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February 19, 2014

Escape From Couples Therapy

CAITLIN MOSCATELLO's boyfriend suggested they see a counselor before getting engaged. What was the worst that could happen?

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Photo Credit: Guy Aroch/ Trunk Archive

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IT WAS 10 O'CLOCK ON A TUESDAY NIGHT, and I was sprinting up 10th Avenue in Manhattan like I was going for a touchdown in the Super Bowl. My penny loafers slapped against the pavement as my boyfriend of more than two years, Chris, became smaller in the distance behind me, gasping for air on the sidewalk. I ignored my phone's buzz in my pocket until I, too, needed to catch my breath. I finally read his messages: "Are you OK? I'm worried. I love you. Babe?"

And so concluded our six weeks of couples therapy.

I never would have seen this coming when Chris and I moved in together. We signed a lease and spent our nights ordering Seamless and watching movies on Netflix. When people asked me about our marriage plans, I'd smile. At 29, I knew he was it. An MBA who once volunteered in Bangladesh, Chris was driven and compassionate—the kind of guy who brought me ice cream when I was sick and whisked me off to Belize for my birthday. It didn't hurt that he also looked like a young Keanu Reeves. When I told him I wanted to marry him, Chris said he saw the same future, but he wasn't ready yet. For the next three months, we didn't argue about anything except the thing: Where was our relationship going? Then, one day, he wanted to talk. I don't know what I was expecting him to say, but you can bet your Williams-Sonoma registry it wasn't "I think we should see a couples therapist."

Oh, my God, I thought. I'm that girl. Ready. Waiting. Chris reassured me that he just wanted to go into marriage with a strong foundation. Both our parents were divorced, he said; it shouldn't be lost on us that "happily ever after" doesn't always pan out. Plus, for Chris, whose mom is a psychologist, therapy was a practical step in any life decision.

I knew we were in trouble when Dr. Dottie (whose name I've changed here) opened the door wearing what looked like silk pajamas. "Come in!" she said, motioning toward her living room. "Where should we start?" she asked. Chris shrugged. "There's nothing big, really." He mentioned how I got on his case about unloading the dishwasher, so we spent the next hour talking about … dishes. I struggled to keep a straight face while Dr. Dottie walked us through the complex issue of rinsing our cutlery. Ninety minutes and $500 later, she deemed our first session a success.

CAN YOU BELIEVE THAT?" I said, waiting for Chris to laugh with me. But he just said, "She knows what she's doing." When I asked him how he knew, he finally told me: Almost a decade earlier, he said, Dr. Dottie had helped him get through a tough period in his life. Even though I saw her as certifiably insane, he trusted her. I didn't want to go back, but if I refused therapy, I'd be a bad girlfriend, unwilling to put in the effort. I felt trapped—and resentful that Chris was asking me to take part in what felt like The Great Wife Audition. After the mental screener, what would be next? A physical challenge? A lightning round?

"I think you should see an oncologist together," Dr. Dottie said a week later. She had decided we'd dig into my family history of gynecological cancers. "That feels extreme," I said. It was true that some women in my family had had breast or ovarian cancer, but I got checked regularly. "See, Chris, Caitlin is afraid she's going to die," said Dr. Dottie. What?! I thought. "This oncologist is great; he'll give you oils for your tea that prevent cancer." Are you kidding?

That night, instead of walking home with our arms around each other like usual, Chris and I kept our distance. When we finally opened our front door, I started shaking from anger. "I'm not going to her quack oncologist!" I said. Now I was crying and yelling—a low moment, since Chris and I prided ourselves on being able to talk through things rationally.

We walked on eggshells for days. Chris quietly unloaded the dishwasher. I made plans after work to minimize our time together. Dr. Dottie had told us not to talk about our relationship outside of her office; if we absolutely had to, we were to make an "appointment" with each other. I had lots to say but couldn't bring myself to ask Chris to pencil me in. I wanted to stop therapy, but he was convinced that we just needed more time with her, so I agreed to go back for the same reason I had last time, feeling more bitter with each cycle.

In what turned out to be our sixth and final session, Dr. Dottie stressed that the sooner I adopted "the skills"—which were never clearly defined, but seemed to mostly require hiding my true feelings—the sooner we wouldn't need her. "You say you want to get married," she said. "Do the skills, and you'll get married." Her cell phone rang and she answered, holding up a finger to signal, "Hold that thought." I felt the shaky rage return and grabbed my purse.

"I'm not doing this anymore," I said. And that's when I started running—first to the elevator bank, then down 12 flights of stairs. When I arrived at my friend's apartment, I texted Chris back: "Yes, I'm safe. No, I'm not ready to talk." I spent the next few hours stressing about whether I wanted to be in this relationship anymore. Would every major decision with Chris be this tortuous? I didn't have the answers, but at 2 a.m., I finally went home and crawled into bed. Chris curled his body around mine. "I love you more than anything," he whispered. "I'm so sorry." I turned to face him, tears running down my cheeks. I realized that I wasn't mad at him—Chris wanted therapy to strengthen our relationship, not to destroy it. I nodded, relieved to smell his shampoo, to feel his feet twisted up with mine. My questions dissolved. "I love you, too," I said.

The next morning, I apologized for making marriage seem so urgent. Chris said he regretted brushing me off when I told him Dr. Dottie infuriated me and promised he'd do anything to make things better be-tween us. Together, we let go of her.

Nine months later, I'm relieved that we're back to being the couple that walks down the street with our arms around each other. And it's not because Chris proposed—he hasn't—or that everything's perfect. Getting married and having a family one day is still important to me, but I also know that I want it with the right person, and that's Chris. Therapy might not have been a cakewalk to the altar, but it did show us that we're willing to work for what we want: each other.


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