Mr. and Mrs. Shrink: Therapists in Relationships with Other Therapists are Maddeningly Healthy

No, How Does it Make <i>You</i> Feel?

It’s easy to imagine that therapists who marry each other have lives like those of Lilith and Frasier on Cheers. Frasier first kissed Lilith when he discovered he had a Pavlovian (and Pynchonian?) reaction to Lilith’s letting down her hair: Lilith would remove a hairpin and Frasier would succumb to lust. Episode after episode, season after season, the joke, once unleashed, never got old. From their first passionate kiss to Lilith’s marriage-ending affair with a rival psychiatrist who lived in an underground “eco-pod,” their shared profession was a primary source of gags.

“I thought you’d be exchanging psychological positions with Dr. Sternin,” says Sam when Frasier walks into Cheers for a beer after his first encounter with Lilith. Cue laugh track. “Maybe the reason he doesn’t like vegetables is because they remind him of his mother,” says Lilith, sitting at the bar. Laugh track. At one point Frasier hypnotizes Lilith to remove her severe black stilettos every time anyone says “brie cheese” and to unbutton her shirt when he says “tambourine.” And then there are the moments of passion. “Dear, you’re using sex to express your aggressions towards the confines of polite society,” says Lilith. They glare at each other. “I love that.” Passionate embrace, laugh track, etc.

So what’s it really like when therapists marry each other? Perfectly normal, or at least that’s how they present it.

“We try and steer clear of being all psychotherapeutic about everything,” said Steve, a Manhattanite who preferred not to use his last name. Steve might be an extremist in his separation of therapy and life. He says that when he gets home from work he’s so sick of it he can’t even watch television shows about therapy. He tells his clients they should avoid the Woody Allen syndrome: don’t talk about therapy outside of therapy, he advises.

“There’s a time and a place for therapy and it’s not at home,” he said. Steve and his wife actively avoid using jargon with each other and even discussing what stage their offspring might be at. If their son ever needs therapy, he said, they won’t dare try to analyze him themselves: they’ll send him to a therapist. “We can’t not know the things we’ve learned about human behavior,” he said. “But we rarely talk about it.”

Other therapists might insist their marriages are like those of less self-aware civilians, but signs to the contrary creep in. “I think sometimes people who are not in the field have this fantasy that we must diagnose each other but really our day-to-day life and our family looks so normal you wouldn’t know that we’re therapists,” said Wendy E. Miller, a psychologist who gives workshops on sustaining sexual desire at the Women’s Therapy Centre Institute. She said, however, that her marriage does benefit from a shared world view that there is a deeper meaning to the actions and decisions of others. “If he doesn’t take out the garbage,” Dr. Miller explained, “it’s not just ‘Oh, he’s lazy.’ It’s ‘What’s going on? What kind of cycle is he going through?’ But sometimes I just say, ‘Take out the garbage.’” (We did notice that therapist couples referred to what civilians might call “being annoying,” “miserable arguments” or “days-long nightmares of crippling emotional drama” as “cycles.”)

Most of those interviewed agreed that being a therapist is generally a good thing for marriages: to be a therapist, one must go through a fair amount of therapy oneself, after all—years of it—which ideally would make husbands and wives who come into a marriage already aware of their personal shortcomings and prejudices. There is a drawback from having been through so much therapy, however: it’s really easy to recognize when one’s spouse is switching into work mode.

“The therapist listens to you and then often tells you what he thinks you’re saying behind what you think you’re saying, but you don’t want that in a boyfriend or girlfriend,” said Steve. “If you tell me that you don’t want to do something, and if I were to say, ‘You don’t really mean that,’ then you’d be like, ‘Shut the fuck up.’”

Another therapist, who asked to remain anonymous, said that sometimes her husband suggests she’s reacting to him the way she does to her mother. “Then I say, ‘Stop being a therapist with me,’” she said.

But even worse is the prospect of fake empathy. “Couples always have to be empathic to a certain extent but there’s a way that therapists do it that’s slightly different,” the anonymous therapist noted. “I guess I experience this more on the receiving end than the giving end, but sometimes my husband will switch in an argument and be supportive and empathic.” She called it “disingenuous.”

“My wife would never say that,” insisted Steve. In fact, he said, she would probably say the opposite. He then lamented therapists who “have a fake calmness or neutrality about them all the time.”

Other difficulties faced by therapist couples include both having to work evening hours to accommodate clients’ schedules and not feeling particularly motivated to listen to one’s spouse talk about his or her emotional travails after having listened to other people talk about their problems all day. “There is an occupational hazard of spending the whole day listening attentively and not really wanting to listen to your husband when you get home,” said Dr. Miller.

All the therapists we interviewed said that couples therapy was the unexpected source of much introspection about their own marriages. Pointing out to other couples the ways in which their marriages have broken down can occasionally lead to physician-heal-thyself moments. “I’ll be aware of a client always leading with a negative with her husband,” said one therapist. “And I’m thinking, ‘I do that too.’”

“Every time I work with couples I do get the feeling that I’m being taught lessons,” said Steve. “When I hear people start arguing in a really unproductive way, I always feel like I’m learning or relearning ‘Oh, you really don’t want to say that to your wife.’ Or, ‘What a reminder that I should be more kind, and don’t be sarcastic!” He said doing couples therapy really makes him aware that “you have a choice to be a jerk or not.”

One couple, Mary and Parker Stacy, not only are married therapists but they practice Emotionally Focused couples therapy together as a unit in Connecticut. They started working together about 10 years ago, when Ms. Stacy was having difficulty resolving the problems of a couple and invited her husband to participate in a session. The Stacys have developed a system of cues to allow for interruption and feedback from each other within the session, and they say their clients like having both the male and female perspective available to them. “We try to model what it looks like to have a healthy giving relationship,” said Ms. Stacy. The couple even gives presentations where they model a couple that’s “in a cycle” versus a couple that is instead communicating with what Ms. Stacy called “primary feelings”—“Where I come from an ‘I’ place instead of a ‘you’ place,” she explained.

When the two married, Mr. Stacy was not a therapist but was working in business. He said that switching careers affected their marriage only in positive ways. “We have become much more aware of what our arguments are really about,” he said, adding that even the happiest couples (he described his wife as his “soulmate”) have “cycles.” “Most people argue about money, kids, the in-laws, those kinds of things, but underneath they’re really arguing for more closeness or the failure of feeling safety with each other. So for us, we get very quickly to what’s underneath the argument.”

But, as Dr. Miller pointed out, just because one is aware of problems does not mean that awareness always translates into action. “I feel like I can sometimes be smarter in the consulting room than in the relationship,” she said. “I can sound wiser talking to couples.”

ewitt@observer.com

  Mr. and Mrs. Shrink: Therapists in Relationships with Other Therapists are Maddeningly Healthy