You may recall my reflections on my fifth and sixth years of marriage, looking ahead to the “Seven Year Itch” that I was pretty confident we would breeze through with love and laughter and fake humility.
There’s a lot I could write about what it’s been like between me and Jack this past year. But the lynchpin of our 7th year of marriage is: Jack started therapy. Which for me means, I started being the spouse of someone in therapy. Turns out, I am not great at this.
Therapy is doing for Jack what therapy at its best does: It’s helping him find his true self, and identify where in life he compromised this true, authentic self for something that felt safe. Marrying me was one of these “safe” choices. Jack is beginning to mourn what was lost as he chose the known, safe path of marriage. He loves and likes me, he says, but marriage itself feels like, and I quote, “A crushing weight.”
One person’s individual therapy always deeply affects his or her relationships, especially family ones. A family (including a 2-person family like ours) is strangely mechanical in its emotional operations. As soon as one gear refuses to rotate in the same way it always has, experimenting with rotating slower or faster or the other way or just stopping entirely, the whole system has to change.
Usually, at least at first, the system does not like the change.
I know what it’s like to be the therapy client, the stubborn cog in what used to be a flawless machine. I know the pull and strain of the other gears trying to function as they did before. In my first few years of therapy, I got comments like, “You’ve gotten selfish since you started therapy!” “I don’t trust this therapist you’re seeing!” or “I miss the ‘real’ Christine.” I hated that last one.
My own clients sometimes describe the rising tension in their homes and friendships as they try on more authentic (or, sometimes, more self-protective) ways of being. They report the suspicion of their family members towards me, the therapist. My attitude thus far has been an unspoken “Tough Shit.” Such a beginner’s mistake, to forget that the people your clients talk about are real, with their own hearts and fears and defenses.
I always assumed that when Jack finally got a chance to go to his own therapy (after supporting mine for years), I would be his biggest advocate. So imagine my surprise this past year when I found myself clamping my lips closed just barely in time before the following phrases escaped them:
“I don’t trust your therapist!”
“You’re not the person I married!”
“You’ve become really selfish!”
To be fair, Jack has been a little, well, clumsy in his efforts to bring out his true self. “You’re not allowed to be an asshole and call it therapy,” I told him yesterday. For months I’ve been muttering to myself, “It’s like living with a teenager.” Around the 15th muttering, it occurred to me that I am living with Jack’s teenage self. The main task of adolescence is to differentiate from primary attachment figures, usually parents. Since Jack’s primary attachment in life is to me, his process of defining himself means defining himself against me and differentiating himself from me.
At my best, I like getting to know Jack’s teenage parts; He has certainly seen plenty of my adolescent self. In my less noble moments, I wonder if I can send him to boarding school until it’s all over.
All this is to say, sending your spouse to therapy is not for the faint-hearted. It requires complete trust in the process of therapy, in the ethics of most therapists, and in your spouse to wisely give himself over to the process. That’s a lot to ask. I have put all of my eggs, personally and professionally, in the therapy basket, and I still have trouble with Jack’s therapy.
One person changes, and eventually, the system changes. But between step one and step two is this weird middle ground, full of experimentation and reaction, apologies and readjustments, and so much uncertainty. I actually don’t know if we’ll make it.
We did, of course, promise each other to make it 7 years ago. Sickness and health, rich and poor, separated only by death. Those traditional wedding vows speak right to the core of our most basic human desire to be loved and connected no matter what forces of life take hold of us.
But they don’t mention therapy.
Theoretically, I would expect a marriage to have uncertain periods, times when you are not sure it was right, not sure it will hold. But theory and experience are as different as a map is from a forest at night.
And speaking of dark forests, this 7th year with Jack has reminded me again and again of one of my favorite poems:
To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight.
And find that the dark, too, blooms and sings
And is traveled by dark feet, and dark wings.
– Wendell Berry
Our 7th year of marriage has been not so much itchy, but dark. We are in the dark, map-less, guide-less, light-less. We trust that as our other senses heighten, we will hear what inhabits the dark spaces of our love, the “dark feet and dark wings” in our marriage. But at the moment, we just blew out our lantern and we are so disoriented that even the ground under our feet feels unsteady.
Well. That’s how I feel, anyway. There might not be any “we” about it. I can hear Jack’s protest now: “I’m not the same as you, you know!”
My love, you are not. And what a terror and a thrill it is to discover you, again and again.