I had always condemned infidelity to the highest degree. It was the one relationship violation for which I spoke openly about my intolerance, and I maintained an air of superiority over anyone “weak enough” to stay with their betrayer. I kept a tight leash on everyone I dated as a feeble attempt to ensure it would never happen to me... until it did.
My boyfriend and I are both 27 years old. When we first got together in 2016, it was like the universe found the last two coordinating pieces of a 1,000-piece puzzle. We had everything in common, from our shared love of hip-hop to the eagerness to explore our new city of Philadelphia. But for every high, we encountered new lows. Our rom-com love became an obstacle course of lying, cheating, spitefulness and marathon fights that left us breathless. One might think it’d take years to collect all the tally marks we had against each other, but between all our breakups and makeups over the last two years, we’ve really only spent nine months in a committed relationship.
Everyone in our lives urged us to move on. “You guys haven’t even been together long enough to deal with this,” I’d hear weekly from concerned roommates. The toxicity was creeping into our friend groups, workdays and sleep schedules. But through it all we kept this glimmer of hope that with enough work, we could break our patterns and return to the love we established from day one.
He had suggested therapy countless times. My tendency to let things “work themselves out” was in stark contrast to his proactive nature. Whether we were in the heat of an argument or calmly chatting over dinner, I’d practically plug my ears whenever professional help was mentioned. We had both been through therapy individually and knew its value, but I was terrified and reluctant to try it as a couple. The fights were growing in frequency and intensity. I’d have panic attacks when we left each other for work, fueling full, eight-hour days lost to Gchat. The conversations were so circular that we’d forget what we were fighting about.
“There’s a stigma around couple’s therapy that gets worse the younger you seek it.”
I’ll never forget the turning point for me. I screamed one of my classic “get out of my apartment” lines, hoping he’d show some great display of passion and love by refusing to leave. But much to my surprise, he actually left. A light flicked on in my brain, illuminating the reality of our situation: If I did not match the effort he so desperately put out, I was going to lose him. I needed help.
So one day, we held hands and took a leap. We used Psychology Today’s therapist search for a couple’s counselor within our insurance networks. A plan of action was finally materializing, and I couldn’t help but panic. I’d always been trapped by relationship ideals, and this was no different: Am I really staying in something that needs therapy to work? Surely, there is someone out there far easier to be with. Nonetheless, I knew I loved him, and his commitment to changing only made me love him more.
There’s a stigma around couple’s therapy that gets worse the younger you seek it. Friends and therapists alike told us that if we needed premarital therapy this early on, we probably shouldn’t be together. Those familiar with our past made certain I knew that “there are so many men out there,” just in case I had forgotten in the haze of rekindling this flame. And sure, there were other fish in the sea, and there always will be. But when two people can expose their filthiest flaws and still be willing to work, then you don’t back down from love. At least we didn’t.
We arrived at our first session determined and open-minded. The room buzzed with awkwardness as we each unpacked our versions of our history and what we wanted to accomplish in therapy. I felt an inexplicable sense of relief telling her about topics that usually make my skin crawl, like not feeling good enough for him. Our therapist was floored by our immediate raw honesty, and her faith in us was contagious.
It was action-oriented from the start. We learned two important facts off the bat: There was zero trust between us, and our conflict styles are completely different. Conflict is inevitable in relationships, and when you learn how to manage it effectively, it will help (re)build your trust.
“Sure, there were other fish in the sea, but when two people can expose their filthiest flaws and still be willing to work, then you don’t back down from love. At least we didn’t.”
Our therapist specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy, an approach that challenges cognitive distortions in order to help people shift their behavior. It’s been life-changing. My cognitive distortions were centered on insecurity and suspicion, and they manifested behaviorally in accusatory language, phone snooping and more. Through CBT, I’ve been able to identify thought patterns as they arise, and assess them before I give them power. I’ll never forget a certain milestone after about four sessions: We were out drinking, and sometime after the fifth glass of wine I slurred, “If I wasn’t here, you’d be talking to girls.” I snapped out of it and almost immediately exclaimed, “No. I don’t mean that. I’m not starting this fight, and I’m sorry I said that.” We reveled in pride over that one for a solid week.
We’ve now been in weekly therapy for three months, and we’ve learned that to sustain a healthy relationship, there must be room for error. Mistakes will be made, and we can’t live in fear that we’ll be left when we make them. Therapy has revealed a human side of relationships from which I’d long hid, trying to take shelter behind the comfort of ideals. We’re all attracted to other people. We all face temptation. We all mess up. And if you’re like us, you might even have a rocky past. Only when you love someone freely, without expectation, can you surrender to those capital-T truths and treat them with the respect and trust they deserve.
“Only when you love someone freely, without expectation, can you surrender to those capital-T truths and treat them with the respect and trust they deserve.”
Therapy isn’t just helping me break patterns of insecurity and a combative nature. It’s shown me that I’m interested in romantic arrangements beyond the heterosexual, monogamous norms that once controlled me. The same girl who used to storm out of bars if I thought his eyes met another woman now looks with him. I feel natural and free, and he does, too. We’re currently exploring a non-monogamous arrangement, healthier and happier than ever.
Though we’ve seen a transformational shift together, we still attend therapy weekly. For some people, therapy is only needed until things are better. But we treat it as preventative care. We want to keep growing as a couple, learning how to ride the waves together healthily.
In my eyes, if the love is real, the desire to be together is mutual, and your sleeves are rolled up and you’re ready to work, therapy is the best option. Society might make you think you’re beyond saving, as the chase for perfection informs our every click. But you can choose to believe we’re all multidimensional people with the capacity to change. Every couple has a unique story, and through therapy, I think ours has truly just begun.
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