Why I Had a Special Dance for My Therapist at My Wedding

bride and groom dancing at their wedding reception

“I want to get married,” I said in the first five minutes of my initial session. I had nothing to lose. If this therapist—my fourth—couldn’t help me, I’d decided that no one else could.

“What else?” he asked, his palms open to me, a gesture that seemed so optimistic it bordered on cocky. He acted as if I’d asked for no more than a turkey sandwich on rye. Easy peasy.

What else? I was ashamed to admit that was it. There was no laundry list of therapeutic goals. Mine was a one-item bucket list. A healthy romantic relationship was the one thing I hadn’t been able to achieve on my own—not even close. If he could help me get there, I’d be satisfied.

He asked again, and I tried to explain how dire my case was. I believed it would be easier to grow wings and fly to Saturn than to have a healthy relationship. He didn’t blink or furrow his brow at the magnitude of the task I’d laid before him.

“We can do that,” he said.

what no one else had said

No one had promised me that. The social worker I saw through my law school made hokey promises that I could learn to love myself. The EAP counselor I saw eight times through work wanted me to develop “healthy living strategies.” How could this impish man make such an audacious promise?

I almost didn’t go back. The terror that I was going to continue to falter romantically, and thus make him both a failure and a liar, kept me from calling back for two weeks. If I returned for treatment, our fates would be yoked together. The only outcome I could imagine was spectacular and humiliating defeat. For both of us.

This was the summer after my first year of law school. I’d become scary depressed after a breakup. I was ranked first in my class but feared that all I would ever have was a crushing legal job and an abysmal personal life. A friend suggested her therapist, he of the hairy arms. Off-handedly, she mentioned, “He seems really happy these days. He just got married.”

That’s why I picked him. If this doctor was happily married, my sole criteria for a therapist, then maybe he could help me—chronically single me—find my way to a marriage.

I made the second appointment. By the end of my third, he asked me to commit to treatment by coming at the same time each week. Desperate, I agreed. In each session, I tested him. Did he still think I could get married one day?

The answer was always a variation of “Yes, if you’re willing to work on our relationship.” I agreed, not entirely sure what he meant.

Years went by. I dated. I had a few relationships, but nothing serious. I fell in love, and then dragged my battered heart to his office when I got a speech about how I wasn’t “the one.”

My therapist still believed.

i did everything that i was “supposed” to do

Time marched on, and I did all the things you’re supposed to do in therapy: looked at my emotional blocks to intimacy, became more honest in my relationships, and upped my self-care. Most importantly, I accepted the premise that working on my relationship with my therapist was the key to finding the relationship I wanted out in the world.

My therapist was the first man to whom I ever expressed anger. Upset about something he said in a session, I left him a voicemail telling him exactly where he could go (hell). I ranted until his voicemail cut me off—until it was too late to erase the message and say something less primal or profane.

In the next session, he alluded to my message. His face beamed with pride. “Why are you glowing?” I asked, confused and petulant. “I’m celebrating your anger,” he said. Where I’d expected a reprimand, he’d lauded me for expressing myself, however messy and vulgar.

I had no idea that was a turning point. The next boyfriend who came along wasn’t “the one,” but I was different—direct, honest, emotionally vulnerable. And open to expressing anger. That relationship fizzled, but the next one that came along was the one I’d been searching (but not yet ready) for all along. By then, I’d been in treatment six years.

the image of my therapist

Now, at last, the path before me led to the altar. I couldn’t imagine having a wedding that didn’t include my therapist. I’d sooner forego cake or music. It never occurred to me that he would decline the invitation. He didn’t.

Once my therapist agreed to attend my wedding, I upped the ante. “I want to dance with you.” A dance would be a fitting way to honor our work together and pay tribute to the relationship that made marriage possible for me.

We negotiated our dance over several sessions.

My therapist was worried about stepping on my father’s toes. I wasn’t concerned about spotlight-stealing because I planned to do a traditional dance to honor my relationship with my father at the beginning of the reception. The therapist-bride dance would be slipped in once the party was well underway. Plus, with two hundred guests and an open bar, I didn’t think our dance would draw much attention. I assured him I’d thought this through.

I’m not the first person to report that her wedding day went by in a blur. One minute I was touching up my lipstick in a cramped antechamber with my six bridesmaids, the next my husband was stomping on a glass to a chorus of “mazel tov.” We were officially married.

Then there was dancing. Lots of dancing.

celebrating a victory

A few hours into the reception, I signaled the band and waved my therapist over. Before the first notes were struck, friends and family surrounded us.

“And now the bride will dance with her father!” The leader announced, not once, but three times. That was not in the plan. All of the guests inched away from us until there was no one on the dance floor except me and my therapist.

