(Much) more on couples counseling

A reader recently asked if I would post more about our couples counseling experience, as what I’ve posted so far has really resonated with her and caused her to have some “aha” moments. I am so grateful for the prompt. I’ve been wanting to write about it. It changed us individually and as a couple in a very short amount of time (2 -3 months). This was no luxury, for us—we needed it in order to heal and move on.

I am going to break this down into a few sections, in case the background info is of interest to certain readers. If not, feel free to skip ahead.

Background: A story of relentless loss

As most of you know, we became pregnant in March of 2011. Lost that pregnancy. Pregnant again in the fall of 2011. Lost via painful induction. I then had a full workup, found out about DOR and chromosomally abnormal eggs, and proceeded to have 2 failed medicated IUIs. Then I got pregnant naturally in April of 2012. Lost. Pregnant again in June of 2012, after a medicated IUI. Lost. Natural conception again in August 2012. Lost. Incredibly expensive IVF at CCRM in January of 2013, with a result of 4 chromosomally abnormal embryos. That is 5 pregnancy losses in the course of 1 1/2 years. 5 pregnancy losses + one emotionally, physically, and financially depleting failed IVF in the course of about 2 years. That’s a lot of loss, a lot of recurrent demolished hope.

Throughout the first 1 1/2 years of this, I was working toward my MSW (the idea had been to be pregnant while in school, with health insurance, and give birth to a babe and a degree at about the same time). My speciality was clinical social work, working with transgender Latina HIV + clients, homebound elderly clients, personality disordered, depressed, anxious, suicidal, and substance-dependent clients. And DH was completing his 5th year doctoral internship in psychology at the VA Hospital, working with vets who had a wide range of issues, including severe PTSD. The jobs we got after graduation are no less challenging.

A therapist I saw one-on-one after the 2nd loss in August 2012 diagnosed me with PTSD. I had taken a medication to induce that 2nd miscarriage and had gone into labor for 7 hours—the worst physical pain of my life. I had night terrors, anxiety, and depression afterward that made it necessary for me to eventually, after months of trying to work it out on my own, go on an antidepressant, which I took for about 3 months, I think. (I evened out long enough to go off of it and be hit with the massive ocean wave of miscarriage #3.)

In the summer of 2012, we went through the anxiety of asking DH’s parents for money for IVF (damaging that relationship with his parents some), and then proceeded to move out to Long Island, where our jobs awaited us (mine came a couple months after DH’s—and those were strange and interesting months indeed). Moving out here was an act of both finding a respite and undergoing another giant life change.

And so, no matter how much yoga I did (and believe me, I did a lot—in the early days of loss, arriving sometimes only to wind up sobbing on the mat while the instructor massaged my embattled head), no matter how much support I received by joining Resolve and a women’s circle, no matter how open I became to a deepened level of spirituality that let in techniques like reiki, acupuncture, and creative visualization, I was still in pretty rough shape as recently as this past February.

How I (and how we) feel things

I tend to feel things deeply. Exquisitely. Painfully. I am capable of the wildest, most limitless joy–a characteristic that I treasure, and that can inspire me to joke without filter, dance like a six-year-old, and laugh so hard I  literally fall to the ground. The beautiful ladies of my family are like this. The flip side is that I am also capable of cutting sorrow. A bleak, hollow feeling. Sadness that begets more sadness.

We all succumb to state-dependent memory. That is: when we are happy, we remember happy things. When we are sad, we remember sad things. When a state is vibrant and intense, we tend to think that we have always mostly been in this state, and the opposite state (light or dark) is the anomaly.

Over the past couple of years of this trauma, DH has gotten confused by things I’ve said when I’ve been very, very sad. When I’ve claimed that I did not think I would ever be able to be as happy as I used to be. I would feel that my sadness had always been, and always would be—and happiness would be the anomaly. Reading all of your blogs, I realize that this is perfectly normal!

But for DH it was difficult to hear. I understand. He was engaged to me, he wanted to have a happy life, and here I was saying that I wasn’t confident of my capacity for happiness anymore. Of course, as soon as I was feeling better, I’d know in a heartbeat that all of those sad words I uttered were nothing more than state-dependent melancholia talking. Relieved, once whatever trigger had let go of me; buoyant, once I’d worked the sadness out of my system; I would draw DH toward me with reassurance and my comfortable, funny ways. He would be wary for a couple of days before joining the “old me” he’d fallen in love with.

Why we went to couples counseling

It was after a particular meltdown and period of sadness that lasted about a week back in February, I think it was, after our failed IVF and realizing we would not have biological children, that DH and I started looking for a couples counselor. We knew we wanted to move on, but we didn’t know how. We had done almost all we could to heal ourselves on our own. We wanted to get married, but we wanted to do so with some of this weight lifted.

