Paying Attention
Bill McDonald’s Website Newsletter
October 2019 - Volume 19, No. 10
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Therapy & Marriage - a comparison

Many years ago, a woman I was dating, once placed her hands on each of my temples and said, with some frustration, “I just wish I knew what’s going on inside that head of yours!”

I didn’t answer - not knowing at first how to respond. I remember thinking ‘I didn’t know I was that hard to read’ perhaps even considering it was a compliment.

She knew I was a psychotherapist, but our relationship was personal - nothing that should warrant inscrutability on my part. But then too, I knew it was an honest complaint on her part.

To be sure, much of my professional work involves getting ‘inside the heads’ of others in order to ‘crack the code’ of whatever is causing my client’s distress, either as an individual or as a couple (or larger relationship).

Similarities and Differences

But this was different. She, was a close and intimate friend. And from the distance of many years and now that I can be a bit more honest with myself - what I wish she would have said (or been free to say) would have been “Would you be willing to tell me what’s going on inside that head of yours?” It’s a yes or no question, which is softer than a direct request. That ‘softness’ represents a caring and courtesy that balances the desire for honesty in a healthy personal relationship.[1] But still back then an honest answer on my part might have been to say no.

Better I could have answered, “What would you like to know?” - assuming that there was a specific topic or matter she had in mind. That would also signal a further openness on my part to her remark. Friendship and especially marriage is often initiated and especially fueled by conversation - a developed back-and-forthness-ness. That’s why the energy of sexuality can be so precious (as well as problematic) in our marriages.

Talk to me.
What would you like me to say?
Anything just so I know you’re listening and that I’m not alone.

And how often the marriages that come into my office have lost, or never had, the ability of creative (lively) conversation, the sharing and intermingling of thoughts and feelings. It can be a lot of work to introduce or reawaken that art.

That encounter years ago with my woman-friend still holds in my memory, probably because it represents an unfilled longing from way back then as well. I vaguely recall it as a moment of unmet desire for a deep and safe enough relationship where I would be willing to honestly answer deeper questions. Maybe that’s why I’m a therapist, where an emotional, legal and professional safety can grow to allow that for a client.

But therapy is a different animal, even though it, as does the semantics of a deep friendship, involves an inner openness to the integration of thoughts and feelings, as well as furthering an openness to a well-lived life.

And some know the experience that a good therapist may woefully lack the personality to be a good friend. It’s a cardinal rule in therapy that the two cannot be intermixed. For one, the therapist relationship is assumed to be contained by time (regularly scheduled), remuneration (financial arrangements) and place (usually a specific office).  A friendship, on the other hand, can much more easily transcend time and place and circumstance.

There are times when I actually hear in my client’s words the language of other therapists. They have learned the words and tones, but have yet to integrate them into their own self.  Often they have only learned to be their own ‘critical therapist’ to their partner. I want to shudder - but it can also be a beginning.

The conclusion of a therapy relationship can involve grief, but primarily it involves the completion of a certain work. Therapy, by virtue of its name, involves the ‘fixing’ or ‘repairing’ of something that has hindered a larger fullness of life, such as a behavior or psychic aberration or illness.  That’s why medical insurance can be willing to support it.  Marital therapy is designed to heal or fix a marital dysfunction or illness.

But in therapy, that must be a one-way path. Much of the healing of therapy comes from the guided regimen (wrestling) of integrating feeling, thinking and circumstance into a coherent life-narrative. Facilitating that is the art of the therapist.

Therapy is different / Marriage is even more different

Therapy is different from the growing-together of an alive marriage.  What I wish for my couples I found best stated by Dr. Rowan Williams, then-Archbishop of Canterbury, speaking on a TV interview about the upcoming marriage of Prince William and Kate Middleton (April 29, 2011). “Marriage is a life-long commitment of two persons continually seeking to discern the mystery of each other.”[2]. Just being ‘in love’ can be woefully inadequate.

Therapy can bring healing to the human psyche.

Marriage can bring eternal enrichment to the human soul.

I am jealous and honored to labor in both fields.

Pay Attention


[1] In other places I’ve called this the quality of grace or graciousness - characterized by more mature personalities.

[2] The Archbishop (of Canterbury) had the task of preparing the couple both for their marriage as well and their role as royalty. He also officiated the marriage itself.  I heard his words in a brief TV interview just a few days before the Royal Wedding, looking up at the TV screen above an Eliptical machine at my gym.  It was a wonderful confluence of the magnificent, the spiritual, and my own modest health management.
I heard the words only once, and hope my memory is adequate to their capture.

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Bill McDonald
Fenton, Michigan

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