Posted by: itneverrainsinseattle | April 20, 2010

More Adventures in Therapy, And a Dilemma

As I noted in an earlier post, Penny and I had gone to a couples counselor late in 2008, who seemed to me either to have run out of tools to help us save our marriage, or perhaps had come to the conclusion that we were not likely candidates for saving the marriage, and was therefore steering us in the direction of considering divorce.

Either way, I was still intent upon saving our marriage — even if Penny didn’t seem to be similarly inclined — and so I set about choosing a new therapist.

Once more, I visited the web site of, where they have an excellent “find a therapist” feature. I revisited my previous short list; I added one to the list whom I’d previously left off the list of choices I’d offered Penny. My reason for cutting her from the short list was that she was newer to the field than the others, and I wanted someone who had more experience. But perhaps that wasn’t the way to go about it. Perhaps it made more sense to seek counseling from someone who was more current in his/her education. I wanted results; I wanted someone who could say which approach was more likely to bear fruit than another.

After reviewing my short list carefully, I interviewed my “top two”. It turned out one was not available for couples sessions — although she was available for individual sessions, and I later did see her as a single client. The other was that younger, newer-to-the-field counselor. She understood my desire to save our marriage, she explained the style she preferred to use, and she sounded both knowledgeable and competent.

We set up a meeting for Penny and me to get to know the counselor. Meeting her in person, the new therapist seemed calm, cool, and professional. Friendly in a reserved way; pleasant without being woo-woo. As I may have mentioned, I found the previous counselor a bit woo-woo.

Most of our meetings were together, although Penny tended to arrive late, which meant I had to sit and wait — the counselor wanted our together sessions to be together, and didn’t want to create an imbalance by hearing more of my side than of Penny’s. Again, the counselor seemed very professional, and I highly respect that.

But for all that, Penny was not very engaged in the process. Although she had agreed to go, her heart clearly wasn’t in it. We’d get occasional homework assignments, and I’d do my bit, but she wouldn’t do hers.

Being in love shouldn’t take this kind of effort, she said once. You either feel it or you don’t. This was all a waste of time.

One session, this all came to a head. Penny was being reserved — much more so than usual — and the counselor wasn’t letting her off the hook. There was a point where I felt like intervening; where I wanted to just jump in and answer, just to let some of the pressure off of Penny, but I held back. The counselor would gently ask Penny a question that Penny obviously did not want to answer, but she kept asking. Gently, yes, but at the same time, she was relentless.

Finally, Penny did respond directly, and the whole tenor of the conversation changed immediately. The therapist backed off, both figuratively and literally. She leaned back and said, “We’ve still got about ten minutes, but we should probably talk about how we’re going to schedule our next sessions. I’d like to see you both separately, if I may. We could do one session each, if you prefer, or we could take the next session and divide it in half. Which works best for you?”

Like that, the interrogation was over. Nothing to see here, move along.

We agreed to take one session and divide it in half. (Our sessions were already long-ish, as it was, so this made sense.) Given how our schedules worked at the time, I agreed to take the first half, and Penny the second.


I know a lot more now than I knew then. At the time, I’d been listening to a college lecture series about psychology (in preparation for the novel I’m currently writing), and as soon as I learned what radio commentator Paul Harvey would call, “The Rest of the Story,” I was able to put it all the pieces in place: the importance of Penny’s words, and what they meant, and how they led up to us having separate sessions. But at the time, all I saw was that there was an intense session, followed by the clouds clearing, and we were on our way.


The following week, I went in for my session as scheduled. The therapist asked questions. I answered. No homework assignment. No real food for thought. Penny was late arriving (even though her session was starting 45 minutes later than usual as it was), but I did pass her on my way out, if I recall correctly.

Later that day, Penny was in a positively delightful mood. Upbeat. Optimistic. Exceedingly pleasant.

And the next day, more of the same. Her good mood was infectious. Whatever transpired at her session, it must have been particularly goo–


No. That wasn’t it.

The light went on in my head, as it has done on a couple of occasions before. A sudden understanding about the situation that lies beneath all appearances. These flashes of insight have only happened to me in very rare circumstances, but I’ve learned to trust them completely.

Penny wasn’t happy because her session went well. No. Penny was happy because she had come to a decision.

How to put this delicately? How was I to raise the issue with her? How much do I now tell you, dear reader?

