When I married my husband, I expected challenges, and as a psych major, I even anticipated some of them. But six months into our marriage, my husband and I were considering divorce, and it just didn't seem normal. We decided to take what seemed like the only reasonable next step: marriage counseling. Little did we know that rather than saving our marriage, counseling would nearly end it. Of course, our experience is unique to us, and not reflective of counseling as a whole. But let’s start the story at the beginning—all the way back to eighth grade.
That’s when I first fell in love with the boy who would eventually become my husband. He had the cutest face (and dimples!), but what drew me to him most was a melancholy expression he always wore. In hindsight, this sadness was indicative of the struggles we would have to overcome, but at the time, I just felt it meant that he needed me, and oh, how I wanted to be needed.
My first love only lasted a month. We both moved on with our young lives, but reconnected when we were in college; I was determined to avoid any interaction with him, but he persistently asked if I would video chat with him. One day, I was bored at my dad’s house, and he convinced me to Skype with him. Somehow during that conversation, he charmed my phone number out of me. He wasn’t a sad, silent little middle schooler anymore, either. He was more direct, less reserved, and at least ten times as fine. At first, I was shocked by just how clearly he expressed he wanted to be with me.
I wasn’t prepared for this change to be significant enough to make me fall in love with him, but it was. Within a few months, we were inseparable. We would video chat for 14 hours straight, go to sleep together on video chat, wake up, and continue the conversation the next day.
By the time I graduated, he was serving in the armed forces, and we knew that what we had was more than just puppy love. Less than a month later, I walked across the stage to receive my diploma, we got engaged, and quickly decided to elope. It was romantic and exciting, but most of all, it was terrifying.
We went to marriage counselor No. 1
Several fights and threats of annulment later, we made the decision to attend counseling at our local church. But when we told the marriage counselor about our situation, she concluded that the issue straining our marriage was us sharing living space with relatives and not having a place of our own. Her recommendation: We should stay at the local homeless shelter in order to have our own space. This advice did not exactly sound helpful to us.
So we tried out counselor No. 2
So we found a new counselor, which was great until he informed us that we were beyond his skill level. Being told by a marriage counselor—a chaplain, at that—that your marriage appears to be unsalvageable felt like a slap in the face. I began to lose all hope that things would ever get better, even as we made the decision to see the next counselor.
Then we tried No. 3
The third counselor on our list was pretty nice, and he tried his best to give us equal time to express our concerns. But unfortunately, the style of every counselor isn’t a fit for every couple. Following his advice communication style ended up causing extra conflict for us. At the time, our biggest issue was which room would be the baby’s nursery; I was five months pregnant and furious that I wasn’t getting my desired room for our kid. We fought a lot, so much that I packed my car with all of my belongings and was fully prepared to make the 12-hour drive home back to my hometown.
My husband and I are both stubborn people, and it’s hard for either of us to admit defeat. One of the goals we set in counseling was to work on communicating our frustrations to each other in a non-antagonizing way. However, I found that for us, addressing issues in counseling could reopen wounds that we’d already healed.
Since sessions were often one or even two weeks apart, bringing up topics we’d already resolved was really frustrating. We’d arrive at counseling feeling like we’d made progress toward communicating differences and leave angry and resentful. Our counselor did not believe in letting us agree to disagree, so after our sessions, we’d both be upset for a few days.
And finally, the disastrous No. 4
In the beginning, the sessions with this counselor felt great to me. Finally, I thought, I’d found someone who understood my struggles. But it soon became clear that she sided an uncomfortable amount of the time with me. While that felt great at first, I didn't yet understand that my temporary joy was coming at the expense of my husband’s victimization. After our first counseling session with her, my husband was so affected that he went to bed without dinner. Session after session, I watched as she actively antagonized him, telling him he would soon lose his wife, and that he reminded her of her ex-husband. Clearly, she was overidentifying with me and losing her professionalism.
Sadly, it took four sessions with her and a large conflict between this counselor and my husband before I admitted that it was time for us to stop seeing her. In our last meeting, I met her alone to end the relationship and finally stood up for my husband.
And at that moment, after five counselors, I decided that maybe counseling just wasn't for us.
So we went on our own way.
Instead of talking to more professionals, we decided to talk to each other. I began to notice the love in his intentional actions… like the very fact that despite having a negative history with therapists of any kind, my husband went to four different counselors with me. I tried to pick up more on little things, like when he brings me my favorite chocolate bar without my asking, and big things, like still being willing to give me a hug 10 minutes after a huge fight. He tries his best to love me the way I want to be loved, even when it's not easy for him—and that means the world to me.
That first year left an imprint, but I’m aiming to change it through positive intentions. I learned to seek change in myself before seeking it in him. Previously, my anxiety would cause me to spend hours wondering if the counselors were right about our incompatibility. Those moments made me pull away more, which made it more difficult for us to connect. But now, I’ve learned to stop thinking so far ahead. Instead of letting a bad day allow me to panic and contemplate divorce, I do my best to see each day a just that: one day. We still have our ups and downs, but I’ve learned to see each “tomorrow” as a reset button, and seeing him try so hard motivates me to give it all I have.
Our relationship is far from perfect, but I know it’s better than it was, and that’s because we learned to better consider each other feelings. I’ve noticed that he tries hard to check in before making decisions and gives me ample notice of plans with friends. We’re trying to prioritize spending time together; we’re not always successful, but the intention matters. Surprisingly, a lot of the improvement came from realizing he can’t be everything to me. He doesn’t have to be my best friend; I have friends for that. I’ve invested more time in doing things I enjoy, and that means less time to be critical of us.
Counseling just wasn’t for us; whether it was because the counselors we saw were especially bad, or that counseling wouldn’t work for us generally, I don’t know. But we found that we were treated with cookie-cutter routines for cookie-cutter marriages, and that didn’t work for our unique relationship, which has its own set of struggles. In the end, we've learned that no one knows us (and how to work on our relationship) better than we do and that just because things are hard doesn't mean they’ll always be that way.A. Rochaun Meadows-Fernandez is a diversity content specialist who produces materials relating to mental and physical health, sociology, and parenting. Her work can be seen on several national platforms. Check her out on Facebook and Twitter.