I sat over my husband’s naked body in the middle of the night.
He was snoring, too deep in sleep to notice the cold air, or the cold heart that hovered over him, I wanted to dig my nails into his little butt cheeks.
A few minutes before I was also in a deep sleep, until a sound from the great beyond came up and crawled into my quiet place. Like a sudden intruder barging into my personal night, my husband made a crashing grumble that resembled the choke of a car engine and a dying a person. I hated his snoring. And no, hate is not too harsh a word for the middle of the night, when the sweet call of sleep beckons alongside a jack hammer.
My poor husband lie naked with goosebumps because he had no covers over him, while his loving wife sat with clenched fists. I threw the covers on him and said in a nasty terrifying tone, “aren’t you cold?” As I flopped down next to him I got a speck of relief as my elbow pressed hard into his back.
And then he woke up.
For some reason I thought I could get away with poking him, just like a child accidentally punching her sibling in the face to see how far her torment can go without realizing the consequences.
And then I saw it, as if I suddenly regained consciousness from being possessed by an evil demon, I hurt him. I saw in his face bewilderment, fear, and disgust. I pulled the covers over my head, putting myself in jail and peering out of the holes of the blanket with guilt.
We spent the rest of the night trying to work ourselves out of the knot I had caused. I woke the next morning after about 20 minutes of sleep gazing at our royal purple sheets. When we fight, I don’t understand why we chose such an eager color.
That day the client I was seeing sat opposite her husband. She was puffy and had a fierce jack-o-lantern face. She pointed her finger at him, her breath short and sporadic as she yelled at him: “I can’t handle it anymore. I can’t keep taking care of you like this. You wake up and you do nothing! If I didn’t cook for you I seriously wonder if you would die of starvation! If I didn’t clean up our house would be a pig sty. I can’t keep doing this!”
She went on and on and on. He slumped, and listened, and made puppy-like noises that were apologetic and devotional, like it was his place to cower and take the blows.
When I noticed the tears in her husband’s eyes I thought for sure this would soften her heart, but it made her angrier. “Oh don’t do that” she said to him slowing her speech down so that each word was pronounced with a hiss. “Don’t sit there and whimper like you’re the victim here.”
Then she started whimpering herself, “I just want someone to take care of me for once. Is that too much to ask?” She looked at me for some confirmation, I have no idea if I was able provide it. My face was frozen, my lips slightly parted like I was trapped in a block of ice.
Wife. What a word. The big white gowns hide so much, package so much expectation and unrelenting ideas of perfection.
I remember the partner I thought I would be—even tempered, never threatened by another woman. I had my perfection all lined up when I was single, but when I began my relationship, the real me started to surface. All of those little bugs that lay dormant and asleep woke up, and I became…imperfect.
Little did I know I wasn’t just marrying the soothing salve of commitment that takes the edge off the loneliness. I was marrying something far more threatening—my dark side.
I asked her to pause so that we could hear what her husband was feeling. We both looked at him and waited. His face seemed to be melting, his mouth drooping down into a frown. At that moment I sensed a familiar revulsion I’ve felt towards my husband when he’s vulnerable. He wiped his nose with the sleeve of his shirt even though he was clutching a tissue. My husband does that.
It took me three years to get to the place where I could actually take full breaths when my husband was upset. The only thing that would stop me from leaping out of my body when he was hurt, scared, or angry was realizing that I would not be able to fix him.
My trying to fix him came from a panic that he would not survive the pain, as well as feeling responsible for his happiness. We all know that this isn’t true, but like many psychotherapists, the mistaken belief that I could solve the riddle of human suffering was deeply ingrained in my being, not something easily unraveled.
I was the one with the cape in my family.
I remember being seven years old and driving in the passenger seat with my father. He was terrified that we would not make it out of the underground parking lot alive. He banged his fists on the steering wheel and squealed. I sat up straight and gently guided him to the exit signs. I believed I was his savoir. It’s hard to let that identity go.