I panicked. Was my father wondering what was going on? I craned my neck to see if he was reacting, but the music started before I could spot him.

My therapist twirled me around, and still I fretted. Wasn’t everyone wondering who the hell this man was? I’d sworn I was prepared for this, but now I balked at the peculiarity of the situation.

“I feel like I did something wrong,” I said. “Like what?” he asked, not unlike an exchange from a session. “Well…” my voice trailed off. The band rolled into the chorus. In a few minutes, this dance would be over. Was I going to squander my chance to honor this relationship and all the work I had done?

By the final chorus, I blocked out the quizzical stares of my guests. I danced with gratitude. He’d kept his promise, or was it me that had kept a promise to myself? Regardless, together we celebrated the victory.

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  • This is so good! I also went to therapy when my “I’m going to be an old maid!” fears got the best of me, and I learned so much about myself. I got better and did the work that I needed to do to be a better partner and it happened right before I met my husband. I wonder if we’d be married today if I hadn’t gone to therapy.

  • Elise

    This is beautiful. I’m in school to become a couple and family therapist and this is so encouraging. Thank you for sharing!

  • Kate

    Hmm. I have mixed feelings about this piece. I’m happy for the author but having a special therapist wedding dance seems to really toe some patient/professional boundaries. I also am not digging treating getting married as a finish line. A milestone maybe, but the real “victory” was probably when the author believed herself deserving of love and a commitment like marriage.

    • Janet Hélène

      I totally agree. The success story of therapy and the writer having a positive connection and experience (both with her therapist, and her wedding) is amazing, but as a mental health worker this makes me wonder all sorts of things about the professional boundaries of her therapist.

      • AmandaBee

        Yeah, it appears to have worked out solidly for the writer, but I also felt pretty squicky about the bending of professional boundaries here.

      • surlyrat

        Completely agree.

    • Her Lindsayship

      I’m with you, it makes me a little uncomfortable. I also don’t really enjoy the narrative that single women probably have something wrong with them that needs fixing, THEN they will deserve love and happiness. I realize the author didn’t try to generalize this but just made it about her own journey, but still idk. Props for doing the work to make your relationships better, and props for learning to express yourself more. But finding someone to spend your life with? There’s a lot of luck involved there, regardless of how much work either party needed to do on themselves beforehand.

      • But finding someone to spend your life with? There’s a lot of luck involved there, regardless of how much work either party needed to do on themselves beforehand.

        i think that’s true, but without the work you may not recognise when you have met someone you could spend your life with. I met the love of my life years before I started therapy, and asked him out shortly after I stopped seeing my therapist (unrelated therapy, but it turns out everything inside my head is connected! Who’da thunk it?). Pre-therapy me didn’t notice that we had chemistry – sure, he was nice and clever and interesting and attractive and literally every single other employee had been shipping us for years – but I couldn’t see what was right in front of my eyes because I wasn’t ready to.

    • Violet

      I think believing yourself deserving of love is a separate thing from actually being in a fulfilling marriage. And I think it’s fair for people to have unlocked the feeling of deserving love, but still want that fulfilling relationship. Many people want the relationship specifically, and if you don’t have it, you’re allowed to want it and have that be your goal.
      I do agree with you about the professional ethics issue. This is pretty outside the norm for a therapist in my region. A “life coach,” maybe, fine, but licensed professionals have codes of conduct/ethics to adhere to, and this seems pretty out of bounds of any I’ve seen. Usually this would fall under avoiding “dual relationships” (ie, therapist and friend are two different relationships).

      • Anon

        Technically, dual relationships aren’t strictly banned but should be avoided. But it’s not completely precluded; a social relationship can be entered into with thorough consultation and a credible decision-making process, as well as informed consent and documentation. For all we know, the author and her therapist went through this process specifically for her wedding.

        • Violet

          Yep, I used “avoided;” they’re not always prohibited.

    • K.

      Yup, I feel like a total Debbie Downer but I wonder why it appears the therapist’s first instinct about the dance was primarily logistics and not a discussion about why the author wanted a dance, which is a fairly intimate expression of [insert fairly intimate emotion] and the implications of that, versus a more private means of expressing gratitude for their sessions.

      I mean, my therapist wouldn’t even hug me because it was crossing a boundary! And from what I understand, that’s fairly common. This feels like a blend of personal and professional that most therapists I’ve worked with and know personally would be very uncomfortable with, regardless of how long they’ve worked with their patient (and regardless of how genuinely fond of their patient they are).

      I wouldn’t go as far as to say that it squicked me out since we still have very little information, but it certainly made me pause.

    • Amy March

      I dunno, can’t we trust that her therapist is professional and not second guess something she is presenting as unequivocally awesome?

