For me, doing therapy with couples can be completely maddening in a way that is different from the way we sometimes go mad as individual or group psychotherapists. There are ways that working with couples make me feel stymied and more hopeless. The conclusion of “unsuccessful” couple therapy seems more funereal to me than individual work that is frustrated or cut short before real change seems to take place. Perhaps, this is because the vulnerabilities I experience in my own relationship are more exposed in this type of work. Because couples often come to therapy very late in the uproar or decay in their relationships, the work often goes up a steeper grade. I am not including here those couples who come looking for help in dismantling a relationship that both partners realize is very over. Many of these people go on to subsequent relationships that are richer and more fulfilling, helped by what they learn about their own contributions to the demise of their previous intimate connection. For all these reasons, I find doing couples work fascinating and extremely rewarding. Sometimes, things go just about right.
When I first met with Jim and Kevin in the early summer of 2002, their relationship was in severe crisis. Jim was having profound doubts about whether or not he could continue living with and sharing a life with Kevin, whom he loved deeply. Kevin was extremely upset and confused about his own behavior and the toll it was taking on Jim and himself. What followed this initial session was five- and-a-half years of intense, difficult, and ultimately transformative work by both men on themselves, one another and me. The candor with which they faced their complex family histories, their strengths and weaknesses individually and as a couple, their sexual difficulties, issues of trust, dependency, independence and mutuality impressed me deeply. There were times when we were all ready to quit, but we hung in there together in the frequently trying work of human connectedness and its devilish impediments. In the fall of 2007, they committed themselves to one another in the presence of their faith community in church and then, in a “celebration of love and commitment,” in a beautiful country setting with friends and family. Their “union” goes so far beyond “civil” as to verge on the comical, were that term and what it designates, not such a culturally and psychologically impoverished description of their relationship. This does not even begin to address the quasi-legitimate status a civil union confers on them in the jurisdiction where they reside.
To this day, I don’t know whether they think I am gay or straight. I am more aware after working on this piece that my involvement in the gay and lesbian community has been quite consciously motivated by the close and loving relationship I have with my next youngest brother who happens to be gay. We have a long history of “sticking up” for one another. I clearly remember the shiver of pride I felt when Vermont passed the first Civil Union legislation in the country and David and Bud legalized their relationship there in October of 2000. Even then, although this seemed like progress, the terminology struck me as sterile and minimalist and certainly didn’t capture the depth and texture of their intimate, 25-year connection. On a more psychodynamic note, my sense is that I have a fairly accessible androgyny that permits me to be generally unthreatened in situations that can elicit homophobia. A Jungian would say that my animus is pretty well integrated. Additionally, over the years I have come to approach couples, whether gay, straight or bisexual, as more similar than different in that the classic relational struggles tend to cut across these designations. There are certainly variations and differences, but the building blocks and impediments to intimacy perdure: issues of dependency/autonomy, submission/surrender, of trust and betrayal and, very essentially, the capacity for empathy which makes non-defensive dialogue possible. Lastly, I tend to have an affiliative bent that makes working and being in groups a largely positive experience and I often think of the couple and me as a small group trying to make sense out of how we are going to relate to one another. Patients have their own ways of letting us know what the work means to them:
When we first met more than 5 years ago I felt it was difficult to imagine that Jim and I could comfortably stay together. It was substantial effort, yet it somehow felt possible once we put our trust in your relaxed yet very accurate and direct communications with us. Eleanor Roosevelt’s observation rings true: “Do the thing you think you cannot do.”
Thank you wholeheartedly for helping me along a path of a happier shared life with Jim. I will miss seeing you regularly but will always hold your care for me dear.
Your friend in gratitude,
When we came to see you at first, we had nothing to lose and everything to lose. Your honesty and intelligence and compassion helped us to find a way not to lose our important relationship. I am eternally grateful for your work and we hope you continue to have a productive life full of surprise and adventure.