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The Second Time

<i>Beneath the sunset and over the sea<i/>
Beneath the sunset and over the sea

The second time couples counseling saved my marriage was in the summer of 2008, exactly three years after the most romantic marriage proposal in the history of all marriage proposals, and less than three weeks after the fight that was the biggest fight in the history of all fights.

The recent six-part story I wrote about babies was supposed to be a post about how important counseling can be when a couple stops communicating, but it ended up being a post about babies because that’s just how I roll.  I could sit down to write a story about ketchup going on sale this week and before I know it I’ll be writing a story about babies.  My biological clock has taken over.

Since I never made the point I wanted to make in that post, I’m going to make it now: Couples counseling saved our relationship and then it saved our marriage.  Now I think counseling is a magical elixir for relationships.  (You can read about the first time it saved us here.)

Instead of re-telling you about how not talking about babies nearly ruined my marriage, I’ll just say that Mike and I have learned the hard way.  Twice.  Ignoring our feelings + avoiding communication = disaster. You could try to argue that couples counseling didn’t work the first time, your evidence being that we had to go back a second time, but you’d be incorrect.  The second time we only needed a refresher course.  We lost our way for a minute but we got back on track in a matter of weeks because we had the strong base we’d built in our first round of therapy.  That being said, I have to admit that Mike and I were lucky in that both times we started counseling, we started before we got to the point where we hated each other.  A lot of couples wait too long and by the time they’re in counseling their relationship has been badly damaged, sometimes heartbreakingly, irreversibly so.

A marriage is another person sharing your home.  There’s you, there’s your spouse and there’s your marriage.  Each marriage has its own needs, it’s own peculiarities and it’s own character.  Marriages need to be nurtured, nourished and cared for.  If a marriage is neglected it will not thrive.

I realize I’ve been proselytizing about couples counseling, but far more important than counseling is simply taking care of your couple, however works best for you and your partner.  Counseling was the magical elixir that taught Mike and I how to take care of our relationship.  What is it for you?  What has been the thing that has saved you and your partner, whenever you’ve needed saving?

Ask A Serious Girl

cinderella3

Something interesting has happened.  I’ve received more emails about my prenup post than I’ve ever gotten about anything I’ve ever written.  Ever.  I was nervous posting it.  I thought for sure if I got any email it would be hate mail berating me for planning my divorce before I was even married.  Whereas I see our prenup as a testament to the strength of our marriage, most people I meet only have to hear the word “prenup” before they start frothing at the mouth.

You, on the other hand, have completely surprised me.  All of a sudden I’m getting emails and phone calls and requests for more information about prenups.  And you really sound interested .  One person even asked a very good question.

This marks the seventy-ninth time I’ve tried to sit down and write another prenup post, but each time I’ve tried I write five or six pages before I realize that there is no way on earth I can say everything I want to say in one post.  So here’s what I’m thinking:  Since so many of you seem to be looking for more prenuptial information, and since I have a giant crush on prenups, I’m going to write weekly prenup posts.  At least until I’ve run out of things to tell you about them.  Which could be in two weeks or six, I have no idea, but I am really excited.

This week I’ll start with the person who asked the really good question.  I’ve received permission to post the question and my answer here, and since I’ve always secretly wanted to write an advice column, I’m going to pretend that’s what I’m doing.

Q: My fiancé and I just got engaged a few months ago.  We’ve lived together for a year and we’ve kept all of our accounts separate. We’ve never talked about money and I’m worried about what will happen when we get married.  I know she has credit cards but I don’t know how many or what the balances are and she doesn’t know about my debts.  I have no idea if she has any savings but I know I don’t have much.  I showed her your prenup post with the hopes that it would get us started talking about money but she immediately put it off as being “unromantic”.  How can I get her to talk about our financial goals without freaking her out?

