Confessions of a Twice Divorced Marriage Counselor

6734544555_9389e751a6_zI became a marriage counselor to help families stay together through difficult times, to keep love alive during times of stress. I wanted to help men and women avoid what I experienced growing up in a family obsessed with death.

When my mother got pregnant she told stories about her anxiety and worry. “I would walk down the streets of Greenwich village terrified I would lose the child. I tiptoed everywhere. I was afraid I’d lose you, even before you were born.” After my birth she was afraid to let my father hold me, believing he was clumsy and might drop me. She was also convinced she would die before I was out of high school and bought a life insurance policy she couldn’t afford so I’d have money after she was gone. She also got a life insurance policy for me when I turned five, insisting you could never start too soon to take care of your family after you’re gone. When I started nursery school she was already preparing for my life after she was dead and for the life of my wife and family after I died.

My father struggled to make a living as a playwright and actor in New York. After moving to California to try his luck in the emerging television industry, he became increasingly overwhelmed and depressed. The last entry in his journal which I found later as an adult read:

“November 8th:

A hundred failures, an endless number of failures, until now, my confidence, my hope, my belief in myself, has run completely out.  Middle aged, I stand and gaze ahead, numb, confused, and desperately worried.  All around me I see the young in spirit, the young in heart, with ten times my confidence, twice my youth, ten times my fervor, twice my education. 

I see them all, a whole army of them, battering at the same doors I’m battering, trying in the same field I’m trying.  Yes, on a Sunday morning in early November, my hope and my life stream are both running desperately low, so low, so stagnant, that I hold my breath in fear, believing that the dark, blank curtain is about to descend.”

Six days after his November 8th entry, my father tried to kill himself.  He was hospitalized at Camarillo State Hospital, north of Los Angeles. After a series of electro-shock treatments and heavy medications he did not improve and the doctors told my mother he was depressed and seemed locked into hopelessness. They said he would likely never leave the hospital. My mother, reluctantly, got a divorce and our family dissolved.

I grew up wondering what happened to my father and mother and I was terrified I would follow in their footsteps. I’m sure my decision to pursue a master’s degree and Ph.D in social work and psychology was my attempt to understand what happened to them and how I could prevent it happening to me. I vowed that when I married and had children we would stay together and my children would avoid the pain I lived with growing up. But things didn’t turn out that way.

After college I married my college sweetheart and we had two wonderful children. I applied everything I had learned in school, but our love-life deteriorated and after ten years our marriage ended. We put our energy into raising our children as single parents and tried to show the children we could still be there for them, but it wasn’t the same.  We both eventually remarried, but my second marriage fell apart after three years.

I felt like a failure as a husband, a father, and a man. I felt like a fraud as a marriage counselor. I was getting paid to help couples work through their problems and stay together. I knew what “should work” and it often did work for them. But I couldn’t seem to make it work in my own life. I felt there was something missing, something I hadn’t learned in school, something vital that I was missing.

I vowed to look more deeply. Instead of jumping into another relationship, I did an in-depth review of my life. For the first time I took a serious look at my dysfunctional family and the feelings, beliefs, and behaviors that had become embedded in my body, mind, and spirit, despite the healthy things I had learned about in school.

I felt I had finally gotten to the core of what was missing in my life and what so many other couples had missed in theirs. When I met my third wife, Carlin, I had a new love-map to guide me. It wasn’t based on all the things I learned should work in a marriage. But it was based on real life, on recognizing the trauma that so many of us experience. I learned that if I didn’t heal the old wounds, they would undermine my relationships again and again.

Carlin and I certainly have had our ups and downs, but we’ve been together now for 36 wonderful years. We raised our two youngest children together and have answered some of the questions that always perplexed me, including:

  • Why do things start off so good, yet turn so bad for couples who love and care about each other?
  • How do childhood wounds impact our adult love lives and how can we heal?
  • Why the things that once endeared us to one another become irritants later in the marriage?
  • How to tell each other the truth about how we feel without wounding the other person?
  • Why it’s so difficult to keep a compatible sex-life when we’re each so busy with our lives?
  • How to remain close and intimate, but also free to lead our own lives?

