We were 22 and 23 when we first ventured into couples therapy. The first round came up when my then-partner had begun seeing a therapist who threw around the idea of us attending a joint session.
We were young, had a lot to keep us busy and not many responsibilities, at the time. Sure we bickered about the right way to cook pasta, but by all accounts, we were pretty happy. It felt almost indulgent to pay hundreds of dollars for counselling. Not only that, but we were both in extremely transitional periods of our lives where so much was changing that trying to look for meaning in any of it seemed like an exercise in futility. I was hesitant, to say the least. And I'd be lying if I said I wasn't concerned about how the people in my life would respond to the idea too.
I suppose that just highlights the issue — the common misconception that therapy is something of a last resort; a last-ditch attempt to mend something broken. I knew a lot of people who had sought out therapy for their own reasons and that never seemed odd or premature to me.
My friends and I always openly discussed each other's lives and voyeuristically binged Esther Perel’s Where Should We Begin? But the idea of telling the world that your relationship needed help hit different. Part of me still held the stigma that couples therapy meant intervention — something I didn’t want to believe we needed.
I remember wondering what to wear to the first session. If I needed to pack a snack and if I'd be mentally probed for doing so. Should I have opted for the waterproof mascara? (Spoiler: yes). I was nervous and had no idea what I was walking into, but I certainly wasn't prepared for what came next.
The experience was hard. Gut-wrenching, even, but helpful. As people so often do, we realised that as much as we could enjoy each other and have things in common, we grew up very differently, in ways we didn’t acknowledge. Ultimately, we realised that we'd learned to communicate, argue and love in incongruous ways.
Now, I’m not convinced that couples therapy spells the demise of all couples who experience a similar underlying disconnect, but it certainly felt like the beginning of ours. I was what our first therapist called a ‘bleeder’, meaning that I liked to talk — a lot — about things. I liked to get mad, lay everything out in the open, something that helps them. But emotional dumping wasn't quite my partner's style. One of the many problems we found was that we weren't truly recognising issues, only seeing them for face value; how they manifested in our behaviour as opposed to their underlying causes. This is where the third party really shines, I suppose.
It's funny how we can love people, spend years in their company gaining deep insight into the most intimate moments of their lives, but really have no idea what all of that does to another person. Sometimes what we find affects people, and how people see themselves when they're prodded, opened up and tipped out, can take us by surprise.
I left the sessions feeling a bit of whiplash. It’s hard not to absorb a lot of blame during these sessions. Why didn't I see this? Yes, I did that but what about this...? Remember that time when you...? And so on. There were definitely points where it felt like tennis.
Imbalances you may not have been aware of start to drift to the surface and resentment starts to seethe. We were both hurt, in our own ways for our own, equally valid reasons. But we took these on very differently, as our counsellor observed. Nothing was really syncing up. We loved each other, but the truth was that that was just about all we could agree on. In the humdrum of everyday life, it's easy to believe that that's enough. But when everything's all laid out on the table, there's nowhere to hide.
Years later, I can say it was wildly unexpected but deeply necessary. I had built up so much resentment that I thought I would explode, but neither of us were really equipped to adequately decipher our own feelings and how we felt about each other. Therapy provided the ideal neutral platform and even to my surprise, it was valuable.
For all our shortcomings, I think that therapy allowed us the space to be able to see each the other person outside of our own hurt.
Recently, I asked him if he had found couples therapy to be helpful. He said he did, but not necessarily for the reasons I'd thought. “For me, it was good to see exactly how I was making you feel and why. I never really realised how much I shied away from conflict and how much of an issue that really was,” he tells me.
“It also opened me up to the idea of actually seeing [a therapist] consistently for my own mental health, which led to me working on the other relationships in my life as well.”
In making the case for seeking couples therapy at an earlier age, it will always come down to a question of need vs. want. And while I can’t speak to anyone’s specific situation, I ultimately found it to be one of the best investments I ever made. Therapy feeds our deepest needs to understand and be understood, and we could all benefit from a little support.
Beyond learning more about your relationship, you'll find yourself tested in ways that we’re not often exposed to; confronted by your worst traits and how they impact the people in your life; and reckoning with the difficult truth that some things are, in fact, your fault.
In the end, it’s not that the experience simplified anything for us or even provided an inkling of closure. But nevertheless, I’m grateful for those sessions that we managed to stumble through. Not because they led to a thriving relationship, but because they provided us with the tools to understand ourselves better and manage our needs in all of our other relationships.
I think back to those turbulent times and remember all the old emotions drudged up, the difficult conversations and mental gymnastics, and I have nothing but appreciation for the effort and the active choice to try. Yes, we could’ve easily walked away, letting things unconsciously eat at us, but we made the choice to try and understand and do better for ourselves and our loved ones. And after all, what is love if not a series of these choices?