Enter Jori and “The Work”

A trusted friend recommended Jori, who practices The Work of Byron Katie—a collection of techniques Jori calls “Cognitive Behavior Therapy on speed.” If you want to learn the basics of The Work, see this post. If you want to read more about Jori & us, see this post.

I kind of hate calling it “The Work.” It gives the method a cult-like feeling that I’m a little uncomfortable with. DH and I got into the habit of calling it “Inquiry,” which is the term used to describe the questions + turnarounds you apply to your thoughts.

The basic tenet of CBT is this: Thoughts are connected to our feelings. If we investigate our thoughts—the root cause of our feelings—then we can change the way we feel.

The major impetus behind inquiry is to suffer less and enjoy life, ourselves, and our relationships, more. The Work has a very Eastern/Buddhist bent–in fact, DH and I often talked about how it basically is Buddhism, except less esoteric, put in more everyday, workable language. (I’d like to compare Buddhism and The Work in a later post.)

DH and I started investigating our thoughts continually. We took our thoughts to inquiry in our journals throughout the week. We inquired about our thoughts in session. We learned how to skillfully facilitate inquiry for each other. And eventually, some of that heaviness, that weight acquired through recurrent loss and repeated thwarting of desire and hope, started to lift.

At first I was not all that hopeful it would work. I stubbornly held on to my grievances. I took a few thoughts to inquiry and did not feel all that much relief afterward.

But then I did inquiry on my dad.

My first successful inquiry

Inquiry works best, at first, if you direct it outward. The method requires you to initially judge and become petty, and it is hard to direct that at ourselves, in the beginning, because our defenses rise up. I also didn’t want to start with DH. So I judged my dad. I judged him for not contacting me after my miscarriages to tell me how sorry he was. I judged him for not contacting me after my failed IVF to offer his support. (Keep in my mind, this was a couple of months ago.) I boiled the thought down to:

Dad should have contacted me after my miscarriages and my failed IVF.

I am angry with my father for not contacting me.

I want my father to contact me when painful things happen in my life.

Dad should have the courage and the motivation to contact me when I am in pain.

I need Dad to realize that he should contact me. I need him to be strong, empathetic.  I need him to be active not passive.

Dad can be passive, cowardly, self-involved, lazy, avoidant, scared, non-confrontational.

I feel abandoned by Dad. Avoided by Dad. Like I have a disease if I am not happy. Not worthy of his attention unless I am happy.

Dad should have contacted me.

How do I treat him when I have the thought? I push him away.

How do I treat myself when I have the thought? I allow my self to feel rejected, mistreated, avoided.

How do I react when I have the thought? I pinch up my face. I feel cold and hard. I roll my eyes and sigh loudly. I feel disappointed, wronged, rigid, withdrawn, sour, vindictive, condemning, exasperated, powerless, perplexed, injured, sorrowful, stern, bitter.

What do I envision in the future when I have the thought? I see myself with a baby in my arms, not allowing him to enjoy the baby, turning away from him. I hear myself on the phone with my mom, saying I don’t want her to tell my dad that I am pregnant. I say, “Where was he when I was sad and not pregnant? Why does he think he gets to talk to me only when and if I am pregnant and happy?”

What negative core beliefs are triggered by the thought? I am isolated. My isolation is caused by others’ insensitive treatment of me.

Can I see a reason to drop this thought? Yes.

Can I think of a stress-free reason to keep it? No.

Who/what would I be without this thought? [Close eyes. Don’t be afraid to lose your identity.] I would be relaxed. Looser. More generous. More smiley. More loving. More light-hearted. Kinder. Closer to him. Closer to my mom. Tender. Selflessly devoted. Tolerant–perhaps even amusedly tolerant. Laughing with my mom over Dad’s incredibly awkward ways…

Compassionate toward Dad, who loves me hugely, I know. Who cares. He probably cares so much he becomes paralyzed and doesn’t know how or when to talk to me. He probably genuinely has no idea what to say. 

[When I reached this bold-faced part, I began to cry, my heart swelling with compassion and love for my father. I saw him, crying quietly by himself in his guitar-room in the basement, hurting for me, terrified to pick up the phone.]

Again, who/what would I be without this thought? Earnest, mature, wise daughter, Dad’s daughter, Dad’s loving daughter who cherishes him. At ease, assured, forgiving, communicative, warm, gracious, patient.

Turn the thought around to the self: Dad should have contacted me = I should have contacted me.

