How to Win at Marriage Counseling

'Couples Retreat'
’Couples Retreat’ Photo: Credit

“How’s the marriage going?” my husband, Pat Dixon, gets asked every few days, usually by other comedians who see him at clubs. His act is his life, so now I’m a part of it.

“Not so good,” Pat says ruefully. It’s the opposite of what anyone is expecting, so it always gets a laugh.

But the truth of the matter? Our relationship does need help.

We’re working on offsetting my uncanny ability to destroy this incredible partnership we have managed to forge against all odds. Like Pat, I am a jaded divorcée (now newlywed) who never expected to get married again. And when tensions rise, my defensiveness, anxiety, and undealt-with damage can create a dangerous cocktail that feeds on anger and combusts with resentment.

So earlier this month, we made the decision to start marriage counseling.

The only problem? I am finding it an exasperating process — not the therapy, per se, but the realization of how much better my husband is at it than I am.

Despite the thousands of dollars I have spent on counseling over the years, Pat is far more gifted at accessing his emotions and employing a psychological vocabulary to pinpoint his needs and feelings. It is maddening to be married to someone who is so incredibly charming — and emotionally intelligent — that he can win over the therapist in 15 minutes or less.

She patiently agrees with him as they talk about me: Yes, I have unprocessed anger. Yes, I have passive-aggressive tendencies. Yes, I might as well bottle up my overflow of contempt and sell it as a perfume because it’s not going anywhere any time soon.

Sometimes I find myself stuttering, stammering, and going on a 20-minute soliloquy providing backstory and the details surrounding a fight. Meanwhile, Pat will sum up his issues with precision: “I was angry. I needed to be heard. She did not act like she heard me.”

Later the therapist turns to me and asks: “Can you respond to what Pat is saying instead of shutting down?”

“Yes,” I say, eyes on the floor as I prepare to shut down.

“You see?” Pat asks. “She’s gone. There’s a wall. I can’t get past that.”

“Mandy,” the therapist repeats loudly. “Do you hear what Pat is saying?”

That wakes me up. It’s my name. M-A-N-D-Y. I like hearing my name.

“I’m here,” I say. “I’m listening.”

That’s the absolute key to victory over your spouse in marriage counseling: You have to listen. But that’s just the beginning of the tools you’ll need.

Step 1: Get into marriage counseling. “But I’m not married!” you say. It doesn’t matter. Get a head start and try couples counseling. The sooner you can learn to navigate relationship spats, the better you’ll be at discussing your personality flaws in front of a complete stranger.

Step 2: Don’t wait until you’re near divorce to go. Pat and I jumped in right after our first serious fight. I don’t know if we’ll celebrate our wedding anniversary, but there’s a special place in my heart for March 2, the first time I was asked to speak in “I” statements.

Step 3: Resist the urge to cram in obscene amounts of sweetness the day before a session. Yes, I’ve wanted to give my husband a meaningful card, then prance around in a lacy nightie and top it all off with a deep-tissue massage to get in his good graces. But those moves are transparent, and thus worthless.

It’s understandable that I want to ease the tension before we delve into the reasons I cause all the problems in the world, isn’t it? (Sarcasm is one of them.) But this is a loser’s battle.

Instead, concentrate on the two hours before counseling begins and ask if there are any “things we should talk about before the session today.” This is a nice olive branch for your spouse, but it will also give you extra time to get your talking points in order for items on the day’s fight menu.

Step 4: Learn five key phrases. “I hear you.” “What I hear you saying is … ” “I respect that.” “How does that make you feel?” And “I respect that what I hear you saying that you feel is … ”

Step 5: Keep it brief. You are going to be tempted to ask the room to hold while you gather the relevant screenshots to present exhibits A, B, and C, but — like with makeup and perms — less is so much more.

I have a tendency to start with my mother’s birth plan and lead up to which colleges I got waitlisted at, all in an attempt to explain why I forgot to take care of the leftover fried chicken the night before. This tends to work against me, when the therapist begins to exchange sympathetic knowing glances with my spouse.

Stick to the facts. “I was feeling tired and stressed. This is why I neglected the fried chicken.”

Step 6: Do not excuse yourself to the restroom while you offer that your husband can simply “get started without you.” I made this mistake once. When I came back into the room, I felt like Lindsay Lohan in Mean Girls, when she’s the only one wearing a childish costume to the Halloween party. “We were just making small talk,” the therapist said with a smile, and I immediately wished I could have every word transcribed and annotated.

The rest of the session, I felt self-conscious about everything I did and said. The two of them seemed to share a special intimacy, an understanding about trying to fix me.

Step 7: Cry as much as possible. Not sure where to start in counseling? Why not start off with a good healing cry? No one wants to beat up on the crying girl. It’s an emotional mic drop.

Step 8: Touch — or recoil from touch. I get very calmed down by touch, and Pat is very sweet about providing this. But a good power move is to physically act as if your very integrity has been violated when your spouse dares to reach out to hold your hand. If you like attention, this is an excellent way to get it!

Step 9: Find a saccharine ending point. The instant we have walked down the stairwell together into the daylight, I usually say “I love you,” and kiss Pat on the cheek. Then I follow up with an accusation.

“You seem annoyed at me,” I say.

“Let’s speak in ‘I’ statements,” he reminds me.

“Okay,” I say. “I feel scared that you might feel annoyed at me.”

“I’m not,” he says. “I love you.”

At that moment, realize that all of the bullshit that has led you to marriage counseling in the first place might be the result of your own fear of vulnerability, lack of control, and emotional intimacy — and that life is far too short to muddy it up with the muck of petty fighting that no one will remember a year or even a week from today.

Then remember how you love this person more than anything or anyone else in the world, and how they’ve given you more happiness and joy in 13 months than you’ve experienced your entire life. Realize that taking a gamble on trust and an open heart might be worth it.

Say that to your husband. Mean it. Count to ten. Breathe deeply. Say it again.

How to Win at Marriage Counseling