This post will not be an easy one. And it’ll be a long one. I’ve got too much to get out of me.
For starters, I am not a couples therapist. Let’s get that on the table right off the bat.
Next, I was (I’ll confess it) well-trained as a youngster shrink, so it’s like: I know what I could be doing if only I were to have the fortitude to do it. For those in the know, I have the basics down for the Milan School of family therapy (everything sounds better in Italian, and it was all the rage, baby, all the rage back in the eighties) and for Bowen systems theory (one of the old warhorses of the industry). I’ve done my Generation Whatever part: I’ve read Harville Hendrix’ Getting the Love You Want, which is holy writ in my neck of the words (and, yes, for good reason).
On the bright side, I have recently (through the VA) been trained in a couples communication method called PAIRS (which stands for Practical Application of Intimate Relations Skills). It is, without a doubt, the most sane method of skills training for couples that I have ever found, hands down. It is not a couples therapy method. Instead, it is a highly-structured way of communication-skills building that is quite dramatic in its impact. Through the Chaplaincy departments of many VA’s nationwide, it is increasingly becoming a must-do program for couples struggling to find their way back from deployment(s). I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Still, I ain’t the guy for marriage counseling.
For starters (second round), I’m not good at dealing with more than two psyches in a room. Because of the way I’m made, I absorb too much of a couple’s conflicting emotional lives at the same time, and my talent that is usually my strong point–an ability to experience quickly the nuances of a person’s interpersonal style–becomes my absolute point of weakness. Honestly, I can listen to a combat veteran go on indefinitely about the horrors of war, but to have a couple bring before me the nitty-gritty of the horrors of their daily life–and then live it out right there in front of me, in stunning, surround-sound technicolor, no less?
I’m toast, period.
Even when I have a technique at hand which can bypass that immediate emotional turmoil (e.g., the PAIRS method), I still find myself afterwards, in my own head and soul, embroiled in the complexities of a couple’s relationship. Perhaps because I’m a man, I do find it relatively easy to see the perspective of even the greatest jerk of a male partner. But sorry, guys: even with that said, I can more than easily understand why the female partner is often two micrometers shy of kicking your sorry-butt out into the street, partner, and don’t even bother looking back with that hang-dog look of yours! But then I can understand why the man might be so sick of the “you never even try to understand my feelings,” but then the woman might be so sick of the “I just need some time to myself,” but then . . . you’ve got the picture.
But you know why I really don’t like working with couples?
Frequently, all too frequently, it can just be so painful, so God-awful, soul-wrenching painful.
The couples who already started out on shaky ground? Not easy, but tolerable. You made a mistake. You move on.
But the couples who once truly loved each other, who truly, truly handed over to each other their hearts, their souls in a way that only the young can, those first “real loves” of high school or college? To watch such a couple truly, truly have to face each other, hackles down, guns holstered, and ask each other truly, truly: can we go back there after all this? Or are we going to have to release each other into the future, hand back to its original owner the heart that we had once treasured so deeply, that we now know, if we give it back, we will almost certainly never have again, no matter how many children we might have together, no matter how many years it’s been, no matter where the present might take us? To remember, down to our deepest beings, what once had been, what had not been fake, no matter how much we wish it might have been so as to make our current lives that much easier, to grieve, to mourn in front of each other a death of something we had once both stitched into our hearts–stitched, what are we saying, more liked wove lovingly into the warp and woof of the thing: the death of our relationship, our future? The death of the us of us? To take back strand after strand every thread of that weaving, destroy a pattern that once truly, truly was there, but which can no longer ever be again and then to say, with tears that we truly, truly don’t want to shed: goodbye?
Just shoot me now.
And, oh, BTW: for those of you who might have forgotten, I signed up for a job in which daily I meet one-half of couples who often had stood before each other with precisely those heartfelt loves of loves, knowing full well that the one before me (usually the man) might never return for Chapter Two of the saga, who practically surgically implanted their hearts into the soul of the other, with the deepest of truly of the deepest of trulies.
And then the terror of what they had done hit them, him in a godforsaken wasteland, her in a might-as-well-be-godforsaken apartment, pregnant, or with one baby, two, each wondering–like every other couple who has ever lived on the planet since, what, the Neolithic Age?–what the heck did I do?
And given that many had never known a parent, a loved one who had ever been able to answer that question in his or her own life, and thus had never known a single soul who, yes, knew that these things can be gotten through, just call me and we’ll figure it out, kid, don’t sweat it–so yes, given all that: bad things then happen. Mad escapes into spicy-hot relationships that promised–what?–anything but the truth of the truth? Silences that bring meanings heretofore never fathomed by humankind to that simple word cold? High dramas of high dramas that put to shame even the most Daytime Emmy-winning performances of the greats of the great soaps–or even better, if you ever got past high-school Spanish, of one of those absolutely insane Argentine or Mexican telenovelas?
