As a marriage and family therapist I’ve enjoyed the privilege of helping others achieve stronger and more secure relationships; the kind that outweigh some of the world's toughest stress. Witnessing such positive growth in these relationships has been so meaningful to me (and particularly during the past year) as I have been preparing to be married myself.
My clients have often wondered how difficult it must be for me to look forward to marriage after witnessing for years the pain and many challenges of countless couples I’ve seen in my office. They’d often comment, “You must be terrified!” Of course they weren’t entirely off base in their thinking here as I am in fact only human; a human who’s had a front row seat to the “horrors” of marital commitment more times than the average person. I’d be lying if I said this didn’t at all factor into some doubts about not just my relationship, but the reality of happy long-term relationships as a whole.
Amazingly, I can actually pinpoint the moment when any of my recent concerns/doubts/fears about marriage underwent a major shift.
It was during one particular session I had with one of my marital couples just a few weeks before my wedding date. It was a case of infidelity and I sat listening to the shame, anger, guilt, heartbreak, and fear in their voices; their questions of how they’re ever going to be able to survive this. I watched as they looked at each other with confusion and worry, wanting to run away from and yet be saved by one another all at the same time. I felt the love they still had for each other and how incapable they were of accessing it.
It was the moment when they both seemed to run out of words, looking withdrawn, defeated, exhausted, and lost, that my eyes began to fill with tears. This was not a completely uncommon reaction as I often feel strong empathy for my clients and all that they’re going through, but the difference this time was that the tears didn’t stop. I didn’t exactly lose control to the point of sobbing and desperately competing with this couple for the tissue box, but the emotion was inarguably present and certainly something I couldn’t avoid addressing. So I did.
I explained to this couple that my tears were more than just the empathy I was feeling for their heartbreak. I revealed that my wedding date was fast-approaching and shared with them the many comments I’ve gotten from previous clients about not wanting to “scare me with their problems before my big day.” At this, both partners actually laughed in agreement, telling me I was indeed brave. But I told them they were the brave ones.
While wiping away my tears and feeling vulnerable in my less-than-professional state, I told this couple through choppy and shaky words how incredibly proud I was of them; how, despite their pain and recently-shattered marital vows they were still sitting in my office together scrambling with every piece of themselves to keep their love intact. I told them that believe it or not their relationship was a true model of what a strong marriage is all about and one that I can only hope to have myself.
Both partners listened to my words with silent widened eyes, a look of mixed surprise and hope. They seemed to hang onto my words like they were hanging on for their lives; soaking in every piece of this moment.
I explained that none of this had anything to do with my belief that the infidelity and other issues of the relationship should be overlooked or excused, but that it was simply my way of emphasizing that marital vows/commitments have just as much (if not more) of a role in the recovery process as they do with loyalty and problem-prevention.
Though it is not always wise or useful for a therapist to speak on personal experience/thoughts/emotions, I’m not sure there was anything more therapeutically-fitting that I could’ve done for this couple than to be completely honest with them about the reality and full meaning of their sitting in my office together. They deserved to know that their marriage, though forever changed, was not necessarily over and that instead, it was being given the opportunity to grow into something stronger in their willingness to work on it. They deserved to be proud of this.
Believe it or not, couples like this are the ones that end up restoring my faith in the strength of marriage, not breaking it. As difficult as it can be to hear the heartbreaking beginnings of a couples start in therapy, it is often just as rewarding and uplifting to get a front row seat to their happier ending.
I am now writing this blog post as a married woman myself (as of 10-20-19!) and I know that my relationship and life will continue to be that much richer because of my clients and all they’ve shared with me about the reality of actually LIVING true love and commitment. My heart may not be fluttering with fairytale ideals and fantasies of a flawless magical love, but it’s for sure filled with excitement and security about all the possible ways to keep love alive and satisfying. I don’t thank my schooling, training, or personal experiences for that... I thank my strong, amazing, brave clients.
My wedding song was “Hold On” by Michael Buble. The second verse of the song sums up my feelings on marriage perfectly:
“There's a thousand ways for things to fall apart
But it's no one's fault- No, it's not our fault-
And maybe all the plans we made might not work out-
But I have no doubt- even though it's hard to see-
I've got faith in us and I believe in you and me.”