A Couple's Therapist Shares How Even She Was Sabotaging Her Relationship

Learn the trick that turned things around for her. (Photo: Shutterstock)

I’d been a successful couple’s therapist for about four years when mutual friends introduced me and Alexander while we were on vacation in New York’s Fire Island. There was beer pong involved, and he was so sarcastic and funny. We have the exact same sense of humor and always get each other’s crass jokes. Even giving him a certain look could make him laugh. And we had this incredible attraction to each other from the beginning. Actually, we used to call each other “magnet” because we felt so drawn to one another.

He took me out about two or three weeks after we first met, and we dated for three or four months before becoming exclusive. We loved doing new things together and tried everything from fencing to archery to cooking classes to paintballing. After about six months, though, we started to have communication problems. I want to talk about everything and anything because it makes me feel connected (yes, it’s the therapist in me—although I’ve found many women feel similarly). But if something was upsetting me or bothering me, Alexander would pull away—even if the issue wasn’t about him. I wanted so badly to communicate openly, but that only made him crave distance and withdraw more.

I would talk about how important it was that we work through things (duh—I’m a therapist), but he interpreted that as nagging and criticizing.

RELATED: What Going to Couple’s Therapy Is Really Like

As we started to get more serious as a couple, I would try to exert control over the situation—only to have Alexander clam up in response. For instance, I would invite him out with my friends and then ask to meet his buddies, but that was really tough because it felt like too much to him—so he would get nervous and pull back. Other times, little things would bother me. When he started staying over a lot, he wouldn’t pick up his stuff or help out with chores. But whenever I tried to point out what he was or wasn’t doing, he would shut down.

In an effort to maintain some of the power I so desperately craved in our relationship, I would play the game of withholding from him. I’d go out with my friends instead of hanging out with him, hoping that he would miss me and pursue me more…even though that usually just backfired. It created a dynamic in our relationship that was very much focused on him, and I wasn’t doing anything for me. At the same time, I was only looking at the relationship in terms of my needs. I wasn’t considering what Alexander wanted or needed, and I had no idea how my actions were affecting him.

At one point, we were in a really bad place, so we made a plan to talk about how frustrated we were and where we were going as a couple. He cancelled on me, so I ended things right then. That was a year into our relationship, and we stayed separated for an entire year. During that time, we occasionally got together to talk about other things in our lives because we missed each other. We were trying to figure out how to manage our undeniable connection with the fact that our communication styles were so different.

Then, one day, we started talking about what happened to us. I will never forget the words he said to me: “You are more controlling than you realize.” I couldn’t believe it. My approach was always intended to make me come off as vulnerable and open and kind, but it clearly didn’t seem that way to him.

Each time he acted differently than I’d hoped he would, I became anxious. I would then nag him to make changes. My energy in the relationship was focused on him and all the things he was or wasn’t doing. While he definitely needed to work on his communication, it wasn’t my job to “fix” him. I needed to work on fixing myself and the anxiety that our dynamic was triggering inside me.

RELATED: When the Silent Treatment Can Actually Work in Your Favor

After that year apart, we decided to get back together and to go to couple’s therapy. I suggested it because I needed to step out of my role as therapist and into that of partner.

I remember the therapist asking me to list the ways that I tried to connect with Alexander. I talked about trying to engage him in conversation about my day, ask him about his day, schedule regular dinners together, that kind of stuff. We soon realized that appealed to me—but not necessarily to him. So instead of just asking him to spend more time with me, I started focusing more on things that he enjoyed and much less on what I wanted him to do for me. I would ask him about hockey or take him on a spontaneous date rather than get upset if he didn’t plan anything.

We also decided not to talk about things when we were in a heated place. Instead, we made a habit of checking in and addressing things as they came up and not waiting until one of us had become frustrated. We would have regular conversations about anything that was bothering one of us—from who was walking the dog or doing the cooking to how much time we were spending together. Through these conversations, we also developed some “couple habits” that we thought were good for our relationship, like kissing each other whenever we leave or enter the house, eating dinner together most nights (without cell phones to distract us), going on a date every weekend, and telling each other how much we love, appreciate, and admire the other on a daily basis. It felt very black and white, and I worried it took the romance out of the relationship, but that’s how Alexander’s mind works best—and it didn’t end up bothering me as much as I’d thought it would.

A huge hurdle was managing my anxiety whenever I wanted to talk when he didn’t. I started engaging in some of my own hobbies, like writing and seeing friends. I refocused my energy so that instead of harping on how he had to change I started spending more time on managing my own life. At the same time, Alexander worked on taking more time to listen to me without becoming defensive, while sharing more of his thoughts and feelings with me.

It completely changed our entire dynamic. We concentrated less on what the other person was “doing wrong” and more on how we were contributing to the issue.

RELATED: Do These 9 Things And You’ll Never Need Couple’s Therapy

So where do we stand now? When I’m upset or frustrated, the first thing I do is take care of me. Instead of overanalyzing things or going into attack mode, I focus on myself. Sometimes, I write down everything I feel just to get it out. Or I let myself feel sad and cry. I also rely on baths, yoga, meditation, going to the gym, and talking to my sisters or my friends. The second thing I do is communicate with Alexander and make a point of listening to what he says in response. And whenever one of us slips up, we forgive each other and move past it.

Now, our relationship is the one I always dreamed of: Alexander and I have been living together for the past two years, and we’re engaged (we’re going to get married in Puerto Rico in February!).

Our relationship isn’t perfect, and the work in our relationship isn’t over—but I don’t believe it ever is.

More from Women’s Health:

The Top Pieces of Advice Couples Therapists Tell Their Clients

Are You Addicted to Relationship Drama?

Is Having Off Days in Your Relationship Normal?

By Tory L. Eletto as told to Whitney C. Harris