Oh, yes, and even if all that can be avoided, there’s this slight problem of . . . the return of a different man than the one who had left.
And so it begins, lights, camera, action!: “You don’t understand my feelings!” “You don’t know what I went through!” “You don’t know what I went through!” “Well, at least she understands me!” “Well, at least he understands me!”
And then the truth truly, truly hits them: when one has truly, truly loved, truly, truly been woven into the soul of another, one does not truly, truly let go of that like some washcloth that’s gotten a little threadbare. So . . .
Then let’s see if we can truly, truly make each other so truly, truly miserable that, truly, truly, we’ll not have to deal with what Life has brought us, what we have done, what we have not done, and . . . and truly . . .truly, truly . . .
It had been heroin that had finally gotten him. His wife had told him that she’d had it–although, as I read between the lines, it was most likely that she’d had some, what, issues of her own to deal with that, what, had not been? Still, whatever, he was willing to admit it: he’s an addict, through and through, weak, a loser, unable to control himself, just loving the high, living for it, heck with anything else in the world–you only live once, right? She should have left him, yes, that he knew.
Oh, small detail for later: she isn’t his first wife.
He’d tried Suboxone on the street once. It had helped. But he couldn’t afford the price. Then he heard that the VA was making it available to vets.
Enter . . . me.
OK . . . well, now that he’d just divulged that torrid tale of libertine squalor and self-degradation, I did have to, well, ask one question–well, I mean, I didn’t have to, I guess, for he seemed quite happy to leave it at that, but, well, you know me, inquisitive minds just have to know, especially when The Enquirer isn’t there to help me out . . .
“What was your MOS?”
Silence. All appropriately guilt-ridden confessions screech to a halt. He looks down.
Infantry, such-and-such company.
He names off places. As I recall, no four-star accommodations for infantrymen in a single one of them. Pretty good medical facilities, though, from what I’ve heard.
Further silence. Head still down.
“Had you used in high school?”
Throat cleared. Head still–yeah, you got it.
“Uh, no, sir.” Pause. “I was, sort of, you know, a big fish in a small pond.” Eye contact made. “I mean, don’t get me wrong: I wasn’t an angel, but .. .” Head back down. “No. I didn’t.”
OK, I think, might as well go for it.
“Your first wife, she was your high-school sweetheart?”
Still looking down, he begins to rub his forehead.
“Yes,” he whispers.
“How soon before deployment did you get married?”
“Not too long. We had a really nice wedding, though. Then we both got scared, knowing I was heading off, so, well, we thought, should we? And then . . .”
“And then what?”
Throat cleared second time, slight chair fidget, not dramatic, head still down.
“The night before I ship out, I tell her, go ahead, might as well check a test, and . . . sure enough, there it was, positive.”
“And you left the next day.”
“So what happened then?”
“They let me come back a week before her due date and stay until a week after, but . . . she was late.”
“Meaning . . .?”
“Meaning my daughter was born the day after I left. They wouldn’t let me stay any longer. She just couldn’t understand that. She thought I didn’t try hard enough. She . . . she never forgave me.”
“How old were you?”
He looks up. The glisten is in the corner of his eye.
“So what happened then?”
He looks back down. “It all went to s***. I came back. We had another daughter. I had to go back and then I came back. We’d split up, and then we’d get back together, split up and then back together. We couldn’t stand to be with each other, and we couldn’t stand to be apart, and . . .”
“And I was awful, I mean really awful. I tried to hurt her. She tried to hurt me. Back and forth. God, I was awful, awful. She should hate me. I hate me.”
“So eventually we divorced, and I met my current wife, and everything was going to be much better, and then it wasn’t, and . . .”
Throat cleared, round three.
“My first wife and I just couldn’t stop being awful to each other. We live in a small town, see? Everybody knows everything about everybody. We all went to school together. I mean, people would stop me in the grocery store and ask me why I was being so awful to my first wife. And I just wanted to tell them my side of the story, but they didn’t want to hear if if they didn’t believe me already, so I’d just say ‘F*** ‘em,’ and I’d go on, but then I’d have to get back at her, and then she’d get back at me, and she’d follow me around town when I had the kids, and then I’d text her to tell her to go f*** herself, and then–”
“This was all while you’re already married to your second wife?”
“Oh, yeah. And then my second wife and I began having problems, and–”
“Has your first wife remarried?”
Pause. He’s looking right at me now.
“She’s marrying this guy this summer. Or that what she says, at least. She is.”
“So, is that making things calm down a bit?”
Now the boy g0t riled.