When my client’s husband looked at her it was clear that he felt differently about his wife then I did. I felt she was being too hard on him, and her anger was making it difficult for him to express himself. I judged her for being so out of control, irrational, and unkind. I also detected a twisted ball of astonishment in my solar plexus having to do with the unfortunate kinship I had with this woman.
When he looked at her I saw that he was practiced at witnessing her suffering, he was patient, and understood her more than I did. After 30 years of marriage it looked as though he saw the whole story.
He said: “I know I haven’t been doing my part. I’m just not good at that kind of stuff.” “That’s bullshit!” she yelled, and was about to continue when I interrupted her:
“Please. Let’s just see what else he has to say.”
But he didn’t. He just held his face in his hands, and in that moment of silence I sensed the undertow of fear in the room. We were literally wading in it. These two people were immensely afraid of each other. Neither of them knew how to relate to each other’s dark sides.
I was afraid too, afraid that there was nothing else there but this anger, this insecurity, this deep fear that we are all ugly, ugly, humans.
I wanted to say, screw it, why do this? Just free yourselves from this. But just as I knew I wasn’t going to leave my marriage, I could tell that divorce was not an option for them.
When you come to the realization that you will never jump ship even if you want to, then when there’s a fight you don’t get to leave, you get the couch. An invisible boundary grows around your relationship like a fence. Your spouse will always be there, close in proximity, yet out of your control.
It is only a matter of learning how to tolerate the powerlessness of watching someone you love squirm in pain with your hands tied behind your back.
I wish I could say that I helped this couple. That I somehow offered a great tool or advice that completely turned their relationship around for the better. Out of desperation I asked them to say what they appreciated about each other.
The husband sat up and took the cue, like he had done this many times before, thrown in the towel and lavished her with appreciation. “What I love about Suzanne is her strength. Her ability to put up with all of us.” To this she huffed, and he raised his shoulders to his ears and looked down at the floor. “I love the way she takes care of our dogs. She has so much love to give.”
The three of us clung onto those half-attempted words as a shimmer of light at the surface of a deep well.
She squinted at him from across the room, her arms crossed over her chest. I thought she wasn’t going to give anything, but to my surprise there was some tenderness in her voice. “I love him, I do. We’ve been through a lot together. He’s seen me go through some horrible shit and he hasn’t left my side.”
They looked at each other. There was a glimmer of something old and well kept, possibly familiarity, possibly all the scenes passing before their eyes, the way they have held on.
Our time was up. I handed them their words of appreciation like a doctor would hand a lollipop to a child. I hoped they would suck on those words at least a couple of hours after the session. I peeked out the window and watched them walk to their car. To my amazement I saw an embrace before he opened the door for her.
Shaken up and feeling pretty useless I had to wonder if they just needed someone to witness their fight. It gets lonely sharing a boat with just one person.
Later that night I apologized to my husband for losing my shit on him before we even got out of bed. When we have our ‘check-ins’ we share the same pillow while looking at each other.
“I really wonder who I am with you sometimes.” I said. “Yeah. Me too.” My husband said, looking at me like he saw the whole story.
It is possible that there is only one sin a therapist can make—believing that we are not like the clients we see. Without this irony we lose perspective and forget how to forgive ourselves.
We forget that every client that comes into see us has claim to the same struggles we have. This might be hard to admit, that all of our education didn’t give us a free ride—hovering above the most mundane suffering.
In actuality it was their gift to me, I didn’t feel so alone on my boat.
Editor: Jennifer Cusano
For the purpose of this article I am using pseudonyms for both myself and my clients, so as to protect the trust and confidentiality that is the foundation of the work we do as therapists. I graduated with a Master’s degree in Contemplative Psychology Counseling, and have been a practicing Psychotherapist for over five years. Every session I face the possibility of losing control, not feeling useful, and not being good enough. And each session I have to get out-of-the-way and let insight occur from somewhere beyond my own conjuring. To read more from this author please visit blissfullyhonest.com.