A: If she feels like it’s unromantic, make it romantic!  I’m not kidding.  When Mike and I talk about our finances we open a bottle of wine, put of vase of flowers on the table, dim the lights and light candles.  It makes the conversation much lovelier.  Set aside a night just for the two of you.  Buy a nice bottle and a bouquet of flowers.  Don’t drink?  Make hot chocolate.  Turn off your cell phones.  Start the conversation by telling her how much you love her and how excited you are to spend the rest of your life with her.  Then start asking her questions. Ask her if she wants to buy a house and where she hopes to buy it.  How big would it be?  What kind of car does she want to be driving in five years?  When does she want to have kids?  Does she want children?  How many?  Will she want to be a stay-at-home-mom or will she want to work? Where does she see herself in ten years?  You need to get her talking about the kind of life she envisions for her future because it’s the life she’s envisioning for your future too.  Then start telling her about your goals.  Where do you see yourself in ten years?  What’s your timeline for children?  Do you want to buy a house?  She needs to know these things about you.  You both need to figure out where you have common lines and where your ideas are different.  You’re bound to have some different plans, that’s only natural, but where can you come together in happy compromise?

I realize that you specifically asked how to start a conversation about finances, but the plain truth is that your future depends on your finances.  The financial choices you make today affect the kind of life you have tomorrow.  When the two of you have decided what kind of life you want tomorrow, you can begin to talk about the financial decisions that need to be made today.

A very good lawyer once told me that most people spend more time planning their annual vacations than they do planning their lives.  If you don’t plan your life, someone else will plan it for you.  And you probably won’t like their plan.

UPDATE:  2/19/10
Sometimes I get all up on a high horse thinking that my way is the best way and I need to remember that isn’t the case.  This week I had to eat crow when I heard from a woman who just broke off her engagement because her fiancé wanted her to sign a prenup so awful four different lawyers told her she’d be making a terrible mistake if she signed it.  She pointed out that the prenup showed her exactly what her fiance thought of her and she was glad for it, but I suddenly worried that I’ve been really insensitive about the topic.  So now I’m rethinking the weekly prenup posts because, geez. I feel like a jerk.  Though I promise I will answer the emails from those of you who asked specific prenup questions.  (Your answers are coming!)

Still growing

theacorn

treasured little things

In the last moments of our final couples session before we moved to the City, our therapist gave us a tiny silver acorn.  When we’d started couples counseling we’d been dating for close to two years but didn’t know where the relationship was going.  She gave us the acorn to remind us that we had been like the tiny seed, but we’d worked hard and now were a young green sapling.  She told us that we had the tools, the knowledge and the love that we needed to nurture our relationship so that it could grow into a strong old oak.  I keep that silver acorn, with the boutonniere Mike wore on our wedding day, in a vintage ashtray that belonged to my great Aunt Sue.  Symbols of things worthwhile; treasured memories.

***

After Mike and I had been dating for a year, we started having disagreements that would go on for days at a time.  I wouldn’t call them fights because we never threw any punches or anything, but something would come up and one of us would get upset and then the other one would get upset and then things would be really awkward for a while.  After a week or so we’d meet up for coffee and try to talk about it and things would be ok for a few weeks but then something would come up and we would get all weird again.  After several months of being fine one minute and awkward the next, I started worrying that if we didn’t learn how to communicate effectively our relationship would fall apart.

I knew that I loved Michael and that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with him.  I knew this because we had the same values and the same goals, we made each other laugh, we had common interests, we respected one another.  But I couldn’t spend another week in awkward silence, so I suggested we try counseling.

“I would really like to go to couples counseling with you.”
“Why?”
“I think we need to learn how to communicate better.”
“We don’t need counseling.”

And that was that.  For six months.  Six months of dancing around topics we couldn’t talk about because if we did we’d end up in tears or screaming or breaking up.

Then, one beautiful spring morning, Mike looked at me over coffee and said the three little words I’d been longing to hear: “Let’s start counseling.”

We had our first appointment the following Thursday.  Within a few weeks, Thursday’s had become our favorite day of the week.  They were our day.  A day we devoted to spending quality time together and getting to know one another.  Every Thursday I’d leave work early and drive to Sherman Oaks where Michael would be waiting for me with my favorite Starbucks latte. We’d walk arm-in-arm to our therapist’s office and no matter how the session ended, regardless of if we were weeping or glowing, we’d go to In N’ Out for dinner and talk about what came up during the session.  And every Thursday, even if we’d started dinner in tears, by the time we kissed goodbye we were holding hands again.