I should have contacted me.

I should have supported myself (which I did, but not always successfully). Why do I think it is so easy for him to support me when I have trouble doing it myself? Particularly since I immediately pull away when I am wounded, not wanting to be a burden.

I should not have abandoned myself down the well of negative thoughts and feelings.

I should have contacted me. I should have supported me.

Turn the thought around to the other: I should have contacted Dad.

If I wanted his support, I should have called him and asked for it. I should call him more often and ask how he is doing, in both good times and bad times. I should have shown him my pain, not hidden it from him.

Turn the thought around to the opposite: Dad should NOT have contacted me.

It is his business whether or not he contacts me. I am mentally over there, in his business, trying to dictate what he says and does, which is hopeless and futile. He should not have contacted me because he did not contact me—that’s not the morality but the reality, and arguing with reality is stressful and insane.

That’s the basic gist of inquiry. I felt an immediate lessening of suffering after doing this, and an openness toward my dad. When I woke up the next morning, that freedom from pain and judgment was still with me.

I have recently expressed that I need his support, and have even asked my mom to let him know how important it is to me. When she said to him, “Your daughter needs you to call her more often and give her support,” he started crying and said, “I don’t know if I can!” Which matches up exactly with the vision I had of him during inquiry—that vision of him down in the basement, terrified, crying, not contacting me but loving me. The method helps us reach deeper truths about ourselves and others, and guides us toward compassion.

Now my father and I are on good terms again, writing nice emails to each other.

My dad is a bit of a good ol’ boy, and he oftentimes just signs his Hallmark cards, simply, “Dad.” In the last email he sent to me, he wrote: “I love you more than life itself!!”

What happened between DH & me

So DH and I would use inquiry to dissect a great number of thoughts about each other and our relationship that were causing us stress and unhappiness. Basically, we went sleuthing through our brains for all of our “he should” and “she should” thoughts.

There were a lot. You don’t realize how many “shoulds” you have knocking around in there until you begin to write them down! The most useful part of inquiry for us was the reminder to stop saying “should” about the other and for each of us stay in our own business. The idea of “my business” and “your business”—this is my business over here, and that is your business over there—was like flipping a light switch for us.

When I try to go over into his business and tell him (inwardly or outwardly) what he should and shouldn’t be doing—ie., he should be feeling as sad I am feeling about this miscarriage; he should understand why I am inconsolable right now; he should allow me to be sad without getting scared about our future happiness; he should want children as much as I do; he should understand the hugeness of this loss and the long-term impact on our lives; he should understand how great it would have been to have our biological children; he should be mourning the loss of my genetic contribution to our children more; he should be more excited about donor eggs; he should be more excited in general about starting a family; he should be able to see into the future, see how lonely and isolated we’d be without a family; he should recognize how much he loves kids and how great he is with them; he should want this as much as I do, and suffer as much as I do when the dream is lost again and again; he should have a better understanding of what I mean when I say we are stuck at a certain level of human development—when I think or say those “shoulds,” I suffer. When he comes over into my business and tells me (inwardly or outwardly) what I should and shouldn’t be doing—ie., I should not express so much uncertainty about my future happiness; I should remember that he told me when we first started dating that he wasn’t sure if he even wanted kids; I should not fault him for asking me to wait a year longer than I wanted to before trying to conceive; I should be able to promise him that we can be as happy without kids as with kids; I should understand his fears about having his freedom and time limited by children; I should understand his okay-ness with the idea of having no children and having a life of leisure and travel instead; I should place as much importance on his career as he does; I should be happy with one child and not advocate for having a second—at the end of all of those “shoulds,” he suffers. Those shoulds are loaded with a thousand cognitive distortions, anyway, compounded by the fact that we mentally or vocally foist them on each other.

We tried to stop saying “You should,” and tried to stay in our own business, even while we supported each other. It has been a couple of months since we started writing down our shoulds and we got to the point of being able to laugh at them. I wanted him to see into the future? But he doesn’t! He sees into the next day—sometimes only the next hour! That’s who he is and what he does. I’m the one who thinks about the future.

“And isn’t that great,” Jori would say, “that you do that for you two? What a wonderful gift you offer! Here you are, over here in your business, thinking about the future, and making all sorts of plans. And there he is over there, in his business, cooking wonderful meals, taking care of so many daily tasks so that you have time to research and plan these larger things. Can you let him do what he does best while you do what you do best, and that be okay?”

That made a lot of sense to me.

