I have to confess that I do not like marriage counseling at all, not one bit. I suppose I can get away with a slight qualification, to make my confession somewhat more savory. I could say that while I do not like the counseling, I love the counselees. But everyone says this, and it is practically meaningless.
I do not like, of course, the custom of mutual complaint. It is sad (and trying) to witness romantically glued-together couples, for whom everything was faerie and Wagner (well, Coldplay), descend into boorish throes and woes. Now, the things that heretofore were endearing have moved quickly through forbearance into articles of contempt: socks on the floor are now sparks in tinder, and the once-charming scattermindedness of a young bride is now the subject of beer-sotted fraternal denunciation.
It is sad, too, to hear the conversation of charge and counter-charge. It is rare that this dialogue ever ventures above adolescence, above the dull conventions of "He did this" and "She did this first." I think when I listen to these prurient ravings – these contretemps which are amplified into melodrama – I am actually hearing artifacts from movies and television. I think I am hearing not real and actual selves, but scripted ghosts of selves. It is as though the combatants were only faintly aware of feelings, and sought thus hither and thither in their short-term memory for some good line to articulate these feelings: but what is accessed and brought to the fore is simply that which is regarded the most, considered the most, and interiorized (even cathected) the most.
This is what I think happens with dreams during sleep: the particular blue note struck here is that couples who present themselves for marriage counseling are usually sleepwalking, and they play out their fights in TV dreams.
In marriage counseling, at the first impression, I am working with incorporeal fragments of melodrama: clichés, posturings and images, intergenerational trends which would be comically stupid were they not so stupidly tragic. I am hearing echoes of a remarkable failure of men to embrace the charisms of their gender, and of women to follow the example of the Theotokos. I am hearing grown up children who have themselves never seen a home embrace prayer and a culture of joy. They have not seen peace and a domestic order that was both humane and divine.
They have seen, rather, the person-hood of their own parents wilt in the serfdom of materialism: for what else can we call the worshipful obedience to the commands of the advertisement? What else can we call the almost unconscious lurch into unprecedented indebtedness?
Serfs, history tells us, will get drunk to synthesize some plastic mask of happiness: and thus, these young husbands and wives have learned this lesson too. Not just with alcohol or other chemicals, but more usually with the constant standby mental switch to laziness of thought, a passivity and uncritical acceptance of brainwashing from the bozart gods: McLuhan called this a "cold" medium – which required little to no interaction. Freud rightly called this the "sub-conscious." The Church calls this "forgetfulness of God," "reverie," especially "neptic neglect."
I like the latter term most. "Nepsis" is the watchfulness of every thought. It is a constant discernment and critical judgment on whether that thought should be permitted entrance into the deeper strata of the psyche.
Most young husbands and wives (or older cold warriors) have simply left the back door wide open, and the front, and all the windows to boot. I think that some, for good measure, would take off the roof of their mental housing so they could have "convertible souls" – which would be the ultimate in the way of being "open-minded."
So this is how those scripts, those idiotic oneliners from Raymond and Roseanne, from Archie and "Married with Children," from Homer (Simpson) and Scarlett O'Hara, crept into the brains of my heartbreakers. These are all logismoi – quite demonic insinuations – and they are effective in pressing the buttons, gassing up the engines, and letting passions fly.
My young heartbreakers must not know real happiness, else they would quickly grow tired of their plastic jejune attempts to make themselves that way. Their attempts, sadly, are no longer mutual: they have lapsed into their pre-romantic individualized habits of their parents and peers.
It turns out, more often than not, that they were not taught at home, growing up, over Sunday dinner, the noble stories, the beautiful myths that had the winsome virtue of psychic ordinance – the interiorization of the Sacred Order. They did not see the mother fill the room with light and grace, sustenance and healing, commanding love by the sheer presence of her quiet love and forgiveness. They did not see the father talk deep on memory and stand on ceremony.They did not see the father command himself before he ever thought to lead his wife and children.
(For that is what "headship" means: all command is predicated on self-command ... all external order is based on and structured by internal order. That is the simple, ridiculously simple, and sole reason why only an insufferable dolt insists that women and children "submit" to him: the very act of stating thus is itself an transgressive rejection of self-command.)