Talking honestly about one’s feelings can be very difficult, but it’s a significant and important step towards learning how to communicate.  We soon discovered that the thing we were refusing to talk about, the thing that had become the fat ugly beast hovering in the room, the thing causing all those weeks of awkward silences was Marriage.  Mike had asked me to move in with him every month for the last six months and each time I’d said, “I won’t move in with you unless we’re engaged.”  I wanted to marry him but I didn’t want to give the milk away for free.  Mike fully intended to marry me, but he needed to know that we could live together without killing one another.  His hesitance to propose wasn’t a reflection of his feelings for me and my refusal to move in wasn’t a reflection of my feelings for him.  We both wanted to live together and we both wanted to get married, we’d just been too scared to talk about it.

A few months after our first counseling session Michael asked me to move in with him and I said yes.  Two months later we were sitting at the top of the Ferris wheel on the Santa Monica Pier and his hands were shaking as he held out a tiny blue velvet box.  The stars were flung over our heads, the night air was cool and filled with the scent of the sea and somewhere someone was playing a guitar.  It was the most romantic proposal in the history of all marriage proposals.  I blame it on couples counseling.

Kind of a big deal, Part 5

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

In the summer of 2008, with my clock ticking like crazy and both of us trying really hard to avoid each other in an apartment twelve footsteps from the front door to the back wall, we had a fight unlike any fight in the history of all fights.

Mike and I are not violent people.  He accuses me of being a yeller, but I point out that in fact I grew up with three older siblings and the only way to ever be heard was to talk loudly.  I am a passionate speaker, I argue, not a yeller.  So while I may speak passionately on occasion, Mike and I had always lived a life of quiet harmony.  Until the morning of The Fight.

We were living in a tiny, crummy, roaches-in-the-walls Hells Kitchen tenement.  It was July.  If you’ve never been to New York in July, imagine a swamp of impenetrable stinking, moist, greasy tar. That is New York City in July.  It was seven o’clock in the morning.  I was awake because I hadn’t been to sleep and Mike was awake because I’d woken him up, hysterical.  I was screaming and sobbing and accusing while he held up his hands, don’t shoot.  It was all very dramatic and very frightening and for months afterward I wondered what our neighbors must think.  I said I was angry about one thing but it turned out I was angry about something else entirely.  When I left that morning he thought I was leaving for good.  He told me that, later, when we were curled on the sofa with tea.  It made me cry.  No, I said, his face in my hands and my tears on his cheeks.  Till death do us part.

A few weeks later we were sitting on a therapists couch and I don’t remember how we got to it but she looked at us in shock as she realized we’d never really talked about having children.  It turns out it’s a very big deal to not talk about something.  It turns out the Fight of all Fights could have been avoided entirely if only we’d talked about the one thing we were afraid to talk about. There is a lesson to be learned here: TALK.  COMMUNICATE.  LISTEN.  TALK SOME MORE.  Take it from me.  I almost learned the heartbreaking way.

We still argue when we talk about babies.  Mike argues that babies are clusters of cells that start out very much like tumors and later become small aliens with ideas and theories and philosophies all their own while I argue that babies are lovely little pink giggling things who’s cheeks I want to eat and who’s pants might need changing but oh my goodness did you see that dimple?  We still argue but thanks to a nice stint in marriage counseling we now argue about whether or not babies are made of biological material or angel dust and the arguing is something that happens over dinner and wine and handholding.  And do you know what we did on a date the other weekend?

WE BOUGHT A BOOK ABOUT BABIES.

Then we started reading it.

To be continued….  (For the last time all ready…)

Kind of a big deal, Part 4

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

My husband’s feelings about children vary greatly from mine.  In case I haven’t made that clear enough, I will write here, verbatim, our first conversation about kids:

“I’ve always wanted four of children.  Two boys and two girls.”
“I’ve never wanted children.”
“I’m sorry?”
“I’d love to have a big house and a bunch of slobbery dogs and maybe some grandkids.”
“You can’t have grandkids without having kids.”
“I guess I’ll just have dogs then.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.  When we have kids you’ll tell me it’s the best thing that ever happened to you and I’ll say I told you so.”
“Blah blah blah blah blah.”

