"We Became Parents and Fell Out of Love"
The Counselor's Turn
Trevor and Alison first came in right after Yvette died, wanting grief counseling for Donovan and parenting support for themselves. Though they weren't married yet, they were clearly in love. But from the day they arrived in my office with Donovan, you could see the distance growing between them. Their relationship was so accelerated. The subject of having kids together had barely come up and suddenly they had one, with all the responsibilities that that entails. Soon they were talking to me about how to save their relationship.
Of course, Trevor's grief was a big underlying issue, but the process is different for everyone and it's important to allow people to cope with loss in their own way. Trevor is intensely private. He simply wasn't ready to talk about it. So we agreed to give him time and space not to discuss his feelings, both in our meetings and at home. He did need to become more engaged both as a partner and a parent, however. When Alison said this, Trevor tuned it out. But since I was a neutral third party, Trevor was able to listen. We addressed this issue by focusing on their day-to-day communication and on the practical details of their relationship rather than pushing Trevor to share deeper feelings when he just wasn't ready.
Alison and Trevor's biggest problem was one most couples face -- communication breakdown. Because the importance of communicating is such a well-known issue, most couples are talking and they think they're communicating -- but they're not really hearing what the other is saying. This was definitely the case with these two, who have very different ways of problem solving and coping. Trevor's a manager, used to spreadsheets and deadlines. Alison's more emotional. She wanted help around the house, and he was willing, but he wanted her to make him a list. But that didn't satisfy a big part of what she was looking for: recognition. They were at a standoff, with Trevor saying, "She won't tell me what she wants," and Alison saying, "He won't do anything."
What they were fighting about practically -- getting the chores done -- was different from what they were fighting about emotionally, which was about feeling loved and appreciated. When Trevor didn't help out, Alison thought he must not care. And when Alison wouldn't tell him what she wanted or criticized the way he did things, Trevor felt like he couldn't do anything right. Hurt and anger built up till they stopped feeling close both physically and emotionally.
I helped them move past the specific conflict to the feelings, like insecurity, that lay behind it. Was Alison really that upset about how the laundry was being done, or was she feeling hurt and lashing out because Trevor wasn't confiding in her the way he did with Yvette? At the same time, we tackled central areas of conflict, like housework and caring for Donovan, by getting specific with tasks and to-dos. Together we worked to get everyone's expectations out in the open and come to an agreement on what needed doing, how it needed to be done and who needed to do it. Once they both agreed to the details, Alison made Trevor a written guide to use when he took care of Donovan. That way, she could be confident Trevor would stick to Donovan's usual meal and sleep routines -- which cut down on behavior problems -- and Trevor could have a clear way to show Alison that he was helping and did care.
Trevor and I eventually met a few times to discuss how he was coping with Yvette's death, but that was because he was finally ready to talk and wanted to share memories and thoughts. By then there was light at the end of the tunnel for him and Alison.
Though there were times they were both ready to give up, Alison and Trevor stayed together: They got married, adopted Donovan, bought a house and had a baby girl last winter. It wasn't always magical; sometimes the marriage felt more like a business partnership. They tied the knot in part because Alison is from Australia and couldn't legally stay in the United States and care for Donovan otherwise. But she believes that once you're married, you stay married. And despite their troubles, Trevor knows what an exceptional partner Alison is.
Things gradually got better for them. Trevor came out of his grief and can laugh again. He helps with chores and Alison says she's less neurotic about them. She now calls him a great dad and feels that after all the struggle he's finally back to being the guy she fell in love with.
Despite thinking they'd lost the spark forever, Alison and Trevor stuck with couples counseling -- for a year, initially, then for another few months when they struggled again. Too many couples use therapy as something they check off their list so they can say, "We tried." But that's not really trying. Alison and Trevor gave it their best, and they didn't quit during the times they felt therapy wasn't helping. They went through very dark times and came out more committed to each other. As Trevor puts it, "I've got a partner who had my back when I really needed it, and I want to make sure she's happy."
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, October 2011.