Jeff Guenther on Apr 30, 2021
A little over a year ago my wife and I decided to get a divorce. It was one of the hardest decisions we ever made. (Cliche, I know! But true!) It was heart wrenching, confusing, sad and I was filled with anxiety. My 10-year relationship was about to end and I had no idea what my life would look like afterward. Was my success over the last 10 years directly tied to Kate? Would getting a divorce cause my world to come tumbling down and look like it did when I was in my twenties? I had no idea, but it seemed very likely at the time, and I was not looking forward to a major uptick in fast food and late nights playing video games. (Well, maybe a little at first...)
Was I a successful couples counselor only because I was in a long-term marriage? All of a sudden that seemed very likely to me. If the state of Oregon didn’t revoke my license for a failed marriage, surely my clients would dump me as soon as they found out. Right around the time we separated I wrote an article about why I wanted to tell my clients about my separation. I was afraid to tell them but I badly wanted them to know. Each client or couple who learned about my divorce evoked different feelings in me. I was not expecting to learn as much as I did over this past year. In this case I, the therapist, was learning more about relationships and myself, than my clients were learning from me. Let me explain…
First, there was Marisa (not her real name, obviously). She was in her late 20s and struggling with whether or not she should marry her current boyfriend. She was afraid to let go of her single life, and she worried about losing her identity. She wondered if relationships could last long term. Her parents had a messy divorce, and her friends were all perpetually single. Too many risks and not enough rewards, she thought. She was incredibly curious about my marriage. Like any therapist, I keep my cards close to my chest, but when you counsel someone for years your personal life eventually leaks out.
Marisa found inspiration in my marriage. She saw me as a peer who had their own identity outside the marriage while creating and maintaining a relationship that was strong and reliable. We talked about how she viewed me and what she was projecting onto me. She eventually got engaged to her boyfriend and had a beautiful wedding. From time to time she’d thank me for being a role model.
Marisa was the first client I feared telling about my divorce. Should I even tell her? Sometimes she starts a session asking about Kate. Was I just supposed to lie and tell her she’s doing great even though we don’t live together anymore? Is it okay for a therapist to blatantly lie about their relationship status? Had I leaned into talking about my experience with Kate too much? Surely I had! What kind of boneheaded therapist was I? I felt humiliated, like I self-disclosed waaaay too much. My bobblehead Freud next to the tissues was disappointed in me.
After Kate and I decided to split, I decided to nip it in the bud and tell Marisa about my separation. I was not feeling good that day and I wanted to give her some context. Of course Marisa wanted to know what happened. I didn’t want to get into the details for many professional and personal reasons. She respected that. But things shifted in that session. I felt like a mess and worried I had lost her trust. I was afraid I wasn’t respected by her anymore. I thought she might doubt her own relationship now. I love being the anchor in my clients’ life. But now I was lost at sea and I forgot how to steady myself.
Weeks went on and even though Marisa and I continued to do good work, it felt like there was something in the room that wasn’t being addressed. I sought out supervision. I talked to my consultation group. I could not stop being hard on myself for disclosing things about my marriage. What I’d disclosed wasn’t outlandish, and I rarely talked about my marriage for more than a minute or two. But had I revealed too much? Had I allowed Marisa to see my marriage as a successful and healthy one when I should have been more transparent about our differences and difficulties?
Eventually I told Marisa how I feared I had let her down. How I thought I had revealed too much about my marriage in the first place. How I was worried she’d clump me in the growing group of people in her life who couldn’t make a relationship last. Marisa was happy I brought this up. She told me she was surprised when I told her about the divorce. She wanted to comfort me but knew that wasn’t her role. And even though she didn’t know the details of why my marriage ended, she imagined it ended peacefully and respectfully. In fact, she still viewed it as a strong and successful relationship. A relationship that was filled with love but eventually the partners grew apart. Her assumptions were correct. The marriage didn’t end out of anger. It ended because we eventually wanted different things.
Marisa still looked up to me. She knew I was flawed and imperfect, always had been. I had been putting too much pressure on myself to be the pinnacle of mental health and an example of a perfect relationship. Her integrated view of me, which I was shooting for the whole time, knocked me back in place and allowed me to let go of my fears of letting her down. It turned out that I was still a good therapist. I just needed my client to remind me of it. Marisa’s acceptance of me and of my separation allowed me to accept myself as well. I was fearing judgment from my client but I was really judging myself for being a divorced couples counselor. Once I had that realization, I felt more confident as a therapist.
