I became a marriage counselor to help families stay together through difficult times, to keep love alive during times of stress. I wanted to help men and women avoid what I experienced growing up in a family obsessed with death.
When my mother got pregnant she told stories about her anxiety and worry. “I would walk down the streets of Greenwich village terrified I would lose the child. I tiptoed everywhere. I was afraid I’d lose you, even before you were born.” After my birth she was afraid to let my father hold me, believing he was clumsy and might drop me. She was also convinced she would die before I was out of high school and bought a life insurance policy she couldn’t afford so I’d have money after she was gone. She also got a life insurance policy for me when I turned five, insisting you could never start too soon to take care of your family after you’re gone. When I started nursery school she was already preparing for my life after she was dead and for the life of my wife and family after I died.
My father struggled to make a living as a playwright and actor in New York. After moving to California to try his luck in the emerging television industry, he became increasingly overwhelmed and depressed. The last entry in his journal which I found later as an adult read:
A hundred failures, an endless number of failures, until now, my confidence, my hope, my belief in myself, has run completely out. Middle aged, I stand and gaze ahead, numb, confused, and desperately worried. All around me I see the young in spirit, the young in heart, with ten times my confidence, twice my youth, ten times my fervor, twice my education.
I see them all, a whole army of them, battering at the same doors I’m battering, trying in the same field I’m trying. Yes, on a Sunday morning in early November, my hope and my life stream are both running desperately low, so low, so stagnant, that I hold my breath in fear, believing that the dark, blank curtain is about to descend.”
Six days after his November 8th entry, my father tried to kill himself. He was hospitalized at Camarillo State Hospital, north of Los Angeles. After a series of electro-shock treatments and heavy medications he did not improve and the doctors told my mother he was depressed and seemed locked into hopelessness. They said he would likely never leave the hospital. My mother, reluctantly, got a divorce and our family dissolved.
I grew up wondering what happened to my father and mother and I was terrified I would follow in their footsteps. I’m sure my decision to pursue a master’s degree and Ph.D in social work and psychology was my attempt to understand what happened to them and how I could prevent it happening to me. I vowed that when I married and had children we would stay together and my children would avoid the pain I lived with growing up. But things didn’t turn out that way.
After college I married my college sweetheart and we had two wonderful children. I applied everything I had learned in school, but our love-life deteriorated and after ten years our marriage ended. We put our energy into raising our children as single parents and tried to show the children we could still be there for them, but it wasn’t the same. We both eventually remarried, but my second marriage fell apart after three years.
I felt like a failure as a husband, a father, and a man. I felt like a fraud as a marriage counselor. I was getting paid to help couples work through their problems and stay together. I knew what “should work” and it often did work for them. But I couldn’t seem to make it work in my own life. I felt there was something missing, something I hadn’t learned in school, something vital that I was missing.
I vowed to look more deeply. Instead of jumping into another relationship, I did an in-depth review of my life. For the first time I took a serious look at my dysfunctional family and the feelings, beliefs, and behaviors that had become embedded in my body, mind, and spirit, despite the healthy things I had learned about in school.
I felt I had finally gotten to the core of what was missing in my life and what so many other couples had missed in theirs. When I met my third wife, Carlin, I had a new love-map to guide me. It wasn’t based on all the things I learned should work in a marriage. But it was based on real life, on recognizing the trauma that so many of us experience. I learned that if I didn’t heal the old wounds, they would undermine my relationships again and again.
Carlin and I certainly have had our ups and downs, but we’ve been together now for 36 wonderful years. We raised our two youngest children together and have answered some of the questions that always perplexed me, including:
Why do things start off so good, yet turn so bad for couples who love and care about each other?
How do childhood wounds impact our adult love lives and how can we heal?
Why the things that once endeared us to one another become irritants later in the marriage?
How to tell each other the truth about how we feel without wounding the other person?
Why it’s so difficult to keep a compatible sex-life when we’re each so busy with our lives?
How to remain close and intimate, but also free to lead our own lives?
I know a lot of therapists, marriage and family counselors, guides, and coaches. Many, like me, give advice and support we feel will help others, but often have difficulties in our own relationships. I’ve come to realize that I became a marriage counselor so that I would learn how to have a great marriage myself. What I didn’t realize was that I couldn’t learn it in books, at conferences, or in professional gatherings. I somehow imagined that my professional training would protect me from the misunderstandings, misperceptions, pain, and suffering that impacted other people. I was wrong.
I had to accept that I was as confused as everyone else about how to have a great marriage. In the words of 12 step recovery I had to admit that “I was powerless over my addiction to creating dysfunctional relationships and that my life had become unmanageable.” When I was able to do that I was finally able to begin creating the marriage I had always wanted to have. I’ve also become a more effective counselor and can share what has worked for us, as well as the missteps and misadventures we’ve experienced. Carlin and I have now been married three times—to each other. Every 15 years we’ve re-evaluated our marriage and made new vows that take into account what’s changed for us in the previous years. We’ve written a book about our experience, The Enlightened Marriage: The 5 Transformative Stages of Relationships and Why the Best is Still to Come. We’re happy to share what we’ve learned about real, lasting love.
I’ll look forward to your comments. What has been your experience with marriage, marriage counseling, and how to have real, lasting love?