That night, after the kids were down and we were folding laundry in our bedroom, I broached the subject. “So, are we still on with [counselor] next Tuesday?”

Penny smiled brightly. “I’m sure she thinks so, but I don’t plan to be there.”

We continued folding and putting the laundry into stacks, each of us standing at opposite sides of our bed. “Oh?” I asked, picking up the next shirt to fold.

“Yeah,” she continued, still upbeat. “She said I had [diagnosis], and that I should consider taking meds for it, and I’m not inclined to agree.” A firm smile. A friendly, I-dare-you-to-dispute-me smile. And she resumed folding laundry.

The pieces started clicking into place for me, but how could I encourage her to take the therapist’s idea seriously? Penny so often took things I said as personal attacks even when they were innocuous, and this subject was hardly innocuous.

“Um… since she’s only a psychologist, and not a psychiatrist, I don’t think she can prescribe medication. So, you’d have to get a second opinion anyway, right?” My thought was maybe a second opinion could get her to take this seriously. If she would even seek one out.

Which she wouldn’t.

“Oh, I’m sure, but there’s no point. I don’t have [diagnosis], and that’s that.”

And we continued folding our laundry. She with a smile on her face. Me trying to keep a neutral expression.

“Have you told [counselor] this?” I asked.

“No.” Brightly. Matter-of-factly. As if I’d just offered her some tea, and she was content to not have any just now, thanks.


The next day, I phoned the therapist to tell her about Penny’s decision to quit the sessions. She suggested that I come in for one last “wrap up” session, which I did.

If I was expecting any resolution or brilliant insight in that final session, it wasn’t to be. It felt like any other session. Her parting homework assignment for me, in an effort to try to save the marriage, was this: to stop trying. Maybe, instead of looking for the next thing to try, I just let it go. I live my life, and live in the marriage, just as I am. No new techniques to try. No new outlooks. Just be myself and take it easy for a while.

I think it’s possible that the marriage could have gone on indefinitely like that. Honestly, I did try not to try. That sounds stupid. Let me put it this way: I let go. At least, I let go as best I could. When I saw the other counselor, it was for me. I still wanted to keep the marriage, but not at the expense of losing myself.

I want to pause for a moment and say that the counselor remained professional and courteous right to the end. In our various conversations about non-relationship stuff (typically while waiting for Penny), I found her to be a peer in many ways: intellectual curiosity, sense of humor, evidence-based thinking, and so on. Had we met under any other circumstances, I’m certain we would have become friends. I’m a person who makes friends easily, and enjoys making friends, but I can’t imagine that throwing a Facebook friend request her way, or any kind of “hey, let’s do lunch” would be anything short of weird for her. And while I know I can be odd, I do try not to be weird.

She did ask that I let her know how things go with Penny and me. I’ve considered e-mailing her a link to this blog, even knowing that I would eventually have to get to writing this post. Well, here we are. And no, I haven’t sent her the link. At least, not yet.


So there we were. I’d fired the first counselor for opening up the can of worms labeled, “Divorce.” Penny fired the second counselor for suggesting that she (Penny) might have a clinical issue that, in turn, could be a major contributor to the problems in our marriage.

Penny was clearly not interested in working with any more counselors, and I lost hope that our marriage could become anything more than a platonic business relationship with children.

We continued on at our new status quo for a while. She remained happier than she’d been in some time, and the hello and goodbye kisses that we’d reintroduced during the sessions with our last counselor stayed in place. But the marriage remained platonic, and her happiness slowly ebbed away, and even so, I never had any enthusiasm for celibacy.

And after that spring gave way to the Summer of (Still No) Love, I started taking the divorce option seriously. And that brings us to the beginning of this blog, this past autumn.

But that’s not the end of this particular piece of the story.

I’ve known for a while that this episode with the last counselor is part of the bigger story that I need to tell. What I didn’t want to have to deal with was the notion that the diagnosis our therapist verbalized is still very probably true. And I don’t know what to do about it.

Tonight (Monday night), Penny said some things that brought that last joint session back to mind. I’ve long been annoyed by Penny’s tendency toward learned helplessness, but this runs deeper. This isn’t annoying behavior… rather, it’s worrisome. And for all that I’ve allowed myself to be hurt by this marriage, I still care about Penny.

