Fighting in a long-distance relationship
Illustration: Catherine LePage
She made big plans; her boyfriend made excuses. She pushed; he pulled away. But when Darby Saxbe trained to become a couples therapist, she learned to put down her weapons, lean in—and collaborate on a winning cease-fire.
"Research is me-search."

That's the joke in my psychology department. Among my graduate school classmates, our research interests reveal our insecurities with eerie accuracy. The anxiety specialist is a jittery driver. The quiet one studies shyness. The ADHD researcher switched careers. My work focuses on marriage and health—what could be a better match for the child of divorced doctors? Everyone has emotional demons to battle, but psychologists get to build up a specialized arsenal: statistics, clinical protocols, plenty of jargon.

It was fitting, then, that I started couples therapy training while my own romantic relationship was on the rocks. At the time, my boyfriend, Dan, and I had a continent between us: He'd stayed in New York to pursue his music career after I moved west for grad school, with the understanding that he would join me in Los Angeles when he felt ready. "Ready" turned out to be a hazy concept, one that shifted definitions over the course of a year, while I went through my graduate school paces and wondered how long I should wait. Worse, our conversations about the move devolved into arguments that always started and ended the same way: I would issue my latest ultimatum; he would stall with elliptical nonanswers until he found an excuse to get off the phone ("Uhh, the band's tuning up"). The more I pushed and prodded, the staler our stalemate grew.

Maybe, I thought—just maybe—if I could help unstick a few troubled couples in therapy, I could also pry myself out of a 3,000-mile deadlock.

The first sessions, alas, did not bode well. One client, Amanda*, was convinced that her workaholic husband, Jon*, preferred his job to her. Before my co-therapist and I could even take the couple's history, Amanda was in tears; 20 minutes later, she was still rehashing her anger about a business trip he'd taken two years before. When we finally wrapped up, Jon—who had barely said a word—walked out of the room at arm's length from his wife, as if allergic to her touch.

An hour of watching Amanda lob accusations at her husband left me feeling more than a little bruised myself. It wasn't until after the session, though, that I saw how closely her frustration mirrored mine, and the realization knocked the wind out of me. Dan loved his work as much as Jon did, and I wondered, like Amanda did, whether I had fallen into second place. I had started making to-do lists for Dan—check out studios in L.A., meet producers, e-mail musicians—that only irritated him. He'd planned a monthlong visit, then canceled after a last-minute gig came up. Whenever we talked about the future, he sounded evasive. Would he grow allergic to me too?

I fretted that I couldn't help my clients see past their anger when my own relationship lenses were all fogged up; that week's meeting with my couples therapy adviser couldn't come soon enough. "Your couple sounds really polarized," he said, and then explained that polarization happens when the differences that initially draw a couple together become a wedge that divides them. Amanda had been attracted to Jon's ambition, while Jon appreciated Amanda's nurturing. A few years later, his ambition seemed compulsive, and her nurturing felt smothering. We are often drawn to qualities that we lack in ourselves, my adviser said, but when conflicts develop and partners dig in their heels, mild distinctions crystallize into differences that feel insurmountable.

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