Bianca Bagnarelli

Editor's Note: Every Monday, Lori Gottlieb answers questions from readers about their problems, big and small. Have a question? Email her at dear.therapist@theatlantic.com.

Dear Therapist,

Last year, I started working at a company that has an employee-assistance program. I've taken advantage of it and have finally started seeing a counselor to address my anxiety and depression, which have worsened since moving halfway across the country for this job. Together we’ve come up with strategies to fix some of the aspects of my work environment that make me most anxious, and now I’m much calmer and happier at work.

However, I’ve been unable to talk with her about my relationship with my spouse, which caused my anxiety and depression to spike even before the move and new job. Every time I try to bring this up, I start crying and am literally unable to say words until I switch to a different topic.

I think part of this reluctance is the result of growing up in a divorced household and feeling like any marital strife is an unforgivable personal failing. I’m especially frustrated because I believe she could help me work through these issues, as everything she’s suggested so far has made a noticeable improvement in my life.

I feel like I’m failing at therapy by not talking about my “real” problems with my counselor. How can I get over this mental block? Should I break things off and try again in a few months so I don’t waste her time?

Allie
Denver, Colo.


Dear Allie,

What you’re experiencing is very common, and I hope you can take comfort in knowing that most people hide things from their therapist at one point or another. To get past this, though, you’ll want to understand more about why sharing your marital challenges with your therapist is so hard for you.

People have many reasons for hiding the things they most need to talk about. Sometimes they worry that the information will make the therapist view them in a negative light (say, admitting that they’re having an affair or that they scream at their kids). Or they might find the issue embarrassing (say, anything to do with sex). Other times they’re in denial (Yeah, I drink more than I should, but it’s not affecting my life in a significant way). Sometimes people hide things because they worry that they won’t be believed (they may not have been in the past). And sometimes people hide things to avoid not just the therapist, but themselves—to avoid confronting their shame or pain, or the truth they know they need to tell.

Therapists are also familiar with something called a “doorknob disclosure,” in which a patient says something she should have said during the session on the way to—or while standing at—the door. “By the way,” a patient might begin casually, although whatever comes next will be anything but an offhand aside. It’s not uncommon for patients to go through an entire session talking about this or that, only to spill something important in the last 10 seconds (“Oh, and just for what it’s worth, my biological mother found me on Facebook”). In these cases, people don’t want you to have a chance to comment, or they want to leave you feeling as unsettled as they do. (Special delivery! Here’s all my turmoil; sit with it all week, will you?)

But perhaps the most common reason for hiding information is this: Once you bring something up, you might have to deal with it—not just the situation itself, but the uncomfortable feelings that accompany it. In your case, if you start crying whenever you consider talking about your marital strife, you probably have some deep feelings about it. There may be sadness, or anxiety, or shame, but I imagine there’s also fear: fear that your marriage will end as your parents’ marriage ended, fear of the changes that you and/or your spouse might need to make to improve the relationship, fear of the unknown. How much easier it sometimes feels to cling to the familiar, to let sleeping dogs lie.

But while sharing difficult truths might come with a cost—the need to face them—it also comes with a reward: freedom. The truth releases us from our internal prisons and gives us the possibility of moving forward. The longer you wait, however, the more entrenched the problem becomes. Which is why instead of worrying about whether you’re wasting your therapist’s time, you’d be better off focusing on how you’d be wasting more of your own time if you were to leave and wait for something to shift—time you could be using right now to improve your marriage.

That doesn’t mean you have to just come right out and say, “I’m having problems in my marriage.” You can start by telling your therapist about your current dilemma. Let her know that you haven’t been talking about something that you feel you should be, and that you’re having trouble doing so. You can share that your instinct is to leave and come back when you’re more able to open up, but that she’s been so helpful with the work issues and you have a feeling she’d be helpful with this issue, too. Let her know that every time you contemplate bringing it up—and you still don’t need to say what “it” is—you start to cry and change the subject.

Talking about what happens to you in those moments is just as important as talking about the marital problems themselves. In fact, the two are probably related, in that you may have trouble bringing things up with your spouse as well. The therapy room is a safe space in which to understand and work through your patterns, so learning to be open with your therapist will help you learn how to be more open with your partner, too.

Eventually, you’ll be able to talk with your therapist about your marriage, and also your parents’ marriage, and how it informs some beliefs and behaviors that aren’t serving you well now. But what a great opportunity you have, starting as soon as your next session, to share the truth of your experience in the moment: “I’m having trouble being open in here, and even though it scares me, I’m wondering if we can begin to talk about my fear.”


Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.