How do you help someone who refuses to admit there’s a problem? How do you help them to help themselves?

And how do you shield yourself emotionally from the possibility that you are watching a train wreck-in-progress slowly pick up steam?



  1. The answer is that you can’t help them. I know that it’s hard as hell to watch that person crash and burn, but sometimes it’s necessary. Let’s just hope that if it does happen, she’s able to learn from it and pick up the pieces.

    The thing is, it’s not your job (or anyone else’s) to help Penny see the truth of herself or her situation. SHE is the only one can do that….by being open and self-aware and willing to change. that’s not something you can force on someone.

    The best thing you can do right now is focus on yourself. You need to be your own top priority right now.

  2. I concur. You can’t. Furthermore, you shouldn’t. Just be aware and ready to shift course as needed to be there for your children. Also, if you can quicken the pace so you’re not still married should there be some sort of implosion, that would be better. Cold, I know.

    Love (past or present) shouldn’t mean subjugating yourself. Been there, done that, unsuccessful, moving on. Let the next one pick up her pieces.

    RUDE QUESTION: You’ve noted you weren’t in love with her when the ultimatum was issued, but that you decided to. What kept you there? What about Penny did you fall in love with?

  3. I don’t think it’s cold, actually. I think it can feel cold, but you, INRIS, need to protect yourself and your children. That’s where you priorities are. We can only do so much to help other people. They need to pick up the slack and meet you, the helper, half way. If you’ve laid down your ground rules, and you don’t bend them. If you have your boundaries clearly defined to the best of your understanding, then, unfortunately there is nothing left for you to do if the other won’t respect those boundaries and needs.
    For example, a boundary/need could be: to make this marriage work, I would appreciate it if you would talk to me about how you feel. Penny does not seem interested in honoring this need. We need to communicate (respectfully) (very hard sometimes, oh boy do I know) in order to *have* good marriages. If the other is unwillinging, and you’ve done your part as a respectful person trying to engage them in conversation, then that’s all you can do.
    There is no sense wasting energy over what could have been done. You know this, you’ve made your decisions. Just reinforce and own the decisions you’ve made and make those happen so you and your children can move on and work towards your own happinesses.

  4. True… what everyone else is saying.

    The sad part of it is, you’re going to feel some responsibility for it because she is the mother of your children…

    I have no advice. Do what you need to do for your own sake and the sake of your children.

    (And thanks for the bloggy love.)

  5. Agree with T, and the others, you are doing all you can, and you can’t help her any more than you already have. It’s up to her. You are a good man, and doing the right things, now it’s just time to move ahead, as you have been.

  6. “How do you help someone who refuses to admit there’s a problem? How do you help them to help themselves?”

    You don’t. You can’t. Have you read my Love List post about stable mental health? That was on my list because it took me a really long time in a really bad relationship with someone with bi-polar disorder, to finally realize that I couldn’t help him if he wouldn’t help himself, and in trying- I became miserable and depressed myself. That’s when I decided to stop talking to a wall and put myself first.

  7. I wish I knew. Unfortunately you can’t help someone who doesn’t want help. And that is incredibly difficult to swallow, I know. I am thinking of you guys.

  8. Sigh. This is so hard. No person can make a change for another person; no marriage can survive when only one person is working for it (and Penny is wrong – it *does* take work). I know nothing could possibly make you feel more powerless, but it’s true. The good news is, you CAN free yourself from this – it takes two to tango, and while she might not be trying, you can still remove yourself from any guilt/responsibility/need to save her, independent of how she deals or what her issues are. A good counselor can help YOU with that, regardless of if she feels like participating. Hopefully you’re still on that road and seeing someone – it can only help.


  9. Hi INRIS, thank you so much for your support, my fellow Buffalonian. You have my full support too. -P

  10. I am going to completely disagree with everyone else, because this happens to be (one of) my area(s) of expertise.

    Yes, you CAN help Penny. But it may not happen the way you (or she) would like.

    Follow me here:

    1) You have knowledge that a qualified therapist made a diagnosis, which Penny should have been followed up wiht a visit to a Psychiatrist. She never followed up, and she is still “sick” with (diagnosis), which likely gets worse with time.

    2) She will soon be the sole care giver to 3 children, at least half the time, once you are divorced.

    3) It is unthinkabe that you would keep this info to yourself.

    4) Trust me, your lawyer will know what to do with it.

