"She Smokes Pot Every Day But Won't Admit It's a Problem"
The Counselor's TurnThe Counselor
Teri and Sean were both ready to call it quits when they initially met with me. Yet despite his frustrations, Sean loved Teri and was afraid of losing her. Teri felt the same way, though she badly wanted renewed passion in their marriage and the sex life they'd never had. She understood getting high wasn't helping with that.
Indeed, Teri's substance abuse wasn't responsible for all of her and Sean's troubles, but addressing it was essential for their relationship and, quite possibly, her survival. Teri's declining health was typical of an addict: Substance abusers are notoriously bad about taking care of themselves. It's a kind of slow suicide. At the same time, I knew Teri's success at overcoming her addiction depended on whether she could address a number of other issues, including her relationship with Sean.
Teri talked nonstop during our early sessions; Sean, almost never. Frustrated with his inability to speak his mind, Teri was prone to verbal tirades. Sean would try to placate her or, more often than not, he would simply stop talking.
Job one for the couple was improving communication. Sean had to learn how to talk about his feelings and Teri needed to learn how to listen. I showed them an exercise that allowed each of them equal time to talk and listen. I also coached them on the technique of sticking to their own feelings when discussing a conflict -- "when you do x, I feel y" -- rather than blaming the other. And after the first few sessions, I consulted with Teri's primary care physician about medication. He prescribed an antidepressant, which helped her gain a bit more control over her emotions.
The couple's communication got a lot better. Sean talked about things he'd never been able to, like how Teri's cutting words made him feel emasculated. Teri began seeing Sean in a new light and felt better understood by him. Being able to talk through conflicts without worrying that the other person would retreat into silence or fly off the handle was a huge step.
Next, we tackled Teri and Sean's sexual problems. They were deeply entrenched, and complicated by Teri's history of sexual abuse. It's common for survivors to be incapable of intimacy with their life partners. And it was no accident that Teri married a kind man who wouldn't fight back or injure her, even though this passivity ended up being a source of frustration to her.
Meanwhile, Sean felt rejected by Teri early on, then, later, her constant criticism ate away at his self-esteem. Since their problems were so long-standing, we agreed that they would try sex therapy. The term makes some clients nervous, but it simply means undergoing talk therapy with someone specially trained to help with sexual problems.
In the meantime, we explored their marriage goals and worked on constructive ways to deal with the sore spots. For example, to break the negative cycle surrounding Sean's attempts to get Teri to eat, I asked them to plan one meal at a time, working together on the menu. Sean agreed to prepare meals, then simply leave them in the fridge without nagging Teri, who agreed to eat -- on her own schedule.
I also helped them understand addiction and its causes. Sean, as a hurt and angry spouse, needed to see that substance abuse isn't about being weak. We made a detailed history of Teri's addiction and looked at how her dysfunctional family and the sexual abuse she suffered as a child contributed to it.
Teri definitely needed to take her substance-abuse problem seriously, and I encouraged her to attend a 12-step program, reassuring her that the meetings were confidential. When she still worried about public exposure and losing her position in the community, I gave her a web link to anonymous online meetings. So far she's refused my efforts.
To Teri's credit, however, she's cut back greatly on smoking marijuana, stopping completely for long stretches. "I hope I get to where I never feel I need pot again," she says. "I'd much rather find satisfaction with Sean." And she and Sean are indeed doing much better. He's made huge strides in communicating. "Getting professional help made all the difference," he says. "It's helped me step up, rather than clam up or walk away, when Teri needs me to be present." Though they've yet to achieve all their relationship goals, after years of physical and emotional estrangement, Teri and Sean are cuddling again and making plans to pursue sex therapy.
Can This Marriage Be Saved? is the most enduring women's magazine feature in the world. The story told here is true, although names and other identifying information have been changed to conceal identities.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, April 2012.