“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.