A short story by Jack Christian about the weirdness of couples counseling.
Our pre-marriage counselor, Seth, is staring at the both of us, his expression expectant. He glances to Anna and then to me, then he nods a little. His expensive-looking socks are pulled high above his expensive-looking shoes. One thing neither of us can figure is how fashionable this guy sometimes is, how one session it’s loose jeans and a hiking shirt, and the next it’s like he bought the outfit previewed in Men’s Journal.
I look at Anna and see that she has her legs crossed away from me, and is leaning her head, also away from me, at an unnatural angle against her fist, and the arm that leads to that fist is fixed so that it raises straight upward from the armrest of the love seat we are ostensibly sharing. I look down and find I’m holding in my lap, with both hands as if it were a comforting animal, a mute-colored pillow. Seth looks at each of us once more to make sure we’re both done speaking. Now, instead of saying we’re having an argument, he pronounces that we are having A Negotiation.
The strange thing I wonder when Anna and I fight is if there is contempt in our voices or on our faces. If so, we should save ourselves the eventual misery and call the whole thing off.
How do I know this? I know because we both read a magazine article last summer about a marriage researcher who has learned to register the amount of contempt a couple demonstrates toward each other. The more subtle contempt the couple displays, the more likely they’ll break up. According to him, it’s far better to tell a loved one to “Go to Hell” than it is to suggest the same with one’s posture or tone. It’s better to say “I hate you,” than to communicate it silently. The results of the study were so salient that the researcher could predict with remarkable accuracy whether or not a couple will stay together. The term for how he does this is “thin-slicing,” which, as the article explains, is the ability to make complex, complicated judgments quickly and almost without thought. In the researcher’s case, he can generally determine whether or not a couple will break up in the next five years within the first five minutes of asking them to discuss “any recent disagreement.”
The prospect of this I find maddening – the prospect that Anna and I could sit before a great arbiter of our love affair and receive a verdict more quickly than we could have the results of an at-home pregnancy test while some schmuck listens to us discuss how Anna thinks it’s probably ok to eat red meat once a week, and I think it’s safer to eat it only once a month. But, this is exactly what this guy can do. Supposedly. This is because doomed couples show their contempt for each other in minute ways that may only be perceived on the subconscious level. They don’t know they’re feeling contempt, and yet, they’re broadcasting it. They can pick it up, but don’t know they’re sending it. Once the cycle starts, it manifests in “the relationship’s DNA.”
Of course, because the article was written by Malcolm Gladwell and is actually about the phenomena by which we can “thin-slice,” (meaning the article goes on to discuss some asshole who can tell when a pro tennis player is about to double fault), there’s no prescription for how Anna and I might keep from expressing miniscule little tidbits of contempt for each other. There is only the warning of how easily it can happen, and how, like the Ebola virus, it could overtake us before we even knew what it was.
Fortunately, Seth has a new phrase for us. This new phrase he says is the corollary to the “I need” statement. He sets this up like he’s presenting a key to the kingdom. He leans forward. We lean forward. His hands suddenly become animated. It seems there’s a small chance he can work us out from under my claim that Anna never cared about my job search, and her counter-claim that actually, I’m right, she didn’t.
The new phrase is: “This is what I have to offer.” And, when we remain un-budged, he says it a few times, then he has us repeat it. Our session has devolved into something like Sesame Street. He asks again for us to repeat it. We don’t repeat it. We remain belligerent in the way students can be belligerent. We do this because Seth, in a rare moment of hurry, has put himself out there and motioned for us to follow, and because the lesson has to do with Anna’s and my stubborn psyches, we’re content to hang him out to dry. This was not our original intention, but with Seth waiting for us, and with the step he’s requesting not to our liking, we’d rather make him do a little jig.
I’m surprised to see it, actually – surprised he’s so antsy for us to move forward. Here, in the first real verbal-emotional fisticuffs we’ve staged in front of him, he’s sweetly anxious to extricate us, and to do it this session, before the office’s fast-running clock strikes four.
Now, he leans back and surmises that Anna might be offering me her confidence that I will find a job, and that I might offer to try to worry less. Then, he gives us homework. “For next session,” he says, “I want you to both think about what it means to be scared.”