Sunday, February 23, 2020

In Defense of Therapy

When I was separated from my first wife, I didn’t tell anyone. I didn’t want the church to know. I was a deacon, after all - things like this shouldn’t happen to me. I worked at a Christian school connected to my church, so telling someone at work would have been the same as telling someone at church, we were all basically the same staff then. I somehow had hope that this would all go away, so I didn’t tell my friends, out of some stupid fear that it would cause problems once this marriage was back on track. The only person I told was my sister, and, like the crusader she is, she booked the first flight from Minneapolis to Miami and got herself involved, talking to me, talking to my ex-wife, suggesting books and videos and all kinds of resources. It didn’t do any good for the marriage in the long run, but at least I had someone on my team. And telling just one person made me bold enough to get some actual, professional help. I found a marriage counselor, made an appointment, and asked my ex-wife to come with me, or if she couldn't make it, to let me know when to reschedule the appointment.

The counselor I went to was a great man, who was not only licensed in marriage and family counseling, but also held a law degree, and he was able to give me great advice on pretty much every aspect of what I was going through. Better yet, he had an honest and blunt, but caring, demeanor, like Dr. Phil. I still watch that show regularly today, like I did back then, and there was something about the similarity that made me feel like I had picked the right person. He was direct, sometimes harsh with me, in a way that men can be with other men and still have respect and even love for each other. That first session, I came in prepared with all kinds of documents and information, and he dismissed all of it and spent the hour getting my head right about what was happening. The statistics for a marriage ending in reconciliation after separation, he said, were astronomically slim, almost infinitesimal. He had never personally seen it happen, after decades of practice. That cut me pretty deep, since I thought that I was really pulling out the big guns just by signing up. In light of that fact, he suggested that I reassess my goals. He said that it was okay if my number one goal was reconciliation, but that if it was my only goal, this would probably only end in destruction, when there were other ways to win in this situation. By the end of the session, we had come up with three goals that I was most focused on achieving, and all of them equal in importance. First, reconciliation of the marriage, and improvement on it, instead of going back to the same thing. One question that he asked, that I genuinely hadn’t thought of in all of my desperation, was that if she were to walk back through the door when I got home, and declare her intent to never leave again, but our living together was as bad as it had ever been, would I consider that a win? I had to agree that it wasn’t, and that I didn’t want to live that way. The second goal was the create stability and safety for my kids, to protect them and nurture them as much as possible through whatever was coming next. The third goal was mental and emotional health for myself. In the end, I couldn’t achieve all of those goals, but two out of three ain’t bad.

Another thing we established in that first meeting was that I had to focus on what was best for my children. Their mother was already talking about splitting up the week and creating a custody arrangement, even though she had just moved out, and no divorce papers had been filed. My counselor cautioned me that this was a bad idea - bad for the children, as well as a further hindrance in any kind of reconciliation. He advised me to protect them and protect myself, that she might want to make a lot of changes, and that she might even ask me for help in certain things. His advice was not to help her with any money or any other thing that would make this separation easier for her or would put my stamp of approval on it. Let her feel the separation from me and everything that it entailed, before she made up her mind to divorce. As for the children, she could definitely have time with them, obviously, but the idea of changing their home and shaking up their lives in such a dramatic way was out of the question. I agreed totally with the logic of his advice, but I was weak at the time, and probably had not been good at asserting myself with her in the first place. However, the idea of causing harm to my kids overrode any of those fears. Ultimately, I followed his advice, mostly, and I heard about it from him when I didn't follow it. It didn't save my marriage, but it saved my dignity and sanity, and it saved my kids from a lot more stress and confusion. They eventually came to some of the sessions with me , even though their mom never did.

If you’re going through this kind of stretch in your marriage, where one or both of you are talking divorce, where there are real problems like adultery or abuse or addiction, my advice, based on both research and experience, is to get the right people involved. Don’t go around telling everybody, but tell somebody, or, more importantly, tell the right somebody. Tell your best friends, tell your pastor, get a counselor on board, but don’t keep it to yourself. If you’re under the impression that keeping it a secret is going to make it more likely to just blow over or fizzle out, you’re wrong. There really isn’t any problem that I can think of that gets better through neglect. If you think that you can handle it on your own, you can’t. If you could, then your marriage wouldn’t be falling apart, would it? On the other hand, if you think that getting people involved is a guaranteed solution to a failing marriage, you’re probably wrong about that, too. But it’s not really about saving the marriage at some point. Living with the pressure of infidelity or impending divorce or abuse, and living with it alone, with no help or comfort or counsel from the outside, could literally kill you. For me, those times were lonely because of a wife who had completely checked out and abandoned me, but lonelier because I had to go through it every day, in front of students, colleagues, parents, church members, and friends, as if nothing was wrong and my life wasn’t falling apart and my kids weren’t crying themselves to sleep at night. If that’s the situation you find yourself in, then get people involved. Even if it doesn’t save the marriage, which, statistically, it probably won’t, it will more than likely save your mental health, and maybe even save your life.

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