Brokering a Truce

What is couples therapy like—for the therapist? Psychotherapist Nicholas Kirsch, who’s been in practice 25 years, says the surprises never end.

By: Libby Copeland

I’m constantly surprised by which couples make it and which don’t.

Some come in with so much damage to their relationship that it’s pretty unlikely they’re going to make it. But that’s rare. Those couples usually find their way to a lawyer.

With couples just starting out—in the first ten years or so—it tends to be more about learning how to live together, how to get along as housemates, how to talk to each other. They don’t know that they’re not listening well, that they’re not really hearing the other person.

With older couples who have been married 15-plus years, midlife issues are pretty much always in play. As we get to that stage in life, our psychology shifts toward existential issues: How am I going to leave my mark, and what do I want for the rest of my life? Couples therapy becomes an exploration of that. A lot of times, they don’t really know that that’s fueling the tensions between them. They might be arguing about what house they want to buy or what vacations to take. Or they might be having trouble in their sex life—maybe it’s not happening as much. Often there are affairs or emotional affairs at this time of life.

For some couples, if there’s been an affair, that’s it—it’s a deal breaker. Other times it becomes a wake-up call. It’s usually extremely painful, but a lot of couples overcome it, and some overcome multiple affairs. It’s hard to predict. Some couples, if there’s an emotional affair, it breaks them.

I’ve had couples where sex is the main thing they’re talking about, and they’re very open about it—and then others where it virtually never comes up, and if I do bring it up, it’s clear it’s not going to go anywhere. A supervisor I had once said, “Sex is probably the one thing in life that’s a lot easier to do than to talk about.”

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One thing we try to do in therapy is let couples know that anger is normal. Successful couples learn how to channel that and use it constructively.

Some actually need help getting angrier with each other. Anger is part of what fuels passion—you know, we get angry about something because we care about it. If you’re squelching anger, the relationship can become passionless. You see that a lot when a couple becomes like friends and roommates but lose their romantic and sexual feelings for each other.

On the other side of that coin is the couple that has too much anger. I’m constantly monitoring the temperature in the room. When a couple is destructively angry, it’s important that I intervene quickly. Usually it’s just interrupting and saying, “Hey, cut it out.” I’ll try to walk them through a better way to say what they’re saying.

Even though I’m a therapist with a lot of experience, I’m a human being and things affect me. I’m bothered whenever I see couples mistreating each other. But part of my training is learning when I’m bothered and getting a consultation if I feel I’m in over my head.

• • •

Couples therapy is very creative. It’s an exploration. I never know where it’s going to go.

I had a couple once—they felt so far apart, so different and distant, and they were both saying they didn’t think they should stay together. He was very stoic and nonexpressive—kind of the stereotypical man. She was constantly emoting.

They hadn’t had sex with each other in many years. When I heard that, I cringed on the inside. I thought, “Oh, wow, this is a really dead marriage.” It turned out that they’d had a really bad trauma years earlier and hadn’t talked about it—they’d lost a child. They both were grief-stricken and became totally polarized. He worked harder; she became the quintessential homemaker. They’d throw parties. On the outside, they looked like this great couple, and meanwhile they didn’t talk.

So they came to me years later, and it had gotten to a point where they were arguing about all kinds of things—how to spend their money, whether to fix the house, whether to move—and they had no idea what they were arguing about. They each did a lot of individual therapy as well, and over the next couple of years they kind of rediscovered each other.

They had some very painful sessions talking about their loss and a lot of initially blaming each other. But they started opening up. I was inspired by what they did. After a couple of years, they started falling back in love.

If therapy is going well, the two people are going deeper into themselves individually and they’re learning a lot more about the other person. To be a party to it and a witness to it is profoundly gratifying.

Libby Copeland, a former Washington Post reporter, is a writer in New York and a regular contributor to Slate. She can be reached at libbycopeland@gmail.com.

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