By Meredith Futernick
Editor’s Note: We’ve been studying relationships for the last four decades, but we still have so much to learn. Through the individual stories and experiences shared in Real Relationships, we aim to paint a more realistic picture of love in the world today. The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this article belong solely to the author and are not necessarily based on research conducted by The Gottman Institute.
“Can you please stop being a therapist right now?” My wife asked. I knew exactly what she meant, though I did not want to admit it. “I’m just practicing healthy communication” was my response. But of course, I wasn’t practicing healthy communication. I was being defensive and I was shut down. Shutting down is my go-to. It’s what’s comfortable for me. It’s how I’ve protected myself my whole life. As a therapist, I have learned how to make productive words come out of my mouth even when I am feeling shut down. But it can be really difficult to “turn off the therapist” in my own relationship. Especially during conflict. Especially with a brain full of Gottman Method Couples Therapy (Level 1 and Level 2) training. When I really stop and look at it, the “productive words” that come out of my mouth during a disagreement with my wife can be hurtful and condescending. Under the guise of “healthy communication,” I was actually destroying my own relationship.
Before I was a therapist, I really didn’t realize that therapists are human. Obviously, they breathe and speak and eat just like the rest of us, but I had always put my own therapist and my coworkers on a pedestal. The reality is that we are so human and with all of the hours of training and practicing, our own flaws become pretty amplified. Well, I can speak for myself at least. My flaws became pretty amplified when I became a therapist. All of this self-awareness and stuff. And then add on top of that doing therapy with couples—all this new self-awareness about relationships. Awareness of the dysfunction that I bring into my own relationships. Awareness of the dysfunction I see around me.
The other thing is that being a therapist has become so much a part of my identity. I love who I am when I am doing therapy. I get into a session and I am just totally in my zone. When I am in session, it feels effortless. I am totally in the moment with my client(s), tuned in to what they are saying, what they are feeling. And the words flow effortlessly.
But what happens when you can’t turn it off? It may seem like this could potentially be helpful within a relationship. But what I have realized is that being my own couples therapist for my own relationship just does not work.
It’s amazing how I can identify all of my partner’s shortcomings with the clinical terms for them. “I know that your reaction to what I said is not really about me and is really about how you interacted with your parents when you were younger. We call that projection, you know.” Ok, yeah, great awareness, Meredith. But not a helpful thing to say during a disagreement. I have found myself saying things to my wife that I would never say to a client. Therapist education plus a lack of filter can be a lethal combination.
Psychobabble had become so much a part of my regular language and thought process that I just expected my wife to have the same sort of awareness. She manages technicians in the body shop of a car dealership. For the record, she does not come home and say to me, “Meredith, you really need to fix that camshaft fuel injector thing-a-mabob, it’s really getting on my nerves.” Does she expect me to understand her mechanical car lingo? No! So why do I expect her to have an in-depth understanding about things like projection and co-dependency? I mean, I went to school for a long time to really understand these things.
Putting a name to behaviors such as “criticism” and “contempt” has felt a bit like a punch in the stomach. Going through my training and realizing, “Wow, they’re describing me right now.” That was really not a good feeling.
That go-to of shutting down I talked about earlier, that’s called stonewalling. I reflect on how many times I have shut down my own and my wife’s feelings and came back with a snarky comment out of the need to be right. How many times I have used the “I feel ____ when you ____” technique to my advantage and put my own little dysfunctional twist on it. This might play out something like this:
Kathy: “Could you please take the garbage out?”
Me: “It makes me feel like you think I don’t do enough around the house when you ask me to take the garbage out.”
What? That’s not how that’s supposed to work! That was me being defensive under a guise of expressing how I feel. It is not ok. And having the awareness and the tools is not enough.
So this has been my journey as a couples therapist in a long-term relationship. Honoring the self-awareness by taking action. I have been making more of an effort to honor what comes up for me, and then do whatever work I have to do on myself. I hear the inner voice telling me, “Whatever bothers you about someone else is a reflection of something you don’t like in yourself.” Ouch. So the first key to turning off “the therapist” is to take a hard look at myself.
That inner work has brought me to new levels of acceptance about my own patterns and faulty belief systems. The bottom line was that it had scared me to think about who I am in my relationship when I turned “the therapist” off and allowed myself to just be me. “Will she still love me if she really knows me?” Who are we when we take off all of our masks?
Sometimes I try too hard to say all the “right” and “healthy” things at all the right times. Because as a therapist I’m supposed to know it all! And as a couples therapist, I’m supposed to have the perfect relationship! But this translates as being inauthentic. Let’s be real here, no one responds authentically like, “How does that make you feel?”
And it really goes back to that underlying fear that somehow it will not be ok if I get completely raw, completely real, completely authentic. So, the second key to turning the therapist off means letting things get messy sometimes. Embracing the vulnerability and the imperfections. If I let my guard down, then she lets her guard down too. Sometimes it’s not pretty and that’s ok.
And you know what else I’ve realized that’s pretty cool? When I truly, authentically use the tools that I have with the right intentions, they are magic. Using humor in a thoughtful way changes everything for us. We can be more open and playful this way.
What this means is that first of all, I accept that being a therapist is a super significant part of my life. Second, I accept that I am probably never going to be perfect at shutting off “the therapist” all the time. Third, I ease up and make fun of myself. This goes something like this:
Me: “Ok, I am just warning you, the therapist is going to come out right now.”
Kathy: “Oh geez, here we go.”
And then I go on to say what I need to say. And we can laugh about it because it doesn’t feel like an attack.
And here’s the last (and maybe most important) key to turning it off. I don’t always have to be right. Oh, what a relief! That whole trying-to-be-perfect routine can be really stressful! It’s ok to let her be the relationship expert sometimes, too. After all, she does make up 50% of this relationship. I don’t have to have all the answers. And thank goodness for that!
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