chapter break

While it has been fairly public knowledge for some time now, tomorrow marks the first practical page turn to start a new chapter in my life. In less than 24 hours now, I will officially begin a Master’s degree in Marriage and Family Therapy. While the application and acceptance process happened quite quickly, this trajectory has traced its path through the entirety of my life.

It started with a semester of engineering.

A single semester of engineering. The first semester of engineering isn’t overly academically taxing, but I knew – quickly – that my design was better suited elsewhere. I settled on a psychology degree because I “wanted to help people.”

Of course as a fairly conservative and sufficiently sheltered child, I didn’t exactly know what I wanted to help people with. I didn’t really have an awareness of what their problems could even be. Yet, it was a start – a significant start – that was an early and rare step in the right direction.

Whenever I’ve told this story to my friends, I’ve had to fight the temptation to start this next section as follows: “During the next eight or ten years, my religiosity and my church hijacked my progress.” The problem with this, of course, is that it ascribes far too much blame to impersonal concepts and far too little blame on myself. To be completely fair, I can look back on all of my time from my undergraduate degree until now with a great appreciation of what I’ve learned, what I’ve done, and how all of it has contributed to the person I have become. The therapy, the panic attacks, the religious confusion (and rebellion and revised thinking), the wandering through the wilderness, all contributed to the farily sound human being that I am today. Suffice it to say, the last eight or ten years have presented plenty of opportunities for growth – often uninvited opportunities for growth. It is overwhelming not to place blame where blame isn’t entirely due.

And so we come to today – the eve of my first graduate-level class in marriage and family therapy.

Here, it’s important to clear up a few common misconceptions. Primarily, I’m never expecting to be a pure marriage counselor. Marriage and family therapy is a farily diverse subject area that absolutely acknowledges the role of marriage and relationship in people’s lives. However, it is much more. Marriage and Family Therapists life and the problems that sometimes arise throught the lens of family systems and are fairly well-versed in a wide-range of other theoretical approaches as well. MFTs are equally adept at approaching personal, individual issues through this paradigm, as they are with wider family issues.

So, please don’t ever call me a marriage counselor!! (I actually won’t mind that much if you do, but know that there’s a lot more going on too).

the imperfect marriage

Time for some personal observations. For some unignorable reason, several people have commented to Kristy and I over the past few months that we seem to have (as one friend put it) a “really solid marriage.” While at an earlier stage in our lives we would have brushed this off in a false sense of humility, we can honest accept this compliment now as truth. The reality is that our marriage is very important to us and we have worked hard to keep it healthy and to help it florish.

It is in this spirit and within the impending context of beginning school that I thought it would be interesting to archive my amateur thoughts here where I can find them, again, in three or four years. At that point, I will either mock them or venerate them for all to see.

Our marriage is admittedly solid. It is also admittedly imperfect. We argue. We often think of ourselves first. We sometimes react immaturely. We plan poorly. Sometimes, our kitchen isn’t as clean as we woud like it to be.

There was also a time when we couldn’t say with any amount of comfort that our marriage was anything less than perfect. Such a statement would have been an incredible insult. Much of this fear was related to an overinvestment in religion and our adopted role as the perfect Christian young people. Of course we woudl have had a perfect marriage.

Asheville rocked our world pretty hard. We were working together towards an end that neither of us truly believed in or thought worthwhile. We were trying to ascribe meaning in a context in which we were isolated from almost everything that we had come to love and appreciate outside of our own relationship. It is not too dramatic to describe my entrace into anxiety and panic as spiraling. The distance between Kristy and I wasn’t vast – but it was significant.

They were two of the most important years of our lives.

Before Asheville, our understanding of marriage was informed by Jerry McGuire, among others. “You complete me” is a theme that works well for sappy movies but is potentially damaging in real life.

While we couldn’t put it into words then, wandering through Asheville strengthened our resolve to be individuals first and foremost. Our task became clear: we had to do the hard work of learning who we actually were and to come to terms with the fact that some elements of the twenty-something years that had passed by that point had to be jettisoned because they weren’t truly ours. Our church experience wasn’t truly ours. Our puritan-like, holier-is-better attitudes weren’t truly ours.

We also had to learn that this is OK – that part of a healthy existence is losing the elements that do not fit with your world view. Holding on for the sake of holding on is exhausting and doesn’t give life.

Clearly on a different course and somewhat distanced by our experiences, Kristy and I both continued to have an undeniable attaction towards one another – though this time it was more intrinsic and informed. We saw how each other handled immense pressure and horrible stress. We saw how we weren’t afraid of the difficult times. We saw the newfound sense of purpose clearly present and clearly targeted in similar directions.

As we grew together, we now approached our marriage in much less selfish, less dependent terms. We became equals, peers, friends who loved the idea of experiencing the journey with the other. We became (or are becoming) strong, confident individuals who can be sure that the other is not instigating contact in an effort to bring pain or hurt or ill-will to the relationship. (One of the most important realizations I have had in marriage is that my wife doesn’t intend to hurt me – she’s not out to get me – this is not a zero sum game. If there is conflict, it is because something else is going on – someting that if we are just a little patient and observant can be fleshed out and examined. Knowing she isn’t approaching me for her own gain may seem obvious, but to fully be aware of it is an important milestone.)

Much credit is due to Kristy for bringing books about marriage into our relationship. She can point to the chapter and line that she says changed marriage for her in the classic marriage and family therapy book “The Family Crucible”.

In short, we’ve worked hard at our marriage – pursuing more open, more clear communication; we’ve crossed an important threshold that doesn’t equate personal needs or wants with selfishness; we’re more confident and developed as separate individuals which allow us to come together as a healthy couple.

note: It’ll definitely be interesting to see how my thoughts and experiences change after a few years of graduate school. This program, depending on how much I want to do at any one time, will take somewhere between three and four years, so stay tuned for the latest insight.