These adult children saw instead a full embrace of sixties mod art and polyester, smorgasbord and shiny aluminum swanson Salisbury (that had nothing, in the end, to do with steak or England). They saw the father belittled and the mother belabored. They saw the cultural divinization of childishness at the expense of the domestic life-or-death nurturance of childhood.
And now I have husbands who do not know manhood enough to be husband or father … wives who do not know womanhood enough to be wife or mother. I have heartbreakers who are stuffed with the scripts of transgressive ego, but they are not filled with words or English: language, after all, communicates – but psychic "tapes" do not act as language at all. They are, simply, soliloquies. They are puerile challenges to the abyss, and the echoes are taken – insipidly – as confirmations of their self-established myth.
Certainly, I urge them to talk simply and fairly. I know that the arrangements of our sessions – my cranky office with icons and nautical paraphernalia (i.e., O'Brian stuff), and the very fact that I'm sitting there in clerical garb – is enough to keep them from complete barbarism. I direct them to talk with each other, instead of engage in two simultaneous denunciations of the other in the third person, and I am thought to be the Judge and Arbiter. I review the melancholic realities of separation and divorce: i.e., "separation usually leads to divorce, since it invariably reinforces your attitudes about your marriage"; and "divorce is always bad, socioeconomically, for the mother and the children." I sometimes throw in, if I'm particularly peevish, the fact that a divorce with children in just a few years will only keep putting bread and bacon on the table for child therapists like I used to be. I tell them to never yell in front of the children, that they should walk away into their own sanctuaries, like their bedroom, or taking a walk outside. I don't tell them that I used to give this very advice to my ADHD clientele in the elementary grades, and that these infant clients were fairly adept at self-monitoring and the practice of self-soothing techniques and frustration/anger coping skills. I don't tell my heartbreaking marriage clients this fact because usually – and I must say this out loud or I will burst – my child clients were a lot better at taking counsel and practicing new behaviors than my adults ever were (or are).
So, in all this, as I am beating off the red-eyed wolf and the raving lion with my staff and smooth stones, I plead with my cold warriors to forgive as Jesus did. I paint the icon, psychically, of the extremity of the Cross, in the middle of the anger-spouting faces. And I try to plant, "Father forgive them for they know not what they do" in the middle of their lips. I know that that God has condemned (or rather, elected) them both to the eternal yoke of this marriage: and that this cold marital season, this very winter of their discontent, is meant for the chastening of their will, and for the redemption of soul and body. I know this, and I remind them of the fears and joys of forever.
If I were a secular therapist, an priest-adept of the posthuman religion, I'd suggest all sorts of things. Such measures would be so popular that I could put up a shingle and charge a lot of money (which I don't at all). These measures would get compliance, certainly. I'd suggest rage therapy, separate mini-vacations, trial separations, masturbation, fantasizing about other partners during intercourse, free association, the swinging of rubber foam sticks "to get the aggression out," puppet theater, psychopharmacology of some sort, the reading of astrology, the reading of Mars and Venus and electric women, the science of sexuality and genitalia.
And if all else failed (which these measures do, in spades), then I'd relent, and the three of us would sigh finally in relief because we really tried hard, and I'd finally say (and give permission): "Well, you might as well divorce."
No. Instead of those money-making measures (and you can write a best-selling book about any self-soothing therapy), I have more in mind that just won't go away. I have this little thing called eternity, and for that, marriage requires not foam sticks, modern sex or fantasy. It requires fasting, for one thing. It requires quiet (turn off the matrix noise). It requires the Eucharist and the washing of feet, practiced every day in nuptial self-sacrifice. It requires giving up and surrendering in verbal arguments: even and especially husbands should say, simply, "You're right," pick up his socks and muddy boots, and let her have the last word.
I think that all verbal arguments should be ended with surrender. Let them win. For all your victories have been pyrrhic, no?
Marriage requires nepsis. It requires grace and dogma. It calls for kenosis, self-pouring-out like Christ did when He became like a slave on the Cross.
Marriage requires a tradition of beauty and peace – and for too, too many of our young couples, they have no domestic experience of this. In marriage counseling, we are really calling them to a place they've never been.
And that, friends, is why I don't like marriage counseling. It calls for kenosis, Cross and forever. Husbands and wives cannot completely run away from this note, struck so deeply at the nuptial sacrament, and they know what needs to be done, in their heart. My heartbreakers are rightly afraid of it.
And, I fear, they are not afraid of it enough.