The staying-in-your-business thing came in handy when it came to being triggered into an emotional meltdown, too. The last time I became really very sad was Easter. I cried, I felt despair, I felt sorry for myself—but the big difference this time was that I did not talk much to DH. And he didn’t ask me to talk. So simple! He stayed in his business, which was going about the day, and I stayed in mine, which was allowing myself to feel deeply sad for as long as I wanted. The sadness got dark. I stayed near my easel. I printed out an image of a family of four from the 70s, all of them smiling happily at the camera on their sliver-thin 10-speeds. They looked like my family when I was growing up in the late 70s, early 80s. We probably had bikes just like those. I became morose, thinking I would never go on a family bike trip with my own family. Had even dumber thoughts like: If I do have a family, I’ll be fifteen years older than this smiling 70s mom and won’t be able to keep up with my kids. I went to my easel and painted over the image. Gave the family members spookily smiling faces. Covered the image in a layer of gauze, symbolizing the distance of the dream. It was art therapy. Cathartic.

The next day, when I saw that artwork, I laughed at how macabre it was. Who the hell was that person who made this thing? I was already far away from that perspective—and maybe making something tangible out of the dark was exactly what I needed to do in order to get away from it. All by myself.

And exactly what I did NOT need to do was drag DH into it. Or let him insert himself—trying to be helpful with his questions, his frustrated gestures toward comfort, and just not realizing that I was not in a place to be dissecting my thoughts, behaviors, and emotions. I needed to be sad. I needed to honor my sadness. And for the first time in ages, he just went ahead and let me sad without trying to “fix” me. We didn’t have destructive conversations, during which my state-dependent memory made me say stupid things about being uncertain of my ability to be happy again. I processed it all through art. And he didn’t become my therapist. It was perfect.

I can’t help but think that that Easter marked the end of a long pattern of behavior between DH and me, and marked an end to a certain phase of my sadness. I haven’t gone back there again. As I wrote, Mother’s Day really wasn’t so bad after all. And in general, I am feeling hopeful and able to see the gift in this tragedy, the silver linings abounding everywhere I look. Once you really look for those silver linings and find them, it is impossible to un-see them.

And DH and I, while we argue like any other couple, are generally quite happy and getting used to feeling lighter. It’s not always easy—two of the four years we’ve been together have been so weighted down. But it hasn’t gone unnoticed that everything we’ve been through—all that we’ve weathered, triumphed over, negotiated, confronted, and figured out—has been a learning experience we can dip into for guidance in the future, as a newly married couple, and eventually, as new parents.

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10 Comments

  1. GREAT post. Love the idea of staying in your own space. Simple, but important to learn! I really find it important to have alone time. I call if ‘fee; bad for myself’ nights. B does not prefer that, He would rather be out with his friends, trying to forget about it. While I need to sit at home and FEEL the disappoitment. It has taken us awhile to realize that this is OK. Thank you for sharing this really personal experience. It will help people

    Reply
    • You know it’s so true—our feelings will not go away just because we want them to! We do need to honor those feelings, give them space and breath. I’m glad to hear you and B have figured out a way of processing that works for you both. No wonder it takes us some time to figure it out—this stuff is complicated and layered. You’re most welcome for the post!

      Reply
  2. First off, thank you so much for sharing your experience with marriage counseling. In particular, this form of therapy is fascinating to learn about. To be analyzing thoughts and then working with them in this manner is really fascinating and something I want to explore more. So thank you for this post.

    Reply
  3. Thanks for sharing this. It sounds like you’ve found a great therapist. It’s so important to keep our relationships strong through these rough times. It’s not easy.

    Reply
  4. Thank you for posting!

    Reply
  5. I wanted to read this over again and give you more feedback. I just can’t even begin to describe how much this feels like EXACTLY what I go through and I did some inquiry’s just using what you wrote above and WOW, AMAZING clarification for me. I just bought “I Need Your Love – Is That True?: How to Stop Seeking Love, Approval, and Appreciation and Start Finding Them Instead.” by Byron Katie and I’m so excited to get started with this. I had an unsuccessful few years with a Cognitive Behavioral Therapist, with just me going, and I think this will help me overcome the obstacles that I had with that therapist, as well as include other relationships in this effort, not just working on my own issues. THANK YOU so much for sharing. I would never have come across this otherwise. THANK YOU!

    Reply
    • You’re welcome! I am thrilled that it helps you so significantly. I spread this method to spread the love and insight, because it is not just a passing thing, once you use it and feel it work–it becomes a way of life, really. I find myself going into automatic inquiry sometimes. I want to get the book you just bought. Please do tell me how it is, what you glean from it, if you have a moment. I wish you all the best in trying out the Work. xo

      Reply
  1. Cycle dates / I fired my therapist | the unexpected trip

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