I could tell you many different stories involving marriage counseling, but I choose to tell you a particularly difficult case.
One day I get contacted by a man saying a psychiatrist has recommended me. Because I speak Slovene. He himself is part Swiss and his native language is German. He speaks Dutch though. His wife understands Dutch, but they communicate in English. Their psychiatrist thinks it might be a good idea if she can also express herself in Slovene during therapy sessions.
The first time they come over they tell me: ‘You will have a lot of fun with us!’ And they are not being sarcastic. I get the distinct feeling that therapy is a lot of fun to them. In fact, I get the feeling that they know how to function inside a therapy office, better than out there in the ‘real’ world. To be more precise: they seem to be a happy couple as long as they do not have to deal with every day life. One of the first things they tell me is that they never have any trouble when they can be on the road, travelling. Realizing this has made them conclude that perhaps they should make a living by being on the road. They have considered becoming truckers. They bring up this plan and they immediately start fighting. The happy couple instantly turns into a vicious couple. The cannot agree on anything. As soon as every responsibilities become part of the game they fight.
The story becomes, as many stories in therapy, almost too outlandish to ever be true. He has been in the army, in the elite special forces. He now works in IT. He is currently unemployed, but when he does work, he makes a ton of money. In Slovenia she worked in real estate and also made a ton of money. She doesn’t do that anymore because ‘the market changed’. They are now both unemployed. Before I get a chance to ask more about this, she mentions that Gunther has tried to leave her for an other women. She’s seen the messages. Perhaps to deflect attention Gunther immediately mentions that Ludmila has lost a son in a terrible car accident. The boy was 18. As if he is the therapist he says: ‘She never got over this, she never grieved, and now she has borderline personality disorder’. He adds: ‘And I am a recovering alcoholic, I can’t tell you how many times a day she triggers me. I get cravings, but Ludmila does not understand that.’
Of course, I do not want to label anyone, I do not like labels, but when the term ‘borderline personality disorder’ falls I have the irrepressible reflex to check if Ludmila does indeed fit that pattern. And I think she does. But you know what? I get the strong impression that Gunther could just as easily be seen as being borderline. They both try their best to please me. Ludmila says in Slovene: ‘You are a real friend.’ They both say that they feel much better with me than with any other therapist and they’ve been to a dozen. Ludmila says: ‘You can talk to Gunther about psychology for hours, he is a walking psychology encyclopdia’. Somehow Gunther slips in that his mum constantly criticized him and that he always felt he had to prove himself and that he joined the special forces for that reason. Gunther has a way of ostentatiously admitting mistakes as though admitting flaws is a superb virtue that makes you very likeable. To a certain extent he is right, but if you do it too often it just seems like a strategy to try and be liked.
He has clearly broken her trust by texting with that other woman. I suppose he was looking for peace. Ludmila strikes me as someone who will never let go and will argue for the sake of arguing. She enjoys conflict. Conflict seems to be her natural environment. Gunther says she is not a bad woman. I believe him. But she is a severely troubled woman.
The plot thickens when I hear that Ludmila’s daughters requested to be placed in a foster family. They applied for this themselves and the judge granted their request. Gunther tries to put this on the table as evidence concerning how difficult life is with her. Ludmila does not seem to think of it as anything out of the ordinary. She keeps saying that she is a realist. My personal feeling is that losing her son has turned her into stone. At least she is actively nurturing a self-image of herself as someone who can handle anything, as someone who is untouchable, always strong. Of course, this is just a mask. Gunther’s texting has clearly affected her deeply. And no mother takes the loss of a son as just ‘shit happens’.
Through a drawing exercise we learn that both have very different needs at this point in their relationship. Asked to draw their relationship as if it were a road trip, Ludmila draws two cars. One with her in it and one with Gunther in it. Gunther draws one car, with both of them in it. Gunther keeps suggesting that Ludmila tries to manipulate him, which to some extent is true, but I observe far more manipulative behavior on the part of Gunther. He plays the victim of this impossibly difficult woman, whereas he is always striving to be constructive.
In one session the discussion is centered around household chores. Ludmila says Gunther always talks about doing around the house, but never does anything. Gunther suggests they can make a list of things that need doing. Ludmila says making lists is one of Gunther’s hobbies. He makes list after list, but nothing gets done. My feeling is that Gunther needs lists to structure reality which is overwhelming even when he is on his own, but especially with a woman like Ludmila who tends to seek conflict because she is deeply hurt, in many different, severe ways. I am guessing I do not even know the half of it.
