Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Innermost Circle of Hell: Relationship Counseling

My partner and I started seeing a couples counselor last month.  What with my partner's travel schedule, and the counselor's travel schedule, our second visit wasn't until a few days ago.  And it was awful.

The therapist we're seeing uses the Gottman Method.  We chose this method because it's evidence based, and we're both big fans of that sort of thing.

Another thing that appealed to me about the method is that you start with exercises that help you build positive feelings your relationship.  This is supposed to give you a strong foundation of love and affection from which to work on conflict management.  Conflict management, by the way, is supposed to be one of the later steps in the process.

For some reason, our therapist chose to bypass this step.  My partner mentioned one of his frustrations, and the therapist asked me if I was OK with using the session to address it.  I wasn't, really; but I figured, hey, this process isn't always going to be comfortable for me, right?  Besides, our therapist was there to help us if things got bad, and maybe he could teach us some new skills to keep it from getting bad in the first place.

My partner and I have actually had several productive discussions over the past month.  We've talked about difficult issues without attacking or blaming each other.  We're discussing some viable solutions to our problems.  We're both feeling better about each other and our marriage.

And yet, our counseling session was all about attacking and blaming.  Or rather, my partner attacked and blamed me, and I apologized and explained and apologized some more.  The kicker came when he told me that he feels my health problems "are just one more thing he has to pay for", and that I "use my disabilities as an excuse not to work."

I knew that my partner felt these things, but hearing them stated so bluntly and brutally was excruciating.  The second item was particularly awful for me.  My whole life, I've been told by non-disabled people that "I'm not trying hard enough" or "I just don't want to put the work in".  I heard this from my parents. I heard this from my teachers.  Nobody thought to ask themselves why I was having so many problems.

And this dynamic continued even after I was diagnosed.  I would tell my professors that my one of my disabilities was causing problems for me in a certain area, and they would say, "oh, I don't see you as disabled!  You're so smart!  You just need to work a little harder!".  Well, no, working "harder" won't help because I don't understand what the hell you're talking about in the first place.  As for my parents, they ignored my diagnosis, and change the subject when I bring it up.

Now, this dynamic continues with my partner.  Like my parents, like my teachers and professors, he has never taken the time to educate himself about my disabilities.  He as not asked me about my experiences living with them.  His remark violated one of my most important personal boundaries: non-disabled people DO NOT get to define my experience as a disabled person.

It was at this point that I totally dissociated.  I don't remember much else about our discussion.  How could I?  My partner had pretty much called me a blood-sucking parasite.

And the therapist?  He sat and watched, occasionally prompted one of us to respond, and occasionally checked in with how and what we were feeling.  At the end of the session, as I was trying to gather enough control to leave the office and walk down the street without sobbing, he said that we "pause too much when speaking", and that this caused the discussion to stall out.

Yup.  That's all we got.  We frickin' pause too much!  Nothing about ways to phrase things more gently, nothing about how to keep the discussion from causing emotional overwhelm, just that we take too many pauses when speaking.  Seriously, WTF?

His other helpful commentary was that "this is big stuff" and "very hard" but "these feelings have been submerged for a long time".  He pointed out that I had "asked my partner to share his feelings" and that "this wasn't going to be easy at first".  Also, regarding our conflict about where to live (we spent some time on this contentious subject), he was hearing me say that I "felt suffocated" when we lived closer to my partner's work (this is literal; I'm severely allergic to something in the area), but I needed to keep in mind that my partner is "suffocating" living where we live now.

The thing of it is, we learned nothing from this discussion.  These were not "feelings that have been submerged for a long time".  They've been brought out into the open over the course of the last month.  If the session had uncovered any new feelings or problems in our relationship, or if we'd been taught some more effective ways to handle the conflict, the suffering would have been worth it.  Instead, it was a pointless trip through hell.

I came away from the session with the following:

  1. My partner sees me as a burden who parasitizes his life.
  2. After betraying our promise to be honest with each other by hiding things from me, my partner deserves to be rewarded for this by having his feelings heard and validated.
  3. My feelings are secondary, assuming they're relevant at all.
  4. I "asked for" the pain I experienced during that conversation because I told my partner I wanted to know how he felt.
  5. I've ignored the difficulty my partner has had living where we do -- in spite of the fact that I've worked my ass off for the last year and a half trying to find a compromise on a place where both of us can live
When we got home, I could barely look at my partner, let alone allow him to touch me.  To his credit, he asked me to tell him what was going on.  He listened while I told him how hurt I was when he wrote off my disabilities as an "excuse" ... then he remarked that he felt like the session was counterproductive.  It was hard on him, he said, and much much harder on me, and for what?

At least we agree on something.

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