Marriage counseling: the best investment we ever made

I believe that one of the ways God redeems and heals is by partnering with really good therapists and counselors.

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A few weeks ago, I was checking in with friends on social media when a tweet caught my attention. “A special shout-out to the therapists,” Jes Kast wrote. “You’re doing some holy work. I thank God for my therapist each week. Grateful for the work y’all do!” As I murmured an earnest amen and registered my agreement by clicking on the heart icon, I remembered how very differently I reacted to a similar acknowledgment years ago. In the midst of a discussion in graduate school, a classmate referred to her therapist. I was, in a word, mortified.

It’s all well and good if you need to see a counselor, I thought. But you should at least have the decency to keep such a shameful secret to yourself.

A drive, an argument & a phone call

I’ve come a long way.

It’s been nearly a decade now since we were en route to the beach when the argument escalated to the point that it was no longer safe to keep driving. It wasn’t a physical confrontation, to be clear. But we were both so consumed by fury it was a small miracle my husband managed to pull onto a side street and park the car.

Our rage quelled as the engine died, but the silence that descended was not peaceful, not even with the six-month-old baby sleeping in her carseat. The silence was as hard as stone, as cold as ice. It was that peculiar silence—made all the more incongruous by the fact that we were sitting in the shade of a palm tree less than a mile from the ocean—that provoked a new and awful question to form on my tongue: Should we get a divorce?

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I can’t remember what we were fighting about, but the gist of the quarrel was inconsequential. We were never not fighting, and that was very consequential. The indignation and antagonism between us was nothing new; it had been present from the start of our marriage. But the stress and exhaustion of early parenthood was threatening to undo us completely. We had to do something about our dysfunctional relationship—if not for our sake, for our daughter’s sake.

Within the week I looked up two phone numbers: a divorce lawyer, and a marriage counselor. To this day I shudder to think what would have unfolded if I’d called the lawyer first. As it is, I called up a pastoral counselor who worked on a sliding scale and made our first appointment. Or rather, my husband’s first appointment. I was so convinced that our troubles were his responsibility that I had the gall not to show up for my own marriage counseling. Thankfully, the counselor was wise to my game. After a session or two of individual sessions with my husband, they convinced me that I should probably show up, too.

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And thus began our journey of healing and reconciliation. Over the course of the next eighteen months, we alternated between individual and couples therapy. As it turned out, we had a lot of work to do. I quickly learned that I was just as broken as my husband, a recovering alcoholic; it was just easier for me to hide my woundedness.

Better than still married is happily married

We spent an incredible amount of time and money on our well-being as a couple—and I’m not remotely ashamed of this. I’m proud of our hard work, proud of the sacrifices we made to invest in our marriage.

It’s been several years since we “graduated” from our original therapy experience. Even without regular appointments with our pastoral counselor, even as specific memories of our time on that second-hand couch fade away, we are still benefiting from the experience. There’s wisdom in our bones that wasn’t there before. There’s love in our hearts that had been previously crowded out by acrimony and resentment. We are not merely still married. We are, remarkably enough, happily married.

Even now, we still need help. My husband benefits from regular appointments with a counselor. I’ve found that monthly meetings with a spiritual director at a local Catholic parish are critical to my well-being. This therapeutic work we do as individuals indirectly yet immeasurably benefits our marriage.

Not long ago, our church hosted a marriage enrichment retreat. I went into it infected by my old favorite sin of pride: Having spent much of the previous year immersed in thinking about and writing about marriage, I doubted that I would really get much out of the experience. I was wrong. The content of the retreat itself was compelling, but I loved the breakout sessions most of all, during which couples were sent off to talk with a list of questions to consider. Invariably, the questions led us to consider our life together through an altogether new angle—one we couldn’t have accessed on our own.

I believe that one of the ways God redeems and heals is by partnering with really good therapists and counselors. There’s no shame in it—this is holy work, indeed.

Katherine Willis Pershey
Katherine Willis Pershey is the author of "Very Married: Field Notes on Love and Fidelity" and an associate minister of the First Congregational Church of Western Springs, Illinois. Her work has appeared in the Christian Century and the Chicago Tribune. She and her husband, Benjamin, have two daughters.

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