Thursday, June 24, 2010

Let's Talk About Something Kind of Serious

So, as much as I love wedding planning, I also love marriage planning. And one of the things Mr. O and I have been doing to plan for our marriage is attending couples' counseling. I have always thought that going to counseling was a good, proactive, helpful thing to do. Before our pre-marital therapy sessions, I hadn't ever been to see a therapist myself, but I knew how well it worked for people in my life who wanted to work through some stuff. Also, in my career, I interact with a lot of social workers and mental health clinicians, and I see firsthand the good work that they do. So, I felt very positively about the benefits of counseling.....but the thing was, I had no idea how counseling actually worked. I basically imagined it like taking a multivitamin. Take this pill, and through some kind of magical body chemistry process, you get healthier.

And then Mr. Octopus and I started going to counseling, and I realized I had been missing a key aspect of the process: counseling is hard, and requires a lot of work on the part of the counselees. We actually started out seeking grief counseling after his mother's death, but as our grief became less immediate, the sessions evolved into more generalized pre-marital/couples' counseling. That's when we both figured out that counseling was not a passive activity--definitely NOT like taking a multivitamin. The first thing that makes it hard is that, in order for the counseling to be effective at all, you have to really open up, a lot, to your therapist, who is (obviously) a stranger. It was hard for me, anyway--I am not comfortable being very emotionally forthcoming to people I don't know well, and I often walked out of our counseling sessions feeling very exposed, which then made me feel somewhat unsettled. I knew, though, that that it was good for us, so I kept it up despite my slight discomfort with the process.

The second thing that I wrestled with was accepting the fact that we could have a very happy, healthy, fun-and-love-filled relationship, yet still have issues and problems, things that we couldn't entirely solve ourselves. We both had to acknowledge, to ourselves and to our counselor, some sticky things in our relationship that straight-up weren't working. Also, not only did we need to acknowledge it, we had to do the harder work of taking our counselor's advice (and, sometimes, the hard truths she laid on us) to heart, acting on it, and consciously changing some of the relationship patterns we had established. For example, I am very Type A and he is very Type B, and it causes some conflict. He needed to step up and take an equal share of responsibility in running our household, and I needed to stop micromanaging, supervising, and generally inserting myself into his business. We're also at very different places in our careers right now, and grappling with what that means for each of us has been a bit of a struggle in the past year or two. Trying to work through all that wasn't exactly fun, but we are both really glad that we did it.

We've now wrapped up our pre-marital counseling, and I feel like I learned a lot. I'd like to share some of the things I took away from our therapy experience.

* Marriage is hard, requires tons of communication, and lasts forever. Yes, I know, everybody says this. I mean, intellectually, in my head, I knew it already. But a lot of the experiences Mr. O and I have had this year drove me to really feel the weight and the bigness and the seriousness and the difficulty of marriage in a way I hadn't emotionally understood before; to really wrestle with the fact that marriage includes struggles that don't get solved through just one good, honest talk. Mom Octopus (whose awesome marriage to Dad Octopus clocks in at 28 years and counting) has always said that marriage is hard, and after our counseling sessions, I called her to tell her that I finally, emotionally grasped what that really meant.

She responded with, seriously, the best marriage advice ever: "Miss Octopus, love is not all there is to making a marriage work. Loving the deep, true heart of a person is just the foundation of marriage. All the other parts of marriage, like running a household, managing family money, and raising children, don't just happen naturally because you love someone. That stuff comes from hard work and constant communication, which you do because you love them."

* Doing the hard work is so, so worth it. Like I said, counseling wasn't fun or easy, but I felt like our relationship had gotten deeper, and better, after we finished. It's kind of amazing to demonstrate to your partner that you're so committed to making your relationship work that you'll lay all your flaws and not-so-cute traits and contributions to not-positive relationship dynamics out there to be looked at and discussed, and you'll make a serious effort to rein them in or change them, in order to be better together. It's a tangible act of putting your relationship first.

Marriage is hard, yes. But it is also amazing, and makes us both happy all the way through, and is so worth it. I will conclude with more marriage words of wisdom from Mom Octopus:

"Every time you go through something hard with your partner, the way you both handle it can bring you closer together. Working through something successfully with someone helps you get to know and understand them a little more than you did before, and your relationship and knowledge of each other is a little more intimate every time you experience an obstacle or something tough."

I've been with Mr. Octopus for almost eight years now, and it's amazing how I continually feel like I'm getting to know him better, and to have the sense that my relationship to him is alive, an active, growing, changing thing. Going to counseling contributed to that growth, and I'm glad for that.

Would you consider going to counseling with your partner? If you have, how did it work for you?

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