Through double soundproofed doors, Elizabeth Weil and her husband entered the couples therapist’s office. They’d gone to reinforce a “pretty good” marriage, but the therapist had other ideas. After just two sessions, she determined they were living in an “unappealing, maybe even unsalvageable conundrum.”
It was an eye opener for Ms. Weil, a San Francisco-based journalist who convinced her hubby Dan that they should “apply” themselves in the ninth year of their marriage. She chronicles the journey – from sex therapy and group workshops to self-help books and the dreaded couples therapy – in No Cheating, No Dying, published last month.
By most standards, the couple’s problems seem run of the mill, if not trivial: the ebb and flow of money; his “mono-manias” (nose-to-tail cooking and Russian bodybuilding among them); her inability to offer or accept praise; as well as her distaste for French kissing – one therapist suggests Ms. Weil fears she’ll be “subsumed.”
Why rock the boat? “I wasn’t setting out to be the happiest wife,” Ms. Weil wrote. “Nor did I need to know how my marriage ranked. I just wanted to find a way to protect all that was good in my marriage.” She spoke with The Globe and Mail by phone.
Therapist Bernard Guerney, founder of the National Institute of Relationship Enhancement, argues that marriage is a teachable skill, kind of like tennis. Did that captivate you?
I realized that I knew so much about so many parts of life – how to be a good mother, how to take care of my physical health, how to run a faster half-marathon – and I hadn’t brought that part of myself to bear on marriage at all. Guerney’s analogy of tennis really struck me. This is something a person can get good at: You can practise in the same way you would practise tennis. There are people who know techniques, and there are fundamentals.
How exactly were you “bumbling along” in your marriage?
We weren’t being deliberate. We were being passive in the sense of not trying, not reading books, not seeking out second opinions, just feeling that our life is going to go the way it’s going to go. It was going pretty darn well, but we were just riding the currents of our lives.
But don’t you also worry about “therapist-induced marital suicide”?
Bill Doherty, a writer, academic and psychologist, used the term in one paper. A lot of couples wait to go to therapy until they’re really there to get divorced. Couples therapy is also a really complex and difficult modality. There are so many things going on in that room. There are two people: One person may want to leave the relationship, the other may not. The therapist may connect more with one person than the other. [Doherty’s]point is that if you’re not with [a therapist who’s]good, it can really do damage.
How many sessions did you have with your couples therapist?
We saw her six or eight times.
You went to strengthen the good things in your marriage, but she’s picking at the “dissatisfaction” instead.
I don’t think that she was wrong to do that. Part of us wanting to go in and be positive was being self-protective. She was helping us see the parts of ourselves and our relationship that weren’t working. Even though I started in on that process, that was a low point of having our eyes opened. There’s a lot of talk in the marriage world about a relationship being only as healthy as the people in it. That felt important, but what we’d decided to bite off at this moment was working on our relationship – not to analyze the depths of our being.
Do you think your marriage might have disintegrated had you continued seeing her for years?
I don’t think so, no. I don’t think Holly was against us in any way.
You then attend a 16-hour, government-sponsored marriage-education class in forced empathy exercises with the promising title Mastering the Mysteries of Love. Surprisingly, it worked.
The idea of a template for how I was supposed to talk in my marriage sounded terrible to me. Especially with love, we want to think of our lives as unique, personal and special – not as something that the state is going to come in and help you with. Once we got over ourselves and just did the exercises, somehow they were hugely helpful. Most of the class focuses on empathy and communication, trying to see the world from your partner’s shoes.
One exercise involves re-telling each other’s traumatic stories from childhood. He tells you about hitting a boy in the face with a rock. You tell him about being on the cusp of puberty and feeling awkward in red shorts. How was that so powerful?
When someone tells you your story back, and they’re paying attention to how it must have felt to be you, that was deeply moving.
And it shows your spouse is actually listening, not nodding off.
Not only are they listening, but they’re 100 per cent with you, all in. There’s this amazing series of photographs this Canadian woman [Hana Pesut] takes called Switcheroo, where she takes portraits of a couple standing together in their regular clothes, and then has them in each other’s clothes, mimicking each other’s body language and facial expressions. I feel like we had the verbal equivalent of those pictures she took. It’s a really radical form of empathy.
You liked cognitive behavioural therapy, which focuses on patterns and actions, not “the morasses of our personal histories.” So why did your therapist fire you after one session?
I’m still curious about it. Our therapist wanted to help us define a specific problem to work on with us – CBT is pretty concrete. We get there and Dan was saying, “We get in these fights where Liz is tired and I’m cranky.” He wound up saying, “You guys are fine. That’s being a human being. We can’t CBT you out of that.” He was right.
Part of what was helpful about the whole experience is now knowing what’s out there if we stumble at some point. Not every day of the process was bliss, but I became even more of a believer of a wellness approach to marriage: Don’t wait until you’re sick to try to get better.
Which brand of therapy could you see yourself turning to in future?
It depends on what was going on. There was one therapist who we really loved, [“self-therapist” Betsy Kassoff, who specializes in sexual issues] It’s a personal connection that you have: there are people you click with better than others.
Dan's surfer buddies extended their condolences at the time. Were people surprised that your husband agreed to all this?
There’s this knee-jerk reaction. But I think the last thing anybody wants is someone who quits, who doesn’t care and doesn’t want to try. Dan recognized that part of it: “Well maybe this is a little kooky and maybe it’s not what I want to do with my Saturday, but I love my wife and I love that she’s all in.” He’s a Californian. He loves therapy and self-improvement.
Dan has many obsessions: cooking, bodybuilding, reinforcing your San Francisco house against earthquakes. Meanwhile, you obsess about your marriage.
It’s not the only thing I’ve been interested in my life. He’s quite interested in our family. I do think there’s a very gendered knee-jerk response to the idea of couple’s therapy. There were these fascinating old marriage advice columns from the 40s, when keeping a marriage on track was 100 per cent seen as the woman’s job. I think we’re moving out of that and I really don’t feel that to be true in my life. We have the same job and share taking care of our kids. I don’t feel like I’m put in some corner in that way but I do think there’s a gendered reaction to some of the ideas that I write about.
How did you decide the project was over?
Partly it was that CBT session with our therapist who said, “You’re done for now. Go live your life.” In the end I wanted to focus on the narrow and specific. I love my guy and I want to have a good life with him in our house. That’s when I felt I was done, for now.
This interview has been condensed and edited.