    5) People need reasons to get better. The threat of losing one’s children is usually a good enough reason. In the long run, you owe it to your kids to “help” Penny, whether she thinks she needs help or not.

  11. There are several examples I can raise regarding this entry. The first comes from CPR/First Aid which I used to teach: you have to help yourself first before you can help someone else. The second comes from the 12 Step Programs, the gist of the first step stating that “I have a problem. . .”, meaning that the awareness of the problem has struck the person concerned. What the first therapist was trying to do in beginning to talk about divorce violated both of these conditions for you. She was trying to rescue you from a bad marriage and that was the wrong step to take. You were right to fire her.

    I had a similar experience with my wife and going to therapy. She was the one pushing to go, yet when it began to look like she was the one going to have to make changes in her behaviors to save the relationship, all of a sudden we had no issues to discuss, everything was just ducky, and we weren’t going to return for anymore sessions! Nothing ever did change, and I stopped caring enough to try to save it.

    Last item: I’m very uncomfortable with Leah’s advice. She’s being very logical and practical, but I sense that this approach could blow up in your face and make the divorce very ugly if this isn’t handled gently. Point 5 in particular: lots of kids find their lives turned upside-down as Mom runs away with them to avoid losing custody even when she clearly isn’t the better parent. I don’t sense that you want to use this weapon against Penny needlessly, but what is she going to think? You already don’t have open access to her thoughts, and whatever condition she has can’t be helping. Be careful.

  12. Sorry to hear how things are going.

    It’s going to take more than baking some cookies to feel better about this.

    Let me know if you are ever available to Skype again. I miss you. And I’m much better ‘in person.’ (Although not necessarily prettier…) *smile*

    Big hugs, friend!

  13. Your train wreck analogy is exactly the way people described my ex’s behavior as she was leaving me. She was acting impulsively and strangely, but would not listen to anyone.

    I have no good new advice, except what every one else has said: you can’t help her. You can’t force someone to get help who is in denial. Take care of yourself and your children, and let her deal with her own issues.

  14. You can’t. But you already knew that.

    It’s just hard to let go of the person you’ve vowed to love for the rest of your life. It’s hard to get out of the habit of contemplating their inner-most reasons for hurting you.

    You need to let that go. Sorry. But you do. She is a big girl and needs to fix her own life for the kids and herself. Not for you. Not anymore.

    My ex, as you know, has similar problems. He is probably clinically depressed. I’m not sure if it was the marriage that made him depressed or other things. He self-medicated with a plethora of self-absorption and other items. Which came first? The chicken or the egg? I have no idea and I will never know. I’ll never see him “fixed.” Maybe his new girlfriend (soon to be fiance) will fix him? Or maybe he’ll just be different with her…happier, healthier. Maybe it was our relationship that was the problem.

    I have to accept that I’ll never be part of his solution.

    And you won’t be a part of Penny’s solution either. But you’ll be part of your own solution. And that, IMO, is much more important than her solution.

  15. I’m with most of the above here. I wish there were things along the way that I could have done to fix Dustin or help him but he is on a path now where he is going to have to crash and burn. We give all of ourselves but at some point there has to be a stopping point. Because in the end would the really and truly do the same thing in return? No, because if they would then we wouldn’t be hitting the divorce button. It is a tough choice but you are strong enough.

  16. Hey there… been a while… This post hit home with me… but, because I learned (figured out the hard way) years ago that my mother has some problems that were never officially diagnosed… and certainly never acknowledged by her. I wish I had known all along – could have saved me a lot of resentment and confusion… but, eventually, I figured it out… and I also realized that she will never admit it… or seek help for it. I’d like her to… but, I think I understant why she won’t at least. It has to be scary as hell… and, also, it’s part of the illness to not see it.

    I don’t know what diagnosis Penny had/has.. but, in my case… it did me good to learn about what I’m thinking my mother has. I can’t make her change… but, it helped me deal with it at least.

    This was a good book I read too… “I am not sick I don’t need help ”
    ( )

    Keep on keeping on… =)

  17. I’m sorry I haven’t been around but I finally learned how to check blogs on my iPhone.

    1. Penny has never accepted your help on this matter. What makes you think she would start now?

    2. Don’t you have enough to do?? Focus on you first and then your kids. If you have time and energy and funds leftover… go on vacation.

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