One married man explains why couples therapy might not fix your relationship problems, but will make it possible to survive them all.
Marriage is a mental-health crisis. A whole country of people are walking around in a mental state they don’t totally understand, with a whole bunch of symptoms they don’t know how to treat. It’s like everyone having diabetes (of the mind) without knowing it.
Because they don’t really tell you when you’re growing up about being married. You couldn’t have understood, anyway. It’s like explaining what Chris Pratt looks like to a blind person, or my high school physics teacher trying to explain to me how gravity warps time and space: it’s just a bunch of words that you mostly forget five minutes later. And then later you gain sight and see Jurassic World and say, "Oh, so that’s what it means when you say ‘square-jawed but approachable’!"
You exchange the rings and have kids and you’re 40 and you find yourself in a foreign land and think to yourself: Oh, so this is what marriage is.
You may love it there in marriage-land, but as with boarding a bus for which the destination is written in Turkish, you probably didn’t have any idea where you were going. You just pull into the bus station and think: Ah, so now I am in Gaziantep. (Gaziantep being a Turkish city and also a metaphor for marriage.)
And the strange thing about Gaziantep is that the only other person who lives there is your husband/wife. Which is mostly great. Because they’re your favorite person. But you can also get lost in this city, and the only person you can ask directions from is your spouse. And giving you perspective in your own marriage isn’t really your partner’s job.
The Moment I Started Taking My Mental Health Seriously
That’s why everyone in a long-term relationship that isn’t with a Labradoodle should see a couples counselor. Even if you don’t cry yourself to sleep every night, even if you’re not addicted to sexting with your brother-in-law, even if you don’t open your spouse’s computer to check the weather and discover an extensive e-mail chain negotiating the price of your murder. Happily married people should go to a couples counselor sometimes. Hopefully more than once. Because it’s some sexy shit.
The point isn’t solving your problems—it’s connection. And throughout the lives of our relationships, we often forget how to stay connected.
That’s right. You know what’s sexy? A guy in a V-neck sweater from Brooks Brothers and comfortable shoes who smells of soap and continually says, "How does that make you feel?" Why? First of all, therapists have so many tricks to get you out of the patterns we all inevitably fall into. There are too many couples-counselor strategies to go into in this brief article. But here’s an example: Your spouse talks for five minutes, and you just listen and don’t say shit. Try that sometime—like: Don’t respond, don’t even make the face that shows you’re restraining yourself from responding (which, by the way, is extremely infuriating). The whole point of the conversation in this case is the listening. You could also try another version of that: Repeat back to your spouse what they just said—an exercise that not only makes that person feel understood but, when you have the words in your own mouth, actually gives you a tremendous sense of compassion for whatever cockamamy shit your spouse was trying to tell you. (Maybe not so cockamamy!)
But the tricks are secondary. What’s vitally important about the experience is twofold. First, getting comfortable with the fact that your shit will never be worked out. Talk about a mental-health imperative: Getting people to understand that you can’t be fixed, that your spouse can’t, and that your relationship can’t, should be an initiative undertaken by the National Institute of Mental Health. You’re never going to finally and definitively beat into the head of your spouse that one point that you’re sure will solve everything. Because she’s she and you’re you. I once interviewed the great Hollywood nuptial sage Jeff Bridges, and he told me that there is really only one fight in a marriage, and that’s: Why don’t you truly understand what it is to be me? And no one will ever really get that. So yeah, forget it.
Which brings us to the second thing. The point isn’t solving your problems—it’s connection. And throughout the lives of our relationships, we often forget how to stay connected. Because we’re too pissed off, or busy with work, or counting the crimes against us, or whatever. And what the mild fellow in the V-neck is really doing for hundreds of dollars per hour is nothing more than linking the two of you up. It just happens; I don’t even know how. And when it does, your blood pressure goes down. And the unfixable problems seem small, and you forget that you care if they’re solved. And you just want to walk out of the office holding your wife’s hand, looking deep into her eyes, kissing her not even as a prelude to sex, but because you’re so fucking grateful to go through the world with her. It’s the most beautiful thing in the world. It’s why you’re in Gaziantep in the first place.