a couple touching noses together

The Fallible Caregiver Series: Marriage Counseling and MBC

Some months back, I wrote several articles that started with a dire feeling but ended with a glimmer of hope. I talked about the struggles and challenges stage 4 breast cancer has wreaked on my marriage. I talked about the decline in our intimacy and I even used the dreaded word, roommates.

While we are still best friends and we get along great, the characteristics that make a marriage different from a friendship were disappearing. To me, my marriage felt more like a roommate situation than it did an intimate relationship.

Deciding to seek help

I still held hope since I know we both share a deep love for one another, even a passionate love. It’s more like going 12 rounds with a professional cage fighter, getting the crap kicked out of you repeatedly, and then trying to jump into a romantic relationship while still bruised and bloody.

It ain’t easy. In one article I laid out a ten-point plan of practical ideas to get us back on track. One of those ideas was to seek a marriage counselor and set an appointment. My wife, Rebekah, was on board with all my ideas.

Why counseling is unexpectedly helping us

I found a licensed marriage therapist who took our insurance and held to the same faith-based worldview we do. Today, as I write this, we had our tenth appointment with Robert. Yesterday I spoke to a friend on the phone and he knows about our marriage counseling efforts. "So does it really help you guys?" he asked. I thought for a few and here is what I told him.

Yes. Marriage counseling is helping us but not in the way I expected. Usually, I think when most people think about going to therapy or a marriage counselor; they’re hoping for one of two things:

  1. Each spouse is upset or angry with the other and each spouse is hoping the counselor is going to really give it to the other when the "truth" of their rottenness finally comes out. They view the therapist like a dog and each partner says, "Sick’em" to the other spouse.
  2. I think many people view a therapist or counselor is someone who has all the secret answers to solve all their deep-seated problems. But neither of those assumptive outcomes is what we are experiencing with Robert. In fact, Robert says very little in our hour-long sessions.

The unexpected blessing from marriage counseling is how it gets Rebekah and me to share the buried hurt in our hearts and even though we are letting out painful revelations, by the end of each session we feel a deeper love for each other.

This or That

Have you worked with a therapist since your/your loved one's MBC diagnosis?

Allergic to conflict

One of our key struggles in marriage is that we are both allergic to marital conflict. Rebekah grew up in a home with an abusive father and then later an abusive stepfather. She watched her mom battle with her dads constantly and the battles would sometimes become violent. She watched her mom nag her dads to death and then her dads would blow up and fight back.

I’m allergic to marital conflict because my first wife was an angry verbal terror who spared no words cutting me down. I hated fighting with my ex because it was just so ugly.

Rebekah and I have been married now for eight years and we’ve had about that many fights in our entire marriage when we should have had five times that many. Since we are so afraid to hurt the other person and so allergic to marital conflict, our MO is to stuff our feelings and carry on.

The result is we become passive-aggressive toward each other. Eventually, one of us (usually me) blows up and acts like a real jerk. But the root of it all is our tendency to stuff our feelings down and pretend like we’re not upset or bothered.

Entering the counseling session

When we enter the counseling room with Robert, something changes. It feels like a safe place to unlock the vault of our hearts and slowly let the stuffing out. Because Robert is there, the stuffing doesn’t explode out nor is it aimed like a dagger at the other person.

Robert uses the chief question nearly all therapists use: And how does that make you feel? As he gets to know us he is more able to carefully guide the conversations in a way where we feel safe to let stuff out.

Rather than arguing and pointing accusatory fingers at each other, there is a lot of "I’m sorry" "I didn’t know you felt that way," and "I will work on that" types of statements. As we open up our hearts and share the stuff buried inside, those crusty hard parts are breaking up and softening. Previously hard soil is becoming tender once again and we are seeing small sprouts of renewed life.

Has marriage counseling helped us? Yes, but in ways I did not expect. The primary way our therapist has helped us is not by talking but by letting us do most of the talking. Crazy, huh?

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