Couples Therapist, Heal Thyself – The New York Times
I decided to get a puppy. To prepare, I created a spreadsheet with the traits I wanted: non-shedding, friendly, with a happy walk and minimal drooling. I talked to dog-loving friends, researched trainers and read Zak George’s “Dog Training Revolution: The Complete Guide to Raising the Perfect Pet with Love.”
What I didn’t do is discuss it with my husband. My husband likes dogs, but he had been emphatic, for much our 20-plus years together, that there was no way a dog would fit into our apartment, our family or our lives. We already had two children and a cat (all my ideas as well), and as far as he was concerned, we were flying well beyond maximum capacity.
I knew the conversation was inevitable; I couldn’t just show up one day with a dog. But I kept putting it off. I’m allergic to conflict with my husband and instead try to talk myself into not wanting what I want so I don’t have to discuss my desires with him. After that stops working, I stew in resentment and rail, silently, at the injustice of being in a relationship where someone has veto power over the major decisions in my life. Eventually, I move into silent despair — my husband and I are incompatible, I tell myself, but I love him so what am I going to do? Get divorced?
My conflict avoidance in my marriage would surprise many people in my life, especially my clients. I am, after all, a couple’s therapist.
In session after session, I encourage clients to say what needs to be said. You can be direct and concise while still being empathetic, I explain. It isn’t attacking or mean to say what you want or how you feel. Sometimes the other person won’t like what you’re saying and that’s OK; it’s just part of being in a relationship.
“There is such a thing as healthy conflict,” I tell them. “Putting pressure on relationships is the way they deepen and grow. If you don’t share what’s going on inside you, you won’t be fully known by your partner, and you won’t have the emotional intimacy you crave.”
Clients seek me out specifically because of my direct manner. My friends, and sometimes friends of friends, ask me for advice on how to say hard things and how to initiate painful conversations. They write down what I suggest and use those words verbatim. They tell me, “You’re really good at this.” And for other people, I am.
I have encouraged many people — the emotionally avoidant, the people-pleasers, the conflict adverse (in other words, people like me) — to err on the side of speaking up. Women, especially, say they would like to speak up and allow themselves to be known, but they don’t want anyone to think they’re “being difficult.”
“Why not?” I say. “What’s so bad about being difficult?”
But in my own marriage, I was not being difficult in the way I advocated for my clients. I was being difficult in a far more corrosive way. Secretive and resentful, I stopped talking to my husband about what was going on with me beyond the bare minimum. There were plenty of other things to talk about — our teenagers, his job, the news — but I had stopped sharing anything about myself.
He didn’t seem to notice. The emotional intimacy we had once shared drained from our relationship. And as it did, I felt increasingly walled off. I had built a case against him in my head (something I warn clients against), telling myself that he was the one incapable of closeness, he was the one who was emotionally stingy, and that he had no interest in me outside of the helper role I played in his life. Our life together was harmonious and outwardly warm, but internally I felt lonely and resentful.
Why was I so capable of helping other people in the exact manner I needed help myself? If anyone — never mind my clients, even my friends — knew how little I asserted myself in my marriage, I would be ashamed.
Truthfully, if I were keeping a scorecard of who had the most influence in our major decisions, we would probably come out even. We still live in Brooklyn because he wants to, but we have a second child because I wanted to. Regardless, I see him as a piece of granite, unmovable and unyielding, whereas I see myself as water, needing to go around him to get want I want, slipping through crevasses and cracks to avoid trouble.
Inevitably, though, we’ll need to have the difficult conversation. A conversation about getting a dog, for example.
Finally, out to dinner one night sans children, I took a deep breath and said, “I want to talk to you about something, and I know you won’t like it.”
He braced for bad news.
“I think we should get a dog,” I said.
“You’re kidding. Right?”
I shook my head.
“A dog? Now? That’s crazy. Dogs are so expensive. They’re so much work and you’re always saying we’re already too busy.” He took a deep breath and ran his hands through his hair in the way he does when he’s agitated. “I don’t even know what to say. It’s a terrible idea. No.”
Tears sprung to my eyes, and I went silent per usual. When I pushed myself to say something, my voice came out shrill and cracked: “I want a dog. And the kids will be ecstatic. I don’t know why you think you always [not a word I would recommend as a couple’s therapist] get to make all the decisions. You’re like a dictator [also not recommended].”
“Really?” he said. “Is that what you think? You do whatever you want, you don’t tell me anything, and I go along because I hate it when you’re angry with me! You don’t think about how much things cost or how much of a burden they’re going to be. You always make me the bad guy.” (This is not true.)
“I don’t tell you because you automatically say no. If it were up to you, we’d have no kids, no pets, and never do anything but work. We’d still be living in a studio apartment. You’d still be eating ramen and smoking Marlboro Reds.” (Also not true.)
Then he said something that neither of us had ever said, and I was surprised to hear: “I think we should go to couples therapy.”
I’m obviously someone who believes in therapy. My relationship with my individual therapist has changed my life. I especially believe in couples counseling. It’s work I feel called to do. There is nothing more important than the strength of our relationships. I feel honored to have participated in the process of helping couples walk themselves back from the brink. I have seen the transformative power of asking more from yourself and from your partner.
But I was scared to go to couples counseling myself.
I tell clients that individual therapy is like a warm bath compared to the ice plunge of couples therapy. I feared that if my husband and I put all our problems on the table, we would have to split up. And as bad as things were, I wanted to stay together. I love my husband. He’s smart, sexy and kind. He’s devoted to me and our children. He will do anything for the people he loves and has more integrity than anyone I’ve ever met.
We went to counseling. The therapist told us all the things I say to my own clients and called us both out on how we were hurting our relationship (just like I do when I’m the therapist).
“Tonya, he isn’t silencing you,” our therapist said. “You’re silencing yourself. You’re creating the distance between you. You need to take emotional risks, open up and tolerate conflict. You aren’t saving the relationship by staying quiet; you’re destroying it.”
And then, to my husband: “She’s right. You are being defensive and judgmental. If you want your wife to feel close to you, you need to listen and show her you’re taking her into account.”
Many months of grueling sessions later, we’re talking, sometimes arguing, often compromising, and through it all, becoming closer. We also have a new family member: 20 pounds of canine energy and affection we named Trouble.
On walks, Trouble will pick up a stick only to lose it seconds later because he tries to carry and chew it simultaneously. I know how he feels. I can’t both be in my marriage and see it clearly either.
When people ask me about the name, I say we thought of it when we saw the mischievous look on his face. But really, we chose it because of the healthy sort of trouble getting him had created in our marriage. Trouble, it turns out, is just what we needed.