This paper is an account of an interview with a married couple conducted for a graduate level Marriage and Family Counseling course. Names and details have been changed to protect the identity of the couple being interview. The paper has been modified for publication here.
“It’s Like We’re Lobsters”
An Interview with Jim and Amy
“It’s like we’re lobsters” Amy said.
“Lobsters?” I asked.
She nodded, “Did you know lobsters grow new shells as they grow?”
“Yes. But first they feel uncomfortable. Their shell feels too tight, so they crawl under a rock and there, in a safe place, shed their shell and grow a new one. It’s the discomfort that makes them shed their shell, and it’s the shelter that makes it safe to be soft while they grow a new shell that fits. That’s a lot like marriage.”
Jim and Amy have been married for 28 years. Four years into marriage they welcomed a son, followed soon after by a daughter. Jim came from a relatively healthy family of origin while Amy brought the consequences of childhood trauma. As Jim and Amy invested in their marriage, they eventually became leaders in story-focused small groups and marriage mentoring. Interviewing Jim and Amy was eye opening, their intentionality to have a purposed marriage, embodied in their genders and willing to step into conflict to fight for their own hearts and for their marriage was moving. The delight they name and bless in each other and the wisdom they shared with me will impact how I engage marriages in clinical practice.
In response to my first question, what the purpose and intent of their marriage is, Amy spoke first. She described desiring Jim’s affections exclusively. They laughed together as they shared that early in their relationship they swore they’d never get married- then even after marriage, swore they’d never have children. Amy described how their marriage had become something purposed to bless others, something that had weathered trials to produce acceptance and endurance and, I would add, wisdom. Jim agreed, adding that the purpose of their marriage had changed with time, first focusing on themselves and each other, then focusing on parenting, and now focusing more on blessing others. Jim talked about how their marriage began as two people looking at each other, and as they matured it has become increasingly about standing together, looking outward together. Amy nodded and added that was how their marriage began literally- looking at each other, taking vows. Jim and Amy were able to reflect, together, on how the work of developing a secure attachment has allowed them to look outward and give themselves to interests, people, and ministries without threatening their commitment to each other.
“We aren’t typical” Amy said in answer to my question about gender roles, while exchanging a smile with Jim.
“We just knew we didn’t want to be our parents” added Jim, going on to explain how they decided early to take an egalitarian approach to their relationship. They shared that as a young couple they’d rejected traditional gender roles for the sake of rejecting traditional gender roles but as they grew and encountered counsel that challenged them to embrace their own genders, Jim said they discovered a still egalitarian but distinctively gendered relationship in which each embraced being fully embodied in their gender.
I was curious what that looked like in a day to day way, so I asked. “It was a transition from being friendship-focused to being a man and woman in relationship,” Jim explained. He talked about learning to see her as a friend, not a buddy, and to “hear her, not fix her” when she was upset. Amy answered the question with a glimpse into her own story, describing how work in her own story had allowed her to embrace being a woman in relationship.
Jim and Amy had much to say on the topic of conflict- wisdom gained from a 28 year journey from fear of conflict to a position of willingness to engage it. “We had our first fight a decade after our marriage,” said Jim. He explained that initially they avoided conflict. In answer to my question of what that looked like, Jim confessed that for him that was fixing, not having an opinion, or joking when conflict came up. Amy said that in her family of origin conflict looked like rage, and that for many years she didn’t have a category for safe conflict. Jim, she explained, in his intention to care for her, was willing to numb his own desire to avoid the conflict she experienced as frightening. Jim agreed, adding his role in his own family of origin was to be the one who calmed conflict, so he helped her avoid conflict. Jim and Amy agreed that growth meant learning to say “I matter, my desires matter, and I need to be heard right now”. They described needing to learn, at that point, to be willing fight well and to choose to move into conflict.
My favorite part of interviewing Jim and Amy was asking them where awe and surprise had shown up in their marriage, because they began to speak as if I wasn’t in the room- with eyes on each other. Jim spoke first, explaining that he’d fallen in love with a fearless woman, and watching that fearless but tough heart soften and mature into a woman willing to be boldly authentic and to risk big with her heart brought his heart to awe.
Amy, looking only at Jim, began to describe their years parenting, recounting how the man she’d once vowed not to have children with became a kind and attuned caregiver to their children. She described the experience in a way that left me with the impression that she’d experienced a healing for her own heart in the way she’d experienced him parent their son and their daughter. “Thank you for this adventure,” she concluded, by now seeming to have forgotten my presence in the room. “I cannot imagine another life.”
“Marriage is hard.” Jim said in response to my question about what advice he would give me as a new therapist. “We knew that. Also, we didn’t know that.” His words were a reminder that even couples with realistic expectations may be discouraged by the difficulty of navigating marriage.
Amy added, “you have two family of origins in the room. You have two birth orders. You have two cultures. You have, essentially, two religions.” Her statement underlined the challenge of leaving and cleaving to one another.
I was struck by Amy and Jim agreeing that marriage mentoring had been helpful for them in a way that workshops and counseling had not.
Jim and Amy’s narrative describes a marriage that has matured from a marriage that may have registered just across the line into a Quadrant 1 to a mild Quadrant 2 or 3. According to the narrative this couple shared with me, it appears that Jim was able to form a secure attachment to Amy early in their marriage. His conflict avoidance early in their marriage actually shows, in the way he explained his motivation, a high level of attunement (but an immaturity at the time in knowing how to navigate the pain embedded in conflict for Amy). Amy likely had a preoccupied attachment during the early part of their marriage which has matured, with work, into a secure attachment. By developing a secure base in Jim as an attachment figure, Amy has been able to reorient her heart to the world in a way that allows her to explore, play, and give her heart away in relationships, knowing that Jim will be there for her to return to.
This conversation gave me a glimpse into marriage unlike any other. Jim and Amy ’s willingness to be open and vulnerable about the best and worst parts of their marriage allowed me to see marriage through a new lens. Like Amy, I come from a family of origin where conflict was painful; to sit with Jim and Amy as they spoke of relearning this pattern and then spoke so kindly and intimately of the awe they have for one another gave me a new sense of hope in marriages- both for myself and future clients.