The “blah blah blah” part was where I stopped listening.  I didn’t want to hear about Mike’s feelings on kids because that would mean acknowledging that I was falling in love with a man who didn’t want children and if he didn’t want children I couldn’t marry him because I couldn’t marry someone who didn’t want a family.  And also it was our first date and I’d just said, “when we have a kids” and how inappropriate was that?

The longer Michael and I dated, the more his skepticism about having children terrified me.  I had so many emotions tied up in the topic that I didn’t know how to talk about it without crying and he didn’t know how to talk about it without getting defensive so it was easier to completely ignore it.  The funny thing is, if we’d just put it all out there like we did with our finances, we would have discovered that we actually wanted the exact same thing.  But we didn’t do that.  We bared our bank statements, but we didn’t talk about kids.  When we got married we’d paid off all our credit card debt and we had started to save and we could even afford to buy a fancy TV but we couldn’t talk about kids.  Six months later we continued not talking about children while we sold all of our belongings and moved three thousand miles east to a city neither of us had ever visited.

Fast forward to the summer of 2008.  We were terribly, terribly homesick.  We felt alone and isolated even in the other’s company.  My biological clock had started screaming and now we were actively avoiding one another while living in an apartment so small the bathroom door wouldn’t shut if you were sitting on the pot.  We were six months shy of our two-year anniversary and we’d gone from crazy-in-love newlyweds to people who couldn’t make eye contact over dinner.

There is a lot to be said about our decision to move to New York.  It changed my life and it changed my marriage.  I thought we were moving for one reason but it turned out to be something else entirely.  Mike had completely different yet equally important motives for moving.  The last three years have been the hardest of my life.  They have also been the best.  Moving to this city made Michael and I soul mates.  We are family now in a way that we wouldn’t have been if we’d stayed put.

To be continued…

Kind of a big deal, Part 3

Click here for part 1
Click here for part 2

Mike has absolutely no idea what it’s like to walk into a super market at eight years old, praying that all the other shoppers think the baby doll clutched in his arms is his real baby.  I do.  Growing up all of my favorite toys were baby dolls and my favorite childhood play-pretend was Single Mother.

While little boys make forts with their blankets, I turned my bedroom into a multi-room apartment.  Hanging sheets for walls, I made bedroom, kitchen, living room.  Each of my dolls was given a name and an age and after getting everyone dressed and ready for their day, I would kiss them goodbye, warn them to behave, “lock them in” and be off to work.  From there I’d walk the exhausting distance to my mother’s kitchen, take all of the canned goods out of the cupboard, pile them onto the kitchen table, “scan” them, bag them up, and put them all back in the pantry.  I killed two birds with one stone by playing “grocery store clerk” and “tired mom buying groceries on her way home from a ten-hour shift” at the same time.  At the “end of my day” I’d go home to my seven children and inevitably someone would have gotten into trouble, someone else would need grounding and I would lay in bed and wonder how I would ever be able to take care of all these damn kids.

Lord only knows where I came up with this stuff.  When I wasn’t playing Single Mother I was wrapping white towels around my head and practicing my walk down the aisle.  In a real life twist of irony, there was no aisle to walk down on my wedding day.  Instead we said our vows on the exact spot in my parents living room where I practiced my vows to imaginary Prince Charmings as a child.

If I said that Mike and I had never talked about children, I wasn’t being entirely truthful.  While the subject of money and finances has never been a sore spot for us, the subject of children has caused a lot of tears, a lot of slammed doors and one particularly painful evening in a beautiful hotel room overlooking the ocean on Maui, which I spent sobbing on the floor of a bathroom.  It’s not that we never talked about children, it’s just that when we talked about it we fought about it and so we made a mutually-subconscious agreement to completely ignore it.

To be continued…

Bury a cold nose in the crook of his shoulder

I am kind of a snob when it comes to my marriage, I just want to admit that right now. I am convinced that my marriage is the best marriage in the world. I’m pretty sure that the way I feel about my marriage is similar to the way I’ll one day feel about my children and the way I currently feel about my dogs. The only reason you don’t hate me is because no matter what I think, I know as well as you do that my marriage is not perfect. No one’s marriage is ever perfect.