      And don’t we get to set our own goals in life? Like, I well and truly believe I am deserving of love and marriage but they haven’t happened, that belief doesn’t keep me warm at night, and marriage is still my goal.

      • Melissa

        Part of being a professional therapist is maintaining appropriate boundaries, e.g., not having dual relationships. You should not be “friends” with a patient, should not see patients socially outside of therapy, etc. It’s unethical and can be harmful for the therapeutic relationship in some cases. A professional and ethical therapist should be aware of that. As a mental health professional, I found this to be super concerning.

      • K.

        You know what? You’re right. It’s kinder to give the authors the benefit of the doubt, especially since they’re putting themselves out there in sharing their story to begin with. Not that criticism should be verboten in online spaces, but for this particular story, it comes down to the fact that the author doesn’t owe us the full nitty-gritty explanation of how/if/when she and her therapist sorted everything out–it wasn’t the point she was trying to make. Remember the human and all that. Mea culpa.

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      • I agree — Especially on the goals point. I honestly think it’s perpetuating the devaluation of Big Life Things when they fall into what society codes as the woman’s sphere. Would there be the same push-back if I talked about how I went to therapy with the goal of working through shiz because I wanted to own my own business?

        Obviously there is also the social narrative that marriage is the ultimate and only “prize” for women… But as toxic as that message is, I don’t think that it’s existence means that marriage is off-limits as a totally valid (not to mention common, for both genders) goal.

      • Oy Vey

        Yeah! I loved this article, in part because I currently can’t afford therapy and have had some of the same issues as the writer – especially the part about being afraid to get mad at a partner.

        I know I need to get to a place of being okay with that and seeing that she was able to do it makes me feel really hopeful

      • surlyrat

        No, we can’t trust that because as people have pointed out below, those of us who work in mental health (in various capacities) see all sorts of professional and boundary stomping red flags. I don’t think you are in a position to police people’s responses. I also had an extremely visceral reaction to the treatment of marriage as the end goal, and would be pretty skeptical of a therapist that endorsed that as legitimate.

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  • Leah

    I’m another one who went to therapy for similar reasons. Only I didn’t realize it until my therapist said, “I don’t think you just want to be able to date, I think you want to love and be loved”. Oof. Five years of therapy later I’m quite sure I wouldn’t have had a better job, owned a home, or a happy stable relationship that led to marriage without my therapist.

    She was right. Even when I couldn’t see it myself, I went to therapy so I could remove the barriers to love – for myself and from others. The Point wasn’t marriage, but it sure was part of the happy result.

  • Amy March

    Loved this piece! So interesting to read about how you tackled what can be a really hard problem, and such a sweet ending.

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  • Katrin

    I am a therapist myself and wow does this piece make me feel uncomfortable. Therapy is a relationship between a professional and his/her patient, a relationship that is limited to the setting of therapy sessions.
    Never ever would I entertain the thought of attending a patient’s wedding. The very idea would lead to a discussion about boundaries and the fact that I am not family, but a paid helper who works with someone for a limited time.
    I am happy for the author’s progress, but the therapist’s behaviour seems really out of line and unprofessional. He took money to plan his dance with his client over several sessions? Was he paid for his time at the wedding? *shakes head*

    • quiet000001

      I can see how, as a patient, I might send an invite to my therapist – along with a nice note saying something along the lines of “I don’t expect you to attend, but I wanted you to see how far I’ve come and express my thanks for all your help.” (I’d have to think about how to word it, and that assumes I wasn’t still seeing the therapist – if I was still seeing the person even occasionally, I’d just take an invitation with me to show them in the session.)

      I mean, you’re a paid helper but at the same time I imagine it’s rewarding to see when patients actually do accomplish things that would’ve seemed impossible at the start of therapy, so sharing something like an invitation would be something in that vein – look, I did it! (A non-wedding example might be right now I have some serious anxiety about getting another dog after dealing with my previous dog having cancer, so if I went to a therapist to work through that, I’d totally send a puppy photo if/when I ended up feeling able to get a new dog.)

      Like I said, though, I wouldn’t expect attendance or really mean it as an official invitation as such. (I suppose I wouldn’t say no if the therapist decided they wanted to attend, but it’d seem weird to me based on my own experiences.)

  • Hope

    I loved this. As a therapist myself, and also someone who was only able to take the plunge to marriage after a couple years of therapy. Unlike most below, this doesn’t sound concerning to me ethically. Would I be uncomfortable in the situation if I was the therapist? Yes, but I have no doubt that someone more experienced than me could navigate it just fine. It sounds like staying out of the gray zone would be more potentially harmful to the writer–denying this clearly very important symbolic moment to celebrate and recognize all the work she’d done and where it got her–than the discomfort of doing a lot of talking to establish and mutual understanding and plan for the moment.