Michelle Barrett: "We'd get meaner with every fight"

Her Story
Michelle began dating Joe, a rival marketing rep who proposed a year later over ice cream cones in the park. Soon after, the fighting began. "We were constantly getting into stupid arguments that left me feeling alone," Michelle says. They sought help but the arguments continued to escalate. "We'd get meaner with each fight," Michelle recalls. "I threatened to leave, and he called my bluff. That's when I got really scared."

Wake-Up Moment
Michelle's biggest fear was losing Joe. A friend mentioned a weekend "reconnecting" workshop for couples, but Michelle had burned out on therapists. Faced with a decision, Michelle's mother asked her, "If you don't do this, are you prepared to live with the consequences?" That struck Michelle like lightning. "Joe and I were in a hurtful holding pattern," she says. "My mom's words jolted me into action."

At the workshop, the first exercise was an exorcism. "We had to act out a scary childhood moment," Michelle recalls. "[My stepfather] was extremely verbally abusive to me, and my model for how men acted. So if Joe disagreed with me, I'd hear my stepfather and freak out."

Following the workshop, Michelle confronted her stepfather, who apologized for treating her badly. Now, she says, "whenever I'm mad at Joe, I ask myself, 'What's this really about?'" As a result, the arguments don't escalate. "We love each other too much to let minor blowups tear us apart," Michelle says.

Next: One woman learns when to stop helping


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