I’m well aware of the stereotype; I’ve seen it perpetuated in plenty of movies and tv shows: Couple in crisis waits until they’re on the brink of divorce, then goes to marriage therapy. Couple splits up anyway.
That scenario has played out very differently for me and my wife, Sam. We’ve been married for five years and together for 12, and our relationship has been altogether excellent. We’ve built a true partnership, supporting each other through everyday trials like bad traffic and broken kitchen faucets to some of life’s biggest challenges—illness, injury, and loss. And we have a blast together, whether we’re traveling the world or just laughing at a dumb internet meme at home on the couch.
But somewhere along the way, we fell into patterns that weren’t serving either of us—or our relationship—well. There were small things we’d continually argue about, to the point of complete impasse. There were big, deep-seated insecurities and problems we’d never addressed. And there were a whole bunch of other things that were too entrenched, too shallow in our field of vision, that they stayed blurred beyond perception. It all emulsified into barriers we couldn’t overcome.
I’d still describe our marriage as a happy one. But the myopia with which we approached our challenges as a couple meant we weren’t making progress. On so many topics, we each created our own truths—truths at odds with the other person’s reality. We needed objective help putting these issues into sharper focus.
Enter couples therapy.
I’m not sure now whose idea it was, but we both willingly marched, hand in hand, into the therapist’s office a year ago. And we’re lucky: We approached this from a place of strength, and from a place of financial privilege, as a couple with the disposable income to pay for therapy out of pocket. Often these sessions are not covered by insurance the way individual therapy might be.
It hasn’t been easy. There have been times where I could barely speak as we touched on a subject that, sometimes unexpectedly, found an exposed nerve. There were times where I felt so deeply insecure and exposed by what we talked about that I was nearly catatonic with anxiety. All my faults and insecurities were laid bare, week after week—in front of a stranger, no less.
Perhaps because couples therapy, for us, was never about leveling accusations at one another, and more about problem-solving, it proved successful. Those painful experiences were rare compared to the progress we made, and often the hardest sessions represented a sudden lurch forward in our evolution as a couple. It seems obvious now, but talking about the hard shit made us stronger together.
Couples therapy gave us the tools to address conflict.
One of our major challenges was our reaction to disagreements. I tend to leave the room to process my feelings—and to cool down rather than erupt with anger. To Sam, that felt like abandonment, a cold shoulder. Our therapist helped us explain the motivations behind our actions (in this and other situations), which built understanding. We developed new strategies together, learned to read the contours of our disagreements to find common ground. She encouraged us to tell each other what we’re thinking: “I need to cool down a second before we work through this” was a simple solution that hadn’t occurred to me.
Couples therapy helped us talk about difficult topics.
Despite our 12-year relationship, there were things we just didn’t ever talk about. Our therapist has been a thoughtful mediator guiding us safely to and through those painful places. Maybe Sam thought I would judge her for something she thought or felt—but with the help of our therapist, I was able to express my support and lack of judgment. Even just verbalizing what I knew to be true, but never said out loud—“There’s nothing you can say that will change how I feel about you”—created a safe space.
Couples therapy reflected our strengths as a couple.
When things got dark or particularly tough, our therapist was great about pointing out our strengths and the values we share as a couple. That helped ground us, reminding us that we’re approaching our issues from a positive place, rather than going on the defensive. We’d lost sight of that amid our challenges. Our therapist reaffirmed that our problems were fixable, and she gave us—or helped us arrive at—concrete solutions to seemingly insurmountable challenges.
Couples therapy helped us connect.
All of these strategies and conversations deepened our connection with each other, but only when we were in the same room together. As a travel writer, I’m frequently out of town, and we both spend time visiting out-of-state family. Our therapist helped us see that physical distance and time spent apart meant we weren’t connecting like we do at home. She helped us develop ways we can spend time together, even for just a few minutes, even when we’re in different cities. Even short FaceTime sessions, or date nights after a long period apart, helped alleviate loneliness.
Finding the right therapist can be tough.
We found ours through Psychology Today’s website, which has a great database of therapists and lets you filter by therapists’ gender and sexual identities. There are also databases through the National Queer and Trans Therapists of Color Network, the GLMA, and the Association of Gay and Lesbian Psychiatrists.
I recommend starting with those databases and then visiting individual therapists’ websites. They’ll often describe their approach and specialties in more depth. The therapist may share their own gender and sexual identities, which can also help build trust and rapport; or they may simply identify as LGBTQ affirming.
Ours didn’t share her identity, but we knew from her website that she often works with LGBT couples and her approach includes understanding people through the lenses of privilege and oppression; working as an anti-racist, anti-oppression healer; and working with women who feel overextended in a society that expects us to do it all. All of these things spoke to us when we were looking for help.