My wife and I are sitting in the office of a marriage therapist in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. The therapist sits across from us, and invites my wife to talk about the pain she’s experiencing in our marriage, in the hope that she and I can begin to untangle some of the messy unexplainable twists in our relationship. After sixteen years of marriage we were now sinking under the weight of untreated character defects (both hers and mine), and cyclical patterns of conflict that we didn’t understand.
My wife finishes her story, and the therapist says, “Jay, can you turn to your wife and say to her, ‘I can understand how you could feel this way’?” I look at him and say “No, I can’t say that – I don’t understand how she could feel this way, I don’t believe her, and she’s wrong!”
An inauspicious start to my career as a consumer of therapy! I am happy to report that we survived that first hour of marriage therapy (no thanks to my clueless, unsympathetic response), and many more hours after that. One day at a time we’ve been healing together. We’re not where we want to be, quite yet, but we’re not where we used to be. My experience in therapy was teaching me that right thinking was not enough – I had to attend to my emotions. I had to:
- Notice them,
- Name them,
- Own them, and then
- Express them in a safe and sympathetic setting.
Then my emotions could become my ally instead of my (and my wife’s) enemy. And healthy emotional awareness and management would lead to a much healthier and more loving relationship with my wife, and with others.
In the years following my initiation into therapy, I encountered serious challenges – a bout with cancer, my father’s untimely death, and many other run-of-the-mill traumas that we all deal with. I’m grateful that my introduction to therapy began to provide me with the emotional and relational tools I needed to navigate the (sometimes) treacherous waters of my life.
Therapists do go to therapy (at least, some of them do). For me, the most effective equipping I have had – more than the hundreds of books I’ve read, more than all the schooling and professional development – has been sitting on the couch as a client. My hours in therapy have taught me how to walk around inside of my own soul, how to take the big telephone-pole-sized logs out of my own eye, so that I can help my clients take the small specks of sawdust out of their eyes.
When I see a new client for the first time, I remember how hard it was for me to pick up the phone and make that first call to a therapist, and I’m grateful for my new client’s courage.
And – I’m forever grateful to those who encouraged me to make that call.