4 Lessons I've Learned from being a Couple's Counselor

Grace Wood, M.S., LPC Intern on Jul 22, 2019 in Relationship and Family

I so wish I could start this by saying I’ve been seeing couples for the past twenty years, but I’m so far from being a seasoned pro. I’m still new at this. I’m still learning what I believe about couples and love and how to help them--maybe therapists are always learning that. But in the time I’ve been doing this, my views on love have changed fifty times. A view, mind you, that had maybe changed twice over the course of my life before this. It changed once when I was a pre-teen reading Twilight, and again (scarily, much later) when I realized that Stephenie Meyer did not create the ideal relationship.

I think my job is the coolest, most interesting job in the world. I get to sit in on some of the most intimate moments of people’s lives. With couples, I’m not just seeing one person, I’m seeing a whole relationship. I hear about its start, its highest highs, and its lowest lows. Sometimes, I get to help people keep the relationship together and grow it stronger than ever; sometimes I’m helping them let go of it all together. I didn’t realize how much this would affect me, though it seems so obvious now. It’s like I’m watching just the ending of a tragic romance where things don’t work out, and I freaking hate those movies.

While seeing inside these relationships, I’m trying to navigate dating. Not just any dating. Modern, millennial dating. A new frontier all of its own.

Dating is freaking hard for anyone trying to do it, especially for weird, introverted individuals like myself, but it’s even harder when you have been around angry relationships all day. I imagine it feels like this for people who are around angry relationships in other settings, too. I often find myself torn between a longing for companionship and a burning pessimism about love. Don’t get me wrong, I see many couples who love each other very much. They are a gift. But I also see a lot of people who just don’t seem to. And that’s okay, they don’t have to. Maybe they aren’t in a relationship for that reason, or maybe they love each other in a way that’s just not clear to me, but I don’t want to value that any less. Regardless, it makes me question my ideas about what love actually is, how we find it, and how we live without it. So far, I feel like I’ve learned a few key things.

1) We can’t communicate.

The first thing I noticed is that we, as a society, do not know how to communicate our feelings. Oftentimes, we don’t have a clear idea of what we’re feeling, so we can’t express it. Sometimes we want to express it but don’t know how to say it without hurting someone. Other times, we just want to avoid conflict and confrontation. We all have deeply ingrained messages about what’s okay to share and what’s not, and how people might react to what we’re sharing. If sharing didn’t go very well growing up, we’re especially lost. 99% (rough estimate) of the couple’s I’ve seen have come in because of “communication issues”. They’re fighting and they don’t know how to stop. They don’t want to fight anymore. What are the fights about?

Dishes.

Laundry.

Where to park the car.

Who said what in 1998.

Oftentimes they fight about nothing and everything. But they didn’t used to.

The first thing I learned is that when we can’t communicate how we really feel, we get that feeling out in some other way. We can’t communicate the hurt, the loneliness, the small rejections that we face from our partners all the time. Like when the person you’ve been dating for three months chooses a party with their co-workers instead of an intimate dinner with you. You might know, logically, that this is perfectly acceptable sometimes, so you don’t bring it up--but it’s left a bruise that you can’t heal on your own. When those bruises add up, sometimes we explode and let everything out at once, sometimes we find ways to take out some of that anger. We get angry about small things that normally wouldn’t matter so much, like dirty socks and too many dishes. The dishes aren’t the real issue.

2) We have to be right.

We also have an overwhelming need to be right. I know this feeling quite well, and by no means do I want to imply that I’m above this feeling. It’s a very natural, human thing to want to be right. Sometimes, that need to be right causes pain and suffering for the people we love. They might inflict the same pain right back in their own will to be right. It perpetuates these cycles of pain, misunderstanding, and confusion. Pain, because we don’t feel heard; misunderstanding because we don’t hear our partner; and confusion because of misplaced, unidentified feelings.

I’ll have two people in front of me, with completely different stories, both bound and determined that they are right. I never know who’s right. How could I, when I wasn’t there for whatever it was that happened. Frankly, I don’t care who’s right. It really, really doesn’t matter. It does not matter if it was the second or third date where you ate at that restaurant, or if it was Wednesday or Thursday that you met with your son’s teacher. Those details are irrelevant. Getting caught up in who’s right about them is a distraction from the larger issues. We don’t really care about those things, either, we just want to be right about them. That was my second lesson.

3) Being a therapist doesn’t make you better at dating.

The third is that while it’s easy for me to see and point out these things in other people, I know that it’s not that easy to do it for myself. If we could just do it ourselves, no one would need counseling. We all need help noticing how we’re coming off to other people, where the misunderstandings are coming from on both sides, and how we can better understand our partners. Couples counselors need that help too. I’m not some perfect, god like partner just because I help people with their relationships. And I don’t have to be.

4) It’s okay to need.

Lastly, at least for this post, I’ve learned that we all have needs. It’s not weak to need a partner; people are designed to need other people. We literally would not survive from birth all on our own. Humans aren’t made to be solitary. As much pride as I take in being a strong, independent woman, I still feel that pull to share my life with a partner. There’s nothing wrong with me in that, and I’ve learned to stop judging myself for it. I love when I get to help other people let go of that judgment, too. I’m doing my thing, happily living my life with my darling kitten--and I want a partner to share that with. Pretty much everyone does. Let’s stop judging ourselves for it.

Along with these lessons, I’ve learned so many wonderful things about couples too. I see the work they are each willing to put in. I see the ways they let themselves grow and change so they can be better partners. I’ve seen selflessness, caring, understanding, comfort, and love. Even when doubt creeps through me, as I go on dates with bad match after bad match, I know that love is a powerful, unavoidable force.

Doing couples counseling pushes me constantly. It makes me think about my past, current, and future relationships. It makes me think about love and desire all the time. This has been confusing and tumultuous, but I’m grateful for it. I hope that as I go through this, I’ll continue to learn ways to help the couples I work with. I hope that I’m able to take some of these lessons into my future relationships. I welcome each new relationship that I’m privy to, as it offers new challenges, opportunities, and perspectives. Each allows me to deepen my own understanding of love and relationships.

Grace Wood is a Licensed Professional Counselor Intern in Austin, TX.
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