Mike and I have worked really hard to be happy. We’ve spent four out of the six years we’ve been together in couples counseling. In college I made the mistake of dating someone I didn’t really like for an entire year because I thought that at some point I was going to have to grow up and pick someone to marry and it might as well be him. I misunderstood “working to keep a relationship happy” for “working to force two people who do not belong together to act like they’re happy”. I know better now. Mike and I went into couples counseling because we saw in each other people with similar values and similar goals; we had a lot in common and we were crazy about each other but we’d stopped communicating without fighting and we didn’t want to be that couple that fights all the time.

See how proud I am of my marriage? All of that up there? Those run-on sentences? That was bragging.

In the last four days I have worked forty hours. Mike, who is still looking for EMT work, has taken sole responsibility for the dogs, the cats, my meals, the laundry, the groceries and everything else it takes to run a household. When I leave for work in the morning my belly is full and there’s a packed lunch in my backpack. When I come home at night there’s hot tea and a bowlful of soup ready and waiting, all of the chores have been done and I am free to spend the rest of my evening doing whatever I want. I curl up with my tea and I write and I write and even though I worked for ten hours I can write for three or four more before collapsing in bed.

All week I have gushed and sighed and squeezed Mike’s hands and kissed his nose and thanked him for taking such magnificent care of me. But it wasn’t until right before dinner tonight, the fourth day of the week, the fourth day of Michael rubbing my feet and pouring more coffee and closing the window so I don’t catch a chill, when he suddenly stood up from painting and wrapped his arms around my waist, that I realized we hadn’t hugged all week. Not once.

See? Even we screw up. We work so hard all week to show each other we care; he cooks, I eat, he cleans, I compliment, but we don’t even hug until Thursday. And all that other stuff is incredible, I get that, I am not complaining, I am absolutely thrilled. But there’s something about a good bear hug, an everything is going to be wonderful hug, a you’re my best friend in the world hug, that just makes a girl feel heavenly.

Hug each other as soon as you see each other after work Our skin has a memory of “good touch” (loved), “bad touch” (abused) and “no touch” (neglected). Couples who say hello with a hug keep their skin bathed in the “good touch,” which can inoculate your spirit against anonymity in the world. –Mark Goulston, PhD How To Be A Happy Couple

We just made a pact to hug every day after work. I need the hugs and he deserves them.

Kind of a big deal, Part 2

Click here for part 1

Considering that I was in New York and my eleven pregnant friends and family members were splashed across the United States, I was forced to live vicariously through Facebook, Flickr, personal blogs, whatever I could get my hands on.  I coveted their swollen bellies, bouts of nausea, silvery stretch marks.  I felt guilty as I tracked their progress and studied their photos.  I wasn’t allowed to want a baby because my life was too messy, so I watched them want theirs.  It was my dirty little secret.

It wasn’t very long before what I could find on the various network sites wasn’t enough.  I wanted more.  I needed it.  I couldn’t think about anything else.  I couldn’t sleep.  I started reading Mommy Blogs.  I watched birthing videos on YouTube.  I mentally shopped for baby bottles and strollers and slings.  I started buying clothes that were loose fitting in the midsection because they were things I’d be able to wear when I got pregnant.  I came this close to subscribing to the website where you get a weekly email that tells you what size and shape your fetus is that week, whether it can hear or has eyeballs yet, but then at the last minute I decided that was a little too creepy, even for me.

At the end of nights spent devouring pregnancy websites I deleted the history on my computer.  I kept my baby-mania a secret.  I became depressed and moody.  I started fights.  I didn’t want to listen to Michael’s concerns about children and so I couldn’t talk about mine.  I became resentful and angry.  Michael sensed something was wrong but what could he do when I refused to admit it?  His hands were tied.  We stopped talking about anything beyond the laundry list, “How was your day?” “Fine, how was yours?” “Fine.”  Before I knew it we were actively avoiding one another, an incredible feat considering our apartment was so small we couldn’t shut the bathroom door while pooping.

To be continued….