“Couples therapy was a big help, and I’m happy we went,” I say to my new acquaintance, taking a sip of my wine, and checking out the other guests at the party.
“But it failed!” she insists. “You’re divorced!”
I swallow—both the wine and my urge to walk away. I’ve gotten this reaction before, usually from those hearing my story for the first time. I’ve met so many people who narrowly define therapeutic success in only one way; it “worked” if the couple stayed together. Sometimes they proclaim that I wasted my money on therapy, since I divorced.
Actually, therapy was incredibly productive, and cost-effective. Counseling made my divorce less confusing, more amicable, and not nearly as expensive as it might have been. Perhaps most importantly, I came out on the other side feeling better about myself.
I remember the phone call when I told my best friend that my husband was leaving me. She said it was too bad we hadn’t had tried counseling before the marriage derailed. I started wondering: was it really too late to go, now that the paperwork had been filed and there was a date on the court calendar? I called my attorney for advice. He said there was no legal reason not to ask my still-husband if he’d be willing to talk to a counselor. “One therapist at $130 per hour is a lot cheaper than two lawyers at $300 each,” he said.
My then-husband agreed that spending $300 an hour on lawyers would quickly multiply if our current anger and hurt led to an on-going legal fight.
The first insight we gained from the therapist was that she wasn’t there to help us get back together (which is what I wanted). Nor was it her job to move us apart (his goal). She represented the relationship between us. That relationship was in a confused state. We both remembered the past, but we were no longer living in it. We had conflicting ideas about what the relationship had been, and no way to redefine it going forward.
After a few sessions, we began to recognize negative behaviors we’d been practicing for years. We found common ground in building a healthy foundation of respect, if not for each other’s point of view, then for how we could express our needs.
We learned new concepts and communication skills. Such as: there are no absolutes, and we want to avoid suggesting otherwise when we speak.
I learned to be wary of and even eliminate all-or-nothing words such as “always,” “never,” and “should.” That skill stuck with me, improving my relationship with my now-ex and with others in my life. It seems small, but it’s amazing how much better I can get through any disagreement now. When I refrain from drawing an (artificial) all-or-nothing line in the sand, I don’t waste energy defending that boundary, and I leave open more room to find common ground.
I also learned to use “I” statements, a staple of couples counseling. Instead of fighting with every fiber in my body to ensure that the other person knows what should have happened, now I simply say how I feel. It’s infinitely more empowering to say, “I don’t like that,” or “I need,” rather than, “You should.” I’m the authority on me—no one else—and I can take pride in standing up for myself.
I didn’t have either of these communication skills when we began couples counseling. Therapy also gave us tools to actually hear each other. (Hint: listening isn’t just being quiet while waiting for your turn to blast the other person with emotions as if he is the audience at a Gallagher concert). Sometimes, we used pens to listen to ourselves first. Writing down our thoughts and realizing their potential impact before reading them aloud to each other was a great way to edit out unnecessary ugliness.
Therapy gave us a safe place to say what we felt. I didn’t get that sense of safety in either attorney’s office. I got the feeling that his attorney wanted to provoke me and create an adversarial atmosphere. If I’d taken the bait, she’d now be rolling in what was once half of my money. Instead, therapy helped me keep my cool. I leaned on my growing ability to avoid miscommunication and outright spitefulness with the husband who no longer wanted that role in my life.
Perhaps most significantly, couples counseling gave me a way to let go.
I had to relinquish the idea that this man I’d known and loved for most of my adult life no longer loved me back in that way. I had to let go of my identity as a married woman and step into a role that felt forced upon me.
I needed every skill in the book to get from where I was to where I wanted to be, and I did it—I have managed to move on. When my ex remarried, I didn’t fall apart upon hearing the news. I’m sure I’d have had a different reaction if I hadn’t been through a process that gave me insight into myself, let me work through emotions, and say what I needed to say in a way that my ex could hear and understand. I consider all of this a huge success.
At the party, I take another sip of wine. The counselor didn’t recommend I take up drinking, but she did say there’s value in activities that help us slow down and reassess. I begin to relax a little, and think about this woman standing across from me. I don’t want to judge a person just because we disagree. I have no idea where she’s coming from, or why she seems so eager to dismiss the idea of therapy. Maybe she has a problem with her husband and is considering counseling herself, but only wants to go if it will help her meet her aim. I started therapy with a definite goal of reconciliation. I was the typical client who thinks the therapist will never suspect I have an agenda. But probably every person who walks into that office has a mind humming, “This will fix my partner and all will be well.”
Maybe my story will help my new friend. So, I start again, speaking as openly as I can. “My ex and I both needed help and guidance. And we got it,” I say. “The money was well spent because we went in as a broken couple and came out as two healthy, independent people who respect each other and, more importantly, who respect ourselves and how we conduct ourselves.”
Linda Zukauskas is a freelance writer and journalist in Connecticut. After more than a decade of marriage, she and her husband split amicably in 2008. She works primarily as a ghostwriter.