Therapist (vs) Bartender: A Divorcee’s Take on Marital Counseling

It was an office adorned with a blue gingham Ethan Allen sofa, circa 1992. Slightly ripped in the corner, worn from decades of tiresome conversation, epiphanies, and emotional release. A Magic 8 Ball sat on an adjacent table. Diplomas neatly scattered across the wall.

The antithesis welcomes you with a counter and barstools; slightly less comfortable, but filled with a similar historical density. Stories of triumph, stress, bitterness, and love. Ridges etched into the wooden paneling from a set of car keys.

At first glance, a therapist and bartender share very little in common. Two occupations on opposite ends of the employment spectrum. Contradictory personality types and body art preferences.

But as I realized during several years of attending therapy sessions with my now ex-husband, the two are essentially one in the same. The only difference lies in how (and what) they serve their addicts.

* * * *

The first time we walked into our therapist’s office, he greeted us with a warm, eager smile. We, exhausted after a long day of work and what seemed like never ending marital hostility, needed to sit down and breathe. Here, he said, gesturing to the couch. Can I get you some water?

Two Valium? A new spouse? I silently added.

Initially, his willingness to listen flowed like vodka. The hope of reconciliation seemed very much alive in those four walls, and he knew we were craving that. Our marriage essentially demanded it.

It was here we discovered our new happy hour on a Friday, and we — two beaten down, overworked twenty-somethings — had barely managed to shuffle into this bar for shots of whiskey. We found ourselves drunk off of a renewed sense of faith that we, this youthful, somewhat immature husband and wife duo, had the ability to fix our problems.

Several ‘ah-ha’ moments during that hour tossed us into a similar alcohol-induced tipsiness: suggestions about how to fight fairly, communicate effectively, and listen more thoroughly turned our despair into a certain uninhibited joy. We had become blinded to our earlier problems, which had been replaced by the idea that we were in control — and, truth be told, it left us feeling a bit invincible. With these newfound strategies, our marriage had the potential to evolve into one powerful union.

Our bartender had made two mean drinks — delicious, yet strong.

Eye-opening, both literally and figuratively.

This 70-year-old man was my new hero; not simply because of his ability to deconstruct our issues in a matter of an hour, but also because he cared. It seemed as though he cared. About me, and the man to my left, and our partially deflated marriage.

His hope gave me hope.

The weeks went on, and these visits continued. He poured us cocktails of “what if you tried…..” sentences, and we casually sipped on the suggestions, pausing every so often in the midst of our buzz to smile at each other.

Several months into these sessions, our mixologist, once a force to be reckoned with, appeared to lose his touch ever so slightly. Top shelf advice evolved into $2 you-call-its; beverages that initially wooed us began to taste weak and watered down.

I wanted to blame him for our deterioration, but alas, the problem rested with us. In our attempt to seek marital stability, we had transitioned from casual imbibers to full blown addicts. Sloppy. Messy. Verbally spilling our martinis all over the counter, but past the point of coherence to apologize and wipe up the mess.

No longer did I crave his words of advice and encouragement and believe that our marriage was fixable. Instead of relishing in those magical epiphanies, I had transitioned into someone a bit more manic.

I needed a glass of validation. 80 proof.

My drunkenness became fueled by imaginary glimpses of our counselor nodding his head in agreement with me. Subtle signs that this objective third party was taking my side in our ongoing relationship battles made me feel like a full-fledged alcoholic. I had skipped past the casual sips of sangria, and now demanded shot after shot of confirmation that I was not crazy. That my words and feelings were legitimate. That I, too, mattered in this marriage.

Pour, and drink. Pour, and drink.

The evolution from happy hour drinkers to alcoholics strangely paralleled our own – from casual therapy attendees to hostile participants, our marriage had crumbled like the will of an addict.

Blaming others instead of ourselves.

It felt easy, at first, to point the finger at our therapist. Week after week, we stumbled into his office intoxicated on the notion that we had the ability to fix a broken union. He witnessed hours of bickering, name calling, accusations, and empty threats. Wasn’t it glaringly obvious that we were a lost cause?

And yet, he remained (mostly) silent in that stiff brown desk chair as we waged our war. Much like a bartender serving a tenth Manhattan to his sloppy patron, our therapist continued to do his job – albeit in a slightly more solemn manner towards the end – and how tempting it was to shift responsibility onto him.

There was no cop to drag us out for public intoxication. Perhaps uneasy at the prospect of losing two paying clients, our therapist held on – at times, it seemed for dear life – and contributed to dragging out the inevitable. Weeks went by. His demeanor shifted from objective to sad.

He knew we had failed. He also knew it wasn’t his place to verbalize that realization.

* * * *

Nearly two years later, I feel a certain kinship with this man. It was in his office that I realized my marriage had ended. It was in his office that I finally took responsibility for my role in the failure that was my 5 year marriage.

And that’s something I can definitely drink to.

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