Sharon shrugged, pulled a tissue from her pocket, and began shredding it. “I don’t know what you’re going to listen to. I have nothing to say.”
The session—despite being the shortest one we’d ever had—lasted an eternity. I felt naked and exposed, with no idea how to transform the energy in the room. Far from doing magic, I couldn’t even mediate a productive conversation. The right thing would’ve been to ask something like, “How do you feel toward me for oversleeping and leaving you stranded in my waiting room for 35 minutes?”—inviting them to express a lifetime of buried rage, grief, love, fear, disappointment, and whatever else was roiling in the transference toward me. But I couldn’t bring myself to do the right thing.
“I hate that I messed this up today,” I blurted out, finally, my eyes brimming with tears. “I really care about you both. I’m sorry. I know I’ve let you down.”
Sharon met my gaze; Eddie remained quiet. In the middle of enduring what must have been one of the worst moments of my career, I sensed the distant vibrations of an old melody in my throat: Rose, rose, rose, rose. I relaxed as best I could amidst a feeling of helplessness.
“I appreciate you saying that.” Eddie smiled sadly.
We all stood up. Then Eddie straightened his tie and walked toward the door.
“Same time, next week?” I ventured.
Sharon glanced at me over her shoulder and murmured what sounded like an affirmation.
That was our last couples session.
The next day, I entered my supervisor’s office, slumped onto the couch, and started crying. Acting more like a child than a middle-aged therapist, I surrendered to self-pity. I told him about oversleeping, arriving late, and fumbling through the session. “I’m just not cut out for this work,” I concluded, pulling several tissues out of the tissue box on the end table.
My supervisor smiled. He was a gentle, impish man with a penetrating gaze. “Did I ever tell you about the time I triple-booked three clients?” he asked.
I shook my head and blew my nose.
“One morning, I opened my office door and saw three of my clients all sitting there in my waiting room, flipping through magazines. I’d scheduled them for the same time slot.”
“You did?” I asked, still sniffling.
“Yup,” he said. “If being a therapist is about getting it right, we’d all be out of business.”
- - - -
Six months later, I was shocked to get an email from Sharon. She and Eddie had broken up, and since I knew him well, she wanted to talk to me about it. Was I open to meeting? I hesitated, then hit reply. Yes, I was.
“It’s good to see you,” she said, poking her head of red curls through my half-open door on the day of her appointment. She was a few minutes early but walked in anyway. With her slow strides and rippling skirt, she seemed both rooted and ephemeral.
I made a low, humming noise—the multipurpose, nonverbal therapeutic affirmation so many therapists rely on, myself included, probably way too much.
“I never thought I’d admit this,” she said, her eyes reddening as she sank into her usual chair, “but I’ve missed your office.” She draped her forearms across the arm rests. Her fingers, which had been in constant motion around Eddie, were still. The engagement ring was gone.
“There’s a lot of feeling coming up as you say that,” I noted.
“You helped us,” she continued. “I can’t tell you how grateful I am.”
“Mmmm,” I hummed again, noticing a tightening in my chest.
“During that last session, when you got so emotional about being late—do you remember?” she asked. “In the cab home, Eddie and I were like, Why don’t we care about us as much as she does? After that, we had some tough conversations. It was better than lying. We realized we’d been trying to force our relationship to be something it wasn’t.”
I’d also had some tough conversations after our last session—with myself. I’d started to shift my approach, spending less time rifling through my mental bag of strategies and techniques and more time noticing what was happening in the room. The invisible magician’s cloak I hadn’t even realized I’d been using as a shield had come into focus, and I’d started going to work without it. As painful as that last session had been, it had pushed me out of hiding.
“You showed us it’s okay to be human,” she said.
“Well that’s good to know,” I said. The anxious feeling in my chest melted. “I guess I must be getting better at it.”
She laughed. Without her heavy makeup, she looked younger.
We held one another’s gaze. As she placed a hand on her chest, I did too, mirroring the gesture. I could feel my heart beating under my palm, ushering blood through tissue and veins, nourishing an interconnected network of systems that were always communicating with one another in ways I’d never fully comprehend—even if I learned everything there was to know about human bodies. I imagined Sharon’s heart beating under her hand in the same way.
Magicians are no longer magicians if you see their tricks, but it’s the opposite in therapy. Tricks aren’t worth much unless you reveal them. When you come out of hiding, a space opens up. That space might help a couple stay together, or it might lead them in different directions. Either way, there’s magic—all types—when you stop trying to put on a flawless show, and start, in those precious moments when you get things wrong, showing up as the person you are.
Alicia Muñoz, LPC, is a certified couples therapist and author of No More Fighting, A Year of Us, and The Couples Quiz Book. Contact: aliciamunoz.com.
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