A Counselor’s Couch and a Coffee Table

A Counselor’s Couch and a Coffee Table

We sat on a counselor’s couch, trying to figure out why so many of our conversations devolved into battles. Everything from how long the baby should be allowed to have a pacifier (I usually win the baby battles) to what the best route would be to any given destination (my husband always wins the battles related to maps) is fair game for us for a tense game of verbal tug of war, with the winner pulling the rope a little further with each new piece of evidence. Like most marital arguments, it’s not just evidence that’s volleyed back and forth—it’s emotions, too. We might say we’re engaging in some kind of calm, persuasive reasoning when we argue, but relationships that are built on love rather than bullet points tend to get strained under a constant barrage of cold hard facts. It wasn’t a surprise that my husband and I were feeling this strain, considering our mutual obsession with persuading rather than embracing each other.

Recently, we had an argument about whether M.C. Escher was an artist or a mathematician. My husband likes Escher’s famous prints of repeating patterns, but when I told him that I first learned about Escher in geometry class and that his work was based on math, he didn’t believe me. We both dug in, and it was only that saving grace called Wikipedia that helped us acknowledge that we were both right.

But let’s get back to the counselor; we’ll call her Amelia. After enough sessions to witness our shared stubbornness and desire to prevail with a preponderance of evidence, Amelia had us do a simple exercise. She pointed to the coffee table in front of us where she kept mints and tissues and fidget toys, ubiquitous now in therapists’ offices.

“Can you picture the problem you’re facing, the thing you’re trying to solve, sitting on the table in front of you, rather than sitting between you and dividing you?”

We stared at her; neither of us really wanted to do a roleplay involving scooting closer to each other, but that’s exactly what we had to do.

“You’re next to each other,” Amelia said.

“Duh, can we leave now?” I wanted to say, because honestly I had become comfortable girding myself for battle and slinging figurative arrows in my husband’s