Then there were Olivia and Mark. I had been working with them for a year before my separation and continued to work with them while I was going through my divorce. In their early 30s, they’d been together for a few years. A few months after they got married they came in to see me for some “communication issues”. They figured if they could just iron out the way they talk to each other when things got tense, their happiness level in the marriage would skyrocket.
All in all, I liked them. Well, I liked Olivia. Not so much Mark. Sometimes I even hated Mark. This kind of dynamic isn’t uncommon for me. When a heterosexual couple comes in for therapy, I usually enjoy the woman and get frustrated with the man. In my experience, that’s to be expected. I’m aware of it. I know how to work with it. But there was something about Mark that I just couldn’t stand. I had no patience for him. He wasn’t mean or nasty. He just shut down all the time. He’d sort of try to be present and then he’d retreat inside of himself and disconnect from Olivia.
Part of the reason my marriage needed to end was because Kate would shut down emotionally and disconnect. She tried her hardest to stay present but it just didn’t happen. My emotional needs were not being met and no amount of therapy was able to solve this problem of ours. So when Mark would shut down and make the same distant face that Kate would make I would lose it internally. Instead of connecting with compassion for Mark I’d feel incredibly annoyed. Right when we were getting close to a breakthrough he’d always shut down. The session would come to a screeching halt and we’d have to work on getting Mark connected back to his feelings.
Every therapist has a line they use where they basically tell their client they should break up with their partner without actually saying they should break up with their partner. I’ve used this line sparingly in the 16 years I’ve been in practice. I even used the line on myself the day I decided to ask for a divorce from Kate. During one of my sessions with Mark and Olivia, and on a particularly tough day when Kate and I had gone to a divorce mediator earlier that morning that riled us up to resentment levels we had never experienced before, I finally snapped.
Olivia was being brave, honest and vulnerable about wanting to be seen and Mark looked at her with a disconnected, glazed look on his face. It was Mark’s turn to talk. It was Mark’s job to validate Olivia’s feelings. I was really only expecting the bare minimum from Mark at this point. Just repeat back what your wife is saying to you. Show her that you understand what she’s asking for. He didn’t say anything. The silence was deafening. So I turned to Olivia and I said, “Why is it okay for you to be in a relationship with someone that can’t meet your emotional needs?” Olivia gave me a shocked look. She didn’t say anything at first. We just let that line sit in the air. And then Olivia said to me, “So you’re giving up on us? Mark can’t grow? We’re done?”
At that point, it must have felt like I had given up on them, but in reality, I had given up on my marriage and a part of me wanted Olivia to give up on hers. I felt liberation from my marriage. Now I could go find a partner that could meet me emotionally. I wanted to give Olivia that freedom as well. But that’s not what she was asking for. She was asking me to help her and Mark reconnect. She didn’t want to stop trying. She wanted me to be a therapist who would endlessly advocate for her relationship. But in that session I couldn’t.
It turned out that in many sessions, with my couples and individuals, I wanted everyone to get out of their relationship. What was everyone doing in these pointless relationships?! Get out, sheeple! We have all ended up with the wrong person. We could all do better. We aren’t really in love with our partners. We’re just fooling ourselves.
Without a doubt, divorce has changed me as a person and as a therapist. You know how they say, “You gotta get that first divorce outta the way so you can figure out what you really want”? Yeah, they say that. Well, somebody says that. And I stand behind it. I feel clear headed now. I feel like I’m no longer a therapist who’s trying so hard to make my relationship work. Sure, you’re in counseling with me because you want to be more connected to your person. I try very hard to make that happen for you. But if it doesn’t work out, that’s okay too. If you and your partner can’t make any meaningful changes and all you want to do is learn how to tolerate each other, well, I’m not the therapist for you.
Yes, my 10-year relationship ended, but that doesn’t make me a bad therapist. It actually makes me a better therapist. Relationships end. We survive, we move on. We learn from them and make better decisions moving forward. I don’t want to see the couples therapist who’s been in one long term, possibly unfulfilling relationship their whole life. I want to see the couples therapist who’s been in many relationships, good and bad, and continues to learn about what they want and what they deserve in a partnership.
Jeff Guenther, LPC, is a therapist in Portland, OR. He has been in private practice since 2005. Jeff is the creator and owner of Portland Therapy Center, a highly ranked therapist directory. Jeff, and his team, have launched a new progressive therapist directory, TherapyDen.