I was going to get some cream for my coffee when I saw a new addition to the calendar on the fridge: Therapy 11 a.m. I turned to my husband. “So Thursday, huh?” He nodded into his coffee. “Thank you,” I said, and meant it. He seemed to want to leave it at that, so I followed his lead, but inside I was having a full-on Midge-Maisel-in-the-Catskills moment.
WE’RE GOING TO THERAPY!
When I told a friend that Win and I had finally booked a session, she congratulated me like I’d just gotten a book deal, then asked if I’d told the rest of our friends. “Of course,” I replied. There had been many a cheering Pokémon gif in my best-friend Slack channel that morning. After spending years of hearing the day-to-day, good and bad, my friends both valued my and Win’s relationship and understood the need for us to do some serious work. It felt like a shared victory.
“What about your mom?” she asked.
“Not yet,” I said. The truth was, the thought of telling my parents made my stomach dip. After years (decades, really) of not letting them in on any relationship trouble, I was worried they’d misunderstand it as a sign of impending divorce. But the incongruence wasn’t lost on me: If I’d been able to skirt the stigma with my friends, why not with my family, or by extension, myself? And maybe more pressingly, why did the stigma still exist at all?
Earlier this year, Dr. Peggy Drexel dubbed millennials “The Therapy Generation” in an essay for the Wall Street Journal. “Raised by parents who openly went to therapy themselves and who sent their children as well, today’s 20- and 30-somethings turn to therapy sooner and with fewer reservations than young people did in previous eras,” she wrote. And if memes are any indication of the cultural zeitgeist (how could they not be?), she’s right. It feels safe to say that therapy is more normalized than ever. But couples therapy, meanwhile, remains taboo, even among young people, and the question is: Why? If the idea of investing in and caring for ourselves is normalized and celebrated, then why isn’t the same attitude extended to our relationships?
Being an external processor, I sought answers to these questions by asking anyone I knew who was willing to go there. The “therapy generation” nickname turned out to be truthful, at least within my immediate internet bubble—it seemed like almost everyone was in therapy. And if they weren’t, finances and time commitments were the biggest obstacles, not stigma. But when I asked about couples therapy or marriage counseling, far fewer folks had experience or were interested in talking to me about it. (One of my dearest friends even refused to broach the topic.) And for those who were in couples therapy, nearly all agreed that it’d been a bit of a struggle to get in the room with their partners.
“I’d bring up going to therapy every couple of years,” said Krista, 29, “but my partner didn’t want to, I think partially because of the stigma. We started going when we did because we both were ready.”
A few people mentioned specific turning points in their relationship that brought them to therapy. Janet, 34, said that she’d insisted on going before accepting a marriage proposal. “I knew I wanted to marry her,” she told me, “but we’d been together a while and I knew that sometimes our communication could really get derailed, so I wanted a relationship tune-up before we committed.”
The idea of a “relationship tune-up” came up a few times, especially from folks who’d had a good experience in therapy with their partners. Ariel, 34, wanted to ensure “clear boundaries and expectations before Burning Man.” Krista spoke about opening up a new, poly chapter in their relationship and “wanted to give ourselves room to work through the challenges that came along with that.”
Win and I decided to go because we were having the same fights over and over with no resolution and couldn’t seem to break out of the cycle. It soon became clear that we were substituting the turmoil of the fight itself for the emotional cost of making the changes that were necessary. This was exhausting. And we were exhausted. And because we didn’t know what else to do, we went to therapy.
Communication breakdowns were the other big reason that people I spoke to had finally booked a session. “We needed help with conflict resolution because resentments were building up and impacting our ability to be intimate,” Louise, 38, told me. “The unresolved issues were also impacting every part of our lives, from friendships to health to our relationships with our kids.”
In talking to people who sought couples therapy, I was struck by how reasonable (and even responsible) their reasons were for going, and how that contrasted with their general reticence to share. I suspect this is related to our culture’s obsession with perfect relationships, and the shame that anything less than that might inspire. While we’ve made a lot of progress in the way of embracing messy, complicated people, the idea that the right couple will be rewarded with an effortless relationship still persists.
Before I’d told anyone, admitting to myself that my husband and I needed therapy almost felt like admitting that we shouldn’t have been together in the first place. Or that we’d made a mistake too big to fix. But we’ve been in therapy for three months now, and the ice is starting to break. The fights we have are neither as volatile nor as cyclical as they were. We’re challenging ourselves and each other to take the time to find the truest words, not just the most dramatic ones (we’re theater people, after all), to hit pause when we feel defensive, and to find tangible ways to show our support for one another. And most importantly, we’re setting aside at least an hour a week where our main focus is the health of our marriage.
That I once worried therapy might indicate we were beyond fixing now seems silly. And the fact that I would never assume that about seeking individual therapy is revealing. If our culture’s increasing celebration of flawed people has led us to normalize solo therapy, I wonder: Can we give flawed relationships the same space?
One of the reasons I was able to celebrate couples counseling with my friends was because I’d been so open about the struggles Win and I were having from the beginning. I trusted them to understand that therapy was an investment in the relationship as well as in myself. Their radical support is proof that, with honesty and vulnerability at the foundation, going to couple’s counseling can feel like an important and exciting step, rather than a shameful one. I think the more we share about our relationships—the peaks, yes, but also the valleys and the complications—the more likely we are to see couples therapy less as a last-ditch effort, and more as a normal and responsible form of maintenance.
Despite the hesitation people had regarding speaking to me about couples therapy, everyone I spoke with had the same advice for anyone thinking they might benefit from it: GO! And from where I’m standing (or rather, spinning around in my Catskills-ready yellow dress) I’m definitely joining the chorus.
Graphics by Coco Lashar