Erin and I spent this past weekend up near Ann Arbor, Michigan, for a couples workshop with Carole Kirby.

Now, you may be thinking about the same thing I would have six or eight months ago. We’ve only been together for 14 months, and we aren’t getting married until next September - how could we possibly need therapy already? But it’s not therapy, really - I think ‘counseling’ is a better word for it.

First, let me explain how we wound up there. Like I said, earlier this year I would have been suspicious of the idea, and I can’t really remember now, but I probably was when Erin first told me about it. Her parents did the same workshop with Carole last year and found it incredibly helpful (which is part of the reason we went up to Ann Arbor for it instead of finding something similar locally), and sent us to it as a pre-wedding gift, of sorts. Hearing a little bit about their experience with it helped convince me that it would be good for us, and we both read the book, Getting the Love You Want, on which the workshop is based. The other thing that only a few people know is that Erin and I were fighting pretty frequently around that time - about four to six months ago - and I thought that, if nothing else, it would help “fix” us. Thankfully, we did a pretty good job of fixing ourselves, and went into the weekend at a really good place in our relationship.

The central theme of Getting the Love You Want is your imago: we are attracted to partners who reflect both the good and bad traits of our primary caretakers in childhood. Our caretakers unwittingly wound and hurt us in childhood, and in some way, we seek to rectify those hurts by finding a partner with those similar traits to fill that role.

At first, it sounds a little bit like touchie-feelie psychobabble, I know, but after reading the book, mulling it over a bit, and doing some of the exercises during the workshop, it makes a lot of sense. Obviously, no one is out actively seeking a partner that reflects the unpleasant parts of their parents, older siblings, or grandparents, but it happens anyway - some part of us finds comfort in the familiar, if nothing else.

The exercises in Imago Therapy generally focus on identifying some frustration or conflict in the relationship and the childhood wound that makes it a conflict. For example, as a child, maybe you felt that your opinion was never solicited, or your father never gave his approval for anything you did, or an older sibling’s achievements were more celebrated than your own. These things don’t just go away, and it would be real easy for your partner to inadvertently re-open any these wounds - by not asking your opinion, by never taking the time to appreciate what you do, by never celebrating your successes. To one partner, it may not seem like a big deal, but to the other, it’s been a source of pain for their entire life.

I don’t want to get into any specifics about our relationship, but Erin and I both found a lot of this to be true throughout the weekend. Some of the exercises are geared toward identifying the positive and negative traits of your childhood caretakers, and others are to help identify the childhood source of current pain and frustration. We both found a lot of ways that we reflect each other’s parents - in both good and not-so-great ways - and when we stopped to think about it, had little trouble identifying very particular reasons that something that might not seem like a big deal to one of us really was to the other. Again, I don’t want to get into the particulars, but trust me on this.

There were seven other couples in the workshop with us, and I think we learned almost as much from them as we did from the workshop itself. We were definitely the youngest couple, and had been in the relationship the shortest. I think everyone else fell in the 35 to 50 range, give or take. Some had been together for only two or three years, but some of the couples had been married for 10 or 15 years, and were there trying to work through years of conflict and baggage. A relationship as young as ours may not need outside help yet, but meeting those other couples made a huge impact on us both. They were obviously all very in love, but had spent years hurting each other and had that much more to work through because of it. We were able to go and learn a lot of healthy ways to deal with conflict before getting married, and before spending years doing damage to one another.

Erin likes to point out that a lot of people - generally the religious right - want to make it harder to get a divorce, but no one questions how easy it is to get married. I mean, I’ve only recently started learning how many couples begin marriage without even hammering down some of the basics - things like, are we going to have kids? Where are we going to live? I have no idea how you could make it all the way to a marriage license without figuring that stuff out, but a lot of people do, so it shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone that half of all marriages end in divorce. I really think that everyone should do something like this before they get married. And I’m not just drinking the Kool-Aid here: I’m not saying it should be legally mandated, and I’m certainly not saying that divorce will ever be non-existent. But, it seems like common sense that a little preparation up front can go a long way to maintain a stable marriage.

I really couldn’t be more thankful that we were able to do this workshop. I have a much deeper appreciation for Erin and the happiness she brings me, and I feel like it helped make me much more aware of her needs, her desires, and her hurts. A lot of the problems we used to have boiled down to my own ignorance and arrogance - I would see something as trivial and dismiss the fact that it was a big deal to her. I know I still have improvements to make, but I feel that this weekend was a huge help in that area.

On top of that is the fringe benefits. I have been in such a good mood this week. I’ve been furiously jotting down ideas and notes all week - it’s like I cracked a door this weekend and found a room I didn’t know about. Some part of me opened up and I got past some kind of bottleneck that had been holding me up and stressing me out for weeks before this.

Doing the exercises this weekend also gave me a much deeper appreciation for my parents. One of the first things we did on Friday night was identify positive and negative traits of our parents and specific memories that were positive and negative. I came up with all sorts of good things to say about them, and thought of all sorts of happy memories that I hadn’t thought about in years - and now I can’t seem to remember why I was so miserable as a teenager. My parents have always been loving and supportive of everything I’ve done, even when they don’t necessarily like it (like when I moved 9 hours away from home). All things considered, my childhood was pretty swell, but all I can remember from my teenage years is wanting to get out of that town. I don’t know why I ever implicated them in that - my desire to cut and run had nothing to do with my family.

Anyway. I think that’s about everything. I was going to spend a few minutes collecting my thoughts on the weekend before I started, to make sure I didn’t forget anything, but then I just got going and couldn’t stop. Here’s the short version:

  • Read the book. Doesn’t really matter if you’re in a relationship - it’ll do you some good in later ones, if you’re not.
  • “Therapy” or “counseling” doesn’t necessarily mean trouble or mental illness. Any doctor or mechanic can tell you that preventative maintenance is a lot easier than trying to fix it after the fact - why would relationships be any different?
  • I love Erin. Like, a whole lot, and I’m going to marry the shit out of her.