From time to time they become super excited, like when they talk about travelling together or about sex. When they do not need to work, when they do not need to think of responsibilities and when they can seek adventure and also drink together, they are in heaven. Of course, that is not how life works.
An other aspect of the sessions is that Gunther refers to suicide quite often. He has written her a suicide note once. Gunther does not particularly strike me as someone who has lost the will to live. He is interested in many things and has a lot of plans. He strikes me as someone who is overwhelmed and in chaos. Partly he also cultivates the persona of a martyr of someone who is suffering and against all odds trying to make the best of the situation.
If I can tell you my personal opinion here, I start to think that these two people have so many issues on their own, so many things to figure out that it is likely that should not be together. But as is classic for borderline personality disorder: they can not stay alone. They need someone around. Unfortunately, somehow, they end up creating conflict with the people around them. The slogan of borderline personality disorder is: I hate you, but please stay because I love you. What I see unfold before me is some exhausting, perpetual elastic dance of two entities colliding, taking their distance, but only to collide even harder. What keeps this going is that they share some wonderful, intoxicating moments in between. I suppose they are both addicts.
You can now ask yourself, how is therapy helping them?
Well, for starters, Ludmila, by being in a safe place and feeling accepted and respected, has dropped some of her ‘am tougher than 300 Spartans’ attitude, which can set her on the path to finally grieve and process all the bad things that have happened. Perhaps she can also see that not everything is Gunther’s fault. Gunther gets similar insights, although I sometimes feel I do little more than actually listening and mopping up, soaking up their intense suffering. I can’t suggest to them that perhaps they should not be together, as they keep claiming they want to stay together. The moth to a flame methaphor does creep up…
The story ends when Gunther calls me up one night, past midnight. He says they have had a fight (no surprise there) and that they have broken up (considering their attitude it’s unlikely it will be a permanent break-up), that he is been drinking and that he is wondering if perhaps he too has borderline personality disorder. He cites his extreme behavior, the chaos, the trying to please, the starting something with extreme enthusiasm and then not seeing through as examples. He is calling because he is close to suicide. I listen to him. Eventually he says he will go into rehab again. The therapy can’t continue as he will be staying inthe rehab center. He repeats that this was their best therapy experience. I honestly do not take that too seriously as they have a tendency to exaggerate. Perhaps they felt more listened to than elsewhere, that is possible. I do find it perhaps a little odd that I cannot outright tell them that they should not be together. It is only my personal opinion. Who knows? If they, separately, work on themselves, they might struggle through. They have huge problems, but they are also like magnets to each other because of those problems. Although they are constantly fighting, I can’t say that their fighting ever becomes truly vicious. It’s more like two kids play-fighting right on the border of play and actual combat.
The two of them live on the other side of the country. A fact that also struck me as a bit extreme. Why drive all the way to the other side of the country for therapy. There is no real reason for it. Ludmila is fluent enough in English to not need a therapist who speaks Slovene. It strikes me as an example of how they want to do dramatic things. Driving all the way to the other side of the country is also adventurous, it’s special, it’s out of the ordinary.
As a therapist you would like to pretend that all your cases have a happy ending, a clear ending where everything gets solved, like in a good detective series. Reality is different. It’s messy.
The first thing you need to know is that it is hard, hard work. Things are revealed that are not always nice to hear. It gets harder to play the blame game with an objective listener present. It can get very confronting.
As with indiviual therapy the most important aspects are the relationship with the therapist, mutual trust, being in an evironment that facilitates the telling of the truth. And then having a parachute in the therapist to catch you for when the truth hits.
It’s of course important to select a therapist who does not take sides, who truly listens, and who does not give you tasks that strike you as uncomfortable. In my home town two therapists got convicted to pay a substantial fine for giving their clients entirely unnecessary homework that was sexual in nature, for the pervert pleasure of pushing people to perform certain sexual acts, even though they did not get to see those sexual acts, they did hear the clients report on them. To avoid such situations it’s of course imperative to select a professional through reputed channels or someone who comes highly recommended by someone whose opinion you can trust.
For more information on marriage counseling you can check out this article: https://www.betterhelp.com/advice/marriage/how-does-marriage-counseling-work-for-you-and-your-relationship/