“Are you sh**ing me? It’s just gotten worse. I mean, you’ve got to believe me: I know, I brought all this on myself, I’m not innocent, but I have been trying not to be so mean and provocative, really, but then I hear her voice, and I get . . . I don’t know, it’s like I go crazy, and I say things I don’t even really mean, just to hurt her, and then she says things right back to me, and it hurts so much, and I just–”
“You still love her, don’t you?”
All right, brief interlude: that was big-time risk to say that. I knew it. Colleagues, feel free to label it a mistake, an acting-out, whatever. But you see, I couldn’t help but notice this pattern: as things got worse between one of them and his or her new love, the two of them got along better. As the new couple got along better, the old couple got along worse. You don’t need a college degree to figure this one out.
That stopped him cold. I knew it would. That’s why I did it. It took him about thirty seconds or so to compose himself.
“Yes,” he finally whispered, head back. And believe me: it was a whisper.
“And she still loves you, doesn’t she?”
He shakes his head, clearly not wanting to say what he’s about to say.
“She’s hinted at that more than once, yes.”
Now I try to compose myself, not because I’m sad, but because I know what I’m about to say.
“You’re not going to move on in your life and in love until you deal with this. And even if she refuses to deal with it, you’re still going to have to. You’ve got to believe me: stuff like this can last a lifetime. I’ve known couples who’ve remarried, started new families, yet have gone to their graves still holding on to that first one, screaming at the top of their lungs that they’re long over that jerk, that witch, and yet going off like a Roman candle every time the other’s name is mentioned. Ten, twenty, thirty, even forty years–it don’t matter.”
Still looking down, he’s fidgeting more, rubbing his hands together.
“Did you ever talk with her about what happened over there?’ I ask.
Now he starts rubbing his forehead again.
” No, not reall- . . .no. I didn’t know what to say. I . . . I’ve talked a little bit to my current wife, but not even that much with her, I . . . I just don’t know what to say. I don’t even know what to say to myself.”
“You do know, don’t you, that the heroin’s not just about having a good time?”
Still looking down, he nods his head.
“As long as I’m working,” he replies, “I don’t have to think about The War. But the drugs were getting too bad. I was going to lose my job if I didn’t stop. And it’s a really good job.”
“And your current marriage?”
He looks away from me, toward some far-off spot.
“I think that’s pretty much over.”
I couldn’t help but notice–although I at least finally had the decency to keep it to myself–that he was not as emotionally, shall we say, vigorous saying that as he’d been describing another relationship that was, allegedly, long, long “pretty much over.”
“There’s nothing like a first love, you know,” I finally say to him.
He shakes his head, looks back down, finally smiling a bit.
“She was always so strong-willed. That was what I liked about her.”
The pain in his gut was about ready to slice open mine.
“You’re going to have to stop this nonsense, you know,” I finally say. “And you can’t do it with any thought of getting her back. You and I both know that you’re going to be hoping to do just that, but that’ll get you nowhere, and you’ve got to face that, even though you’re going to be feeling otherwise. You’ve got to stop your part even if she never does. Even if she tells you that you’re a fool for thinking she’d ever want you back for even an instant. Even if she stabs you repeatedly in your heart, your soul, your mind. Even if she makes you look like the biggest wimp in the whole town. Don’t matter. You’ve got to stop. You’ve got to let what happens happen. And then you’ve got to deal with it. If you guys do get back together, it cannot be like before. You’ve got to face what happened to you. She’s got to face what happened to you. You can’t run any more. She can’t run any more. You’ve both suffered too much for too long. You both know that this hell each of you has been experiencing these past umpteen years has gotten both of you exactly nowhere. If you do decide to get back together, you’re still going to have to go through hell, but now in a way that’ll actually get the two of you somewhere. And if she moves on, whether she weeps or not, you’re going to have to. This is a death. You’re going to have to stand next to the grave of that first love, even if all by yourself, and you’re going to have to put her heart in that grave with that first love. And even if she refuses to release your heart back to you, you’re going to have to move forward without that part of your heart. And it’ll hurt like hell. And you’ll have no clue how you’ll do it. And it’ll just be like being back in the military: you’re going to have to do it anyway. But you don’t have to be alone. You don’t need to be by yourself any more. I can’t save you from this. But as long as we’re both here? I’m here.”
A few moments of silence. He takes a couple deep breaths.
“I think I’m going to have to go, I . . . Can I see you next week?”
“Of course..” Now I’m whispering.
He looks up at me, eyes far more than glistening.
“OK. I’ll be all right. I just . . . I just need to go.”
We shake hands as he stands up.
“Thank you,” he says quietly, and then he leaves.
Shoot me now. Just shoot me now.