“Maybe I should sleep downstairs for a while when we get home.” I heard the words I was saying, I just couldn’t believe I was saying them. We should have been hanging out by the pool like all the other couples, or talking about how much we loved each other, not doing this … not fighting.
My wife Jodi and I had traveled across the country to attend our first marriage retreat led by some of my biggest professional heroes. We had been married for 10 years, and I was five years into my career as a therapist. Of all the things I had imagined happening at the retreat, having a huge fight hadn’t been one of them.
I was actually thinking more along the lines of getting the chance to demonstrate my brilliance as a therapist while also showcasing that I had a stellar marriage — obviously immune to the problems most couples face. And yet, during a break between sessions I was volunteering to sleep in the basement.
The fact that I was electing to sleep on the old, freezing cold, two-springs-in-the-middle-of-the-mattress Murphy bed in our basement was bad enough, but why I was saying it was even worse. I was telling my wife that I should maybe sleep downstairs because I had no idea what else to say.
We had reached that point in the argument where it seemed like the only strategic thing left for me to do was to run away.
The problem was that we had been bumping into big problems and running away from them for a while, and so the number of issues was growing. What’s more, running was something I was good at and had been doing for a lot longer than I had been a therapist. And so, in that moment when I was sure there was no solution, my solution was the old bed in the basement.
My wife and I hardly talked for the rest of that break — acting instead like two people who barely knew each other. It hurt, and I knew we needed to talk, but there was another session coming up, so it was time to pull it together and pretend like nothing had happened.
As we were walking back to the retreat though, we ran into my heroes — the two guys hosting the conference — who asked how we were doing. And not in that “I don’t actually care” kind of way,” but in the “honest answers only” way that’s very hard to avoid.
So, for the first time in a long time, I told someone else the truth about how stuck we really were. I was terrified to do it, but at that moment I said it like it was and asked for help.
Why is it so hard to ask for help? I think so often when we’re struggling it can be easier to project a positive image, rather than let someone else know how things are actually going. In turn, as long as we keep those negative things mostly buttoned-up and get really good at practicing quiet resentment, it can pretty much look like you have a healthy relationship. At least from the outside. But at the end of the day, we know the truth — we just might not know how to change it.
Even though we were a few days into the conference, the day of our fight was actually the first day of the marriage retreat for us. It was after I told the truth to those men that I had looked up to for so long that my wife and I really showed up as our honest and authentic selves. We spoke vulnerably about loving each other, but also talked about having significant and recurring conflicts that we couldn’t seem to resolve.
In that space we found support and started to get the help we needed to grow. Things didn’t change immediately for us, but a seed was planted, and today everything looks completely different.
Before that marriage retreat, I wish I had known what I learned from that experience. Here are 3 major things I want to share:
If you’re stuck, you have to talk about it with someone who can and will help you get through it.
Seriously. As a practicing therapist for over a decade, this is true of every relationship I’ve seen, no matter how healthy. Sometimes normalizing the fact that relationships are tough allows us to work with our partner towards something better.
The best relationships we have are the ones that are growth-minded — where we’re committed to doing the work along the way.
I never did sleep on that Murphy bed, and I’m pretty grateful for that. Sure, there were some tears shed and many more hard conversations after that weekend, but the lesson I took home is one that no couple should be without: If you don’t ask for help, you probably won’t get it.