When I was growing up, trouble on the horizon in our household usually meant a trip to a therapist. There was family therapy, individual therapy, group therapy (for some members of my family) and marriage counseling for my parents (which in the end was not enough to save their marriage).
Sounds intense, but it really wasn’t. It taught me to ask for help from an outsider when I was struggling through a difficult time. It taught me that sometimes when we are blaming others, what we really need is a mirror. It taught me that successful relationships require a level of conscious effort and downright self-discipline.
To be in a successful relationship, you can’t just do whatever the hell you want, say whatever the hell you want and go wherever the hell you want. And, this means all kinds of relationships, not just for spouses. These were important lessons for me during those difficult teen years about even how to co-exist with my parents—or with anyone for that matter.
For someone who has never been to therapy, you probably envision therapy all wrong. It’s usually not like it looks on TV.
A good therapist doesn’t tell you what to do.
A good therapist asks the right questions. Answering those questions leads you to determine what you should do—and most importantly what you want to do.
A good therapist get you to see inside yourself, identify your responsibility in a situation and help you figure out how you can change to get the outcome you desire.
A good therapist sets up a scenario where you are able to have an important and honest conversation with yourself in an environment free of judgment and with nothing to prove.
I have learned some important lessons in my life from good therapists. Here are a few that I still go to on a regular basis:
Try to pick up the pen.
Early on in our marriage, we were working through some issues that, at the time, seemed pretty serious and I am sure they were to my late-20-year-old self. But now, going on 18 years of marriage and three kids later, they don’t seem very serious but resolving them no doubt created an important foundation of respect and honesty in our marriage. It was my husband’s first experience with therapy and he was, at best, dubious of the situation; therapy was not part of his family’s milieu.
Our therapist was an older man and in fact, preparing for retirement. I have mentioned him in a blog post before as he is the one who helped me see the errors in my ways in creating a parent-child dynamic with my spouse. He held up that mirror for me early on in my marriage and changed our path—forever.
In particular, I remember one session where we agreed to both “try” to improve our approach or behavior, or something that was the issue at hand. He wasn’t satisfied with our commitment to “try” to improve.
Don set a pen down on his desk and asked my husband, “try to pick up that pen.” And so, Jeff picked up the pen. “No,” Don responded. He didn’t say pick it up—he said try to pick it up. Jeff picked it up again. Again, Don responded that he had directed him to try to pick up the pen—not pick it up. I tried and had the same result.
The lesson was there is no trying: you either do it or you don’t. Life is not about trying. If you simply try, you will never achieve the result you desire—or need.
Why did you fall in love?
This lesson was also courtesy of Don. We had returned with new issues. I was frustrated and feeling overwhelmed. I felt like my husband never did anything to help out. He was always off having fun and I was stuck doing all the work. He made a joke of everything and never took anything seriously. We had issues with our extended families. He played all kinds of sports and was never home. The list went on and on…and probably on.
Finally, Don looked at me and asked, “Why did you fall in love with him?”
I responded, without missing a beat, that he was so fun and had the best sense of humor. He was always making me laugh and he had such an easy-going approach to life (which was a great balance to my high stress approach). I was attracted to the fact that he came from such a traditional family, which was so different than mine, he was so funny and I loved that he was so social and did fun things. He helped me relax and encouraged me to try things I had never done before.
Don waited for me to finish and said nothing, just looked at me.
“What?” I wondered.
He asked me if I listened to what I just said.
And then, I realized what I had said.
All the reasons I had fallen in love with my husband were now the very things I was in his office complaining about. I had turned “easy going” into lazy. I had turned “great sense of humor” into he never took anything seriously. See how I did that? I had flipped everything I loved in to all things that annoyed me.
My husband hadn’t changed, I had. It was time to refocus on why I fell in love with him in the first place.
When you raise the white flag, raise it high enough for people to really see it.
Don eventually retired and a few years later, when we found ourselves in another negative pattern and we sought counseling again. This time, the therapist was a woman. I was kind of excited because I thought maybe she would be on my side a little more, but unfortunately, it doesn’t usually work like that.
This was probably the roughest patch in our marriage so far—at least for me. We had three kids age four and under and my husband was assigned to middle shift, which on our police department was 1:00PM to 10:00PM. Things were picking up with my consulting business and I was still trying to do it all—and the bottom line was I was (and continue to be) a terrible twilight hour single mother.
I was done—like DONE done—by 5:30PM or so; out of patience, out of energy, out of everything. But there I was, alone with three tired and cranky kids. I needed to feed them, sometimes take them to activities and bathe them, read to them and get them in bed. And, once I got them in bed, the routine sometimes continued while I attempted to get them to stay in bed.
I know, look at those cute little boys in that picture. But, this period of parenting, for me, involved a lot of yelling and sometimes even tears (mine, theirs, ours). I couldn’t do it and I wasn’t doing it successfully. My husband was still new enough on the department that he couldn’t get the shift we wanted—or more like the shift we needed for our young family.
My breaking point was one night at a T-ball game at the Y. Our oldest was playing T-ball for the first time. It was a beautiful late summer night and that little four year old was excited to get his pants stained with dirt for the first time on the field.
I had the foresight to bathe and put the baby in his pajamas, thinking I would nurse him as I watched the game. I grabbed a camp chair and some snacks for the toddler and we headed out. I pulled the car into the grassy field like the rest of the parents and found a spot among a virtual sea of mini vans and SUVs.
As soon as the car stopped, seat belts were unbuckled and the van door flew open and everyone one wanted out at the same second. I loaded up with the diaper bag, snacks, camp chair, the baby out of his seat, dug up the baseball glove and gave orders to stay by me while we found the right field.
In a flash, the toddler was running toward the mud puddle in the drainage ditch leaving only a cloud of dust in his wake. The baby was screaming and squirming and this only ‘encouraged’ my milk. And the oldest, well…I couldn’t find his field.
Finally, I found a group of red shirts and sent my oldest over to join in, hoping it was his team. I found a spot on the sidelines with the other parents, set up my chair and got the baby situated to nurse. As soon as the shirt went up, his hands were waiving and his legs started kicking with excitement. When he latched on, his gulps of warm milk were audible even on the noisy ball field.
I listened to the conversations around me and never felt more alone.
I scanned the field for my middle child from my chair with the nursing baby. Finally, I spotted him. Still in the drainage ditch, covered in mud. I gave up, right then and there—I was raising the white flag.
As the game wraps up, I realize I never even saw my son up to bat. I decided that was it; no more sports until my husband’s shift changed and he could be home in the evenings. I couldn’t do it. Period.
Harder than accepting this point was coming to it and admitting it, admitting it was too much for me. I wanted desperately to be able to do it, to be able to succeed at doing it like I wanted to, like I had envisioned doing it, like I thought it should be done. But I couldn’t.
I remember when I finally went back to school to finish my degree I told my dad that I just didn’t think I could work full time and go to school full time.
“That’s okay,” he said.
“But,” I protested, “People do it all the time.”
And he reassured me some people can, some people can’t. I needed to just be okay with the fact that I couldn’t. Here I was again: I needed to be okay with the fact that I just couldn’t. I needed to raise the white flag high enough that my partner understood I simply couldn’t do it. It wasn’t that I was unwilling or angry about it, I just was not wired to do “this” one part of life the way my situation was forcing me to. We had to make a change. And we did.
I have three more favorite lessons I learned from therapists and I will share those in a future post. But until then, I hope these help you understand that we need help to get things right—but most of all we need help understanding what we are doing wrong. Only then can we make things right. And I am far from perfect here and often have to be reminded of these lessons myself–most often by my spouse but sometimes by my internal voice that reminds me I can change the paths I am on if I don’t like them.
A good therapist provides that mirror for you to look and consider what your responsibility might be in a challenging period or relationship.
Find one. What are you afraid of? The right one can help, I promise.