I know a lot of therapists, marriage and family counselors, guides, and coaches. Many, like me, give advice and support we feel will help others, but often have difficulties in our own relationships. I’ve come to realize that I became a marriage counselor so that I would learn how to have a great marriage myself. What I didn’t realize was that I couldn’t learn it in books, at conferences, or in professional gatherings. I somehow imagined that my professional training would protect me from the misunderstandings, misperceptions, pain, and suffering that impacted other people. I was wrong.

I had to accept that I was as confused as everyone else about how to have a great marriage. In the words of 12 step recovery I had to admit that “I was powerless over my addiction to creating dysfunctional relationships and that my life had become unmanageable.” When I was able to do that I was finally able to begin creating the marriage I had always wanted to have. I’ve also become a more effective counselor and can share what has worked for us, as well as the missteps and misadventures we’ve experienced.  Carlin and I have now been married three times—to each other. Every 15 years we’ve re-evaluated our marriage and made new vows that take into account what’s changed for us in the previous years. We’ve written a book about our experience, The Enlightened Marriage: The 5 Transformative Stages of Relationships and Why the Best is Still to Come. We’re happy to share what we’ve learned about real, lasting love.

I’ll look forward to your comments. What has been your experience with marriage, marriage counseling, and how to have real, lasting love?

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  1. Thanks for sharing this Jed. After a third very short term marriage, I finally realized the problem was me and not them. I stepped back and began my own process of evaluation to see the patterns and how I needed to heal the relationship with myself and my past. Therapy, EMDR, mens work (MKP) and my own inner work have brought me to the point of greater self awareness, self acceptance, forgiveness and taking responsibility for my life. I appreciate what you wrote knowing that others share this path. I am just starting back into dating with a clearer view of my true self and my boundaries. I know relationship is the crucible for my work. Thanks for sharing your message

    • Bob,

      Thanks for sharing that. It took me years to realize that I was looking for love in all the wrong places. I had a distorted love map, but I didn’t realize it. Like many I had grown up with romantic love stories and felt that there was a kind of magical inevitability in finding the right partner. One day I would see her across a crowded room. Our eyes would meet and we’d know, “this is the one.” We’d fall madly in love, get married, have a family, and live happily ever after.

      It never occurred to me that things were way more complex and interesting than I had glimpsed on the movie screen. When we ran into problems, I thought I’d made a mistake in my choice, that we had somehow become incompatible and I needed to look elsewhere. I blamed her for changing and really had no idea what was really going on.

      Like you I learned to go more deeply into myself and learn about what a real marriage entailed. I learned about the 5 stages and when Carlin and I met I had a new love map to follow.

      My new book sharing our journey and what we’ve learned will be out in August and I’m excited to be sharing it with the world. Thanks for the support and sharing of your own journey.

  2. I am so interested to hear this from a male perspective. My husband left our marriage suddenly one year ago. He had a verbally abusive upbringing and his parents’ marriage was by far no example. I brought my own problems to the table for sure. I have deeply examined myself and our marriage for the last year. I see many places we went wrong. I live my husband so much but running instead of working on our marriage is his only answer. I am so sad that this is his only way to deal with it all is running. His dad sent his mom a letter when she was away from their home visiting family telling her not to come back home. He never spoke to her again. I can’t accept the same reusing in our marriage.

    • Melody, Unfortunately these experiences are all too common. The good news is that they can be understood and healed in most cases. Often the man just wants to escape the pain he is experiencing in the relationship and doesn’t really know what is causing the pain or how to fix it. His solution is to withdraw. I’ve developed a program that starts with the person who is more aware that things have a chance to be healed. I first work with you to get a clear picture of your own marital journey, where it got off track, and how to begin getting things working again.

      Often once that person gets help and changes what they are going, the other person begins to come around. I see people here in my office in California and counsel people by phone from all over the world. If you’d like more information, leave me your email and I’ll send you some more specifics about time and costs.

      Also my new book, The Enlightened Marriage, will be out shortly and my Enlightened Marriage Master’s Class will be available. Keep following my posts on my website.

  3. Diane Kizler says:

    I will try to keep following your posts. Please send to my email below. Thank you. I am new at this kind of stuff. Diane

  4. Diane Kizler says:

    Thank you for trying to help. I am new at this and not quite sure what path or doctor to follow.

  5. Diane Kizler says:

    Need support. Thank you. Am a bit shy ?