Familiar Love

Years ago, my former spouse and I went to a marriage counsellor. The counsellor’s name was Andre. Andre was our second of three marriage counsellors, and we’d had to switch from the first one because she was that lovely kind of barmy where she refused to bill our insurance, and refused to talk about anything other than her dead son. Which, while interesting, wasn’t very helpful to our foundering marriage.

So somehow, after extensive internet searching, I’d come upon Andre, and we went to meet him at the appointed time. But when we arrived at his “office,” we discovered that it wasn’t really an office at all — more like his “apartment.” Indeed, there was no waiting room; no guest area. We had to wait out in the hallway of the West Village apartment building before the previous patient exited his flat. And when we went in, we discovered his home was stuffed to bursting with junk, and sofas, and I think even a piano. And cats. Several cats. Though I can’t recall now whether my ex was allergic or not.

The cats were the big, surly kind of cats that you find in big cities — where they’ve been kept indoors too long by fretful owners and so they develop insistent, mewling voices. And as we got down to the messy business of marriage therapy, the beasts roamed the apartment like they were wandering the Savannah, tracking catbox crumbs and furballs behind them.

What I am saying is that these were not the retiring, soothing kind of animals one might expect a therapist to keep. These cats were a menace.

So Andre started talking, waving his arms, at which point I realized his shirt was see-through. And he was telling us about some other clients he’d had who had come in to resolve past relationship trauma. THE PROBLEM IS, YOU HAVE TRAUMA, Andre told us. At some stage in his other clients’ relationship, they’d gotten pregnant and decided not to keep the baby. But they’d gotten married; had other children; couldn’t figure out why their relationship was so mired in conflict.

YOU KNOW WHY THEY HAD SO MUCH CONFLICT, he bellowed, IT’S BECAUSE THEY KILLED THEIR BABY.

My ex and I sat in cowed silence. As if on cue, one of the cats began to hork and gag. Another cat, nonplussed, climbed up on the sofa behind my ex’s head and settled in for the show. And the barfy cat bolted across the room to the kitchen, where he hopped on the counter and unleashed his demon within. Out came a long snake of hair and Meow Mix, unfurling from his throat like a serpent’s tongue.

Without missing a beat, Andre continued on his rant and leapt up to clean the cat vomit. As he turned to wipe up the mess, I could see the tiny beads of his man-nipples twinkling through his shirt at me.

THAT’S WHY YOU NEED TO LEARN TO COMMUNICATE, he shouted over the din of the cat’s retching.

Andre began to talk about Imago Therapy and how it was the foundation of couples’ therapy, but…he’d lost me. He spent the rest of the session chasing the cat around, scooping up puddles of barf.  And all I could hear ringing in my ears for hours afterward was the sound of a cat retching and the word: Imago.

That was our only session with him. Our marriage was over less than a year later.

There’s a lot they don’t prepare you for in marriage counselling, even if your experience is not a vomit-laden horrorshow. They don’t prepare you for the 22 year-olds at the sailing club who your husband will turn up with at home on a rainy night when the parties get cancelled. Or the times he’d show up at home without his wedding band. Or any of that…other stuff.

Those therapists — they don’t tell you to stop feeling like you deserved to be treated like that, long after the marriage failed and your former spouse whispered to everyone that the failure was your fault. Because you were thin and blonde and kind of a jock, and he was kind of a geek, and so whatever happened must’ve been your fault because the optics were a bit conventionally lopsided.

But the weirdest thing about that era had to be Andre. I hadn’t anticipated that I would ever hear about Andre again after I left his office that day. But years later, when I was on my own, I came to learn that one of the girls who slept with Cheating Bill had been a long-time client of Andre’s. It was mentioned to me in passing, like it was nothing; like the specter of the man in the see-through shirt in the funhouse full of cat barf who’d been the canary in the coal mine of my ending first marriage wouldn’t rattle me.

You should read “Getting the Love That You Want,” someone said to me, after the era of Cheating Bill, It’s by Harville Hendrix. It’s about Imago Therapy.

No thanks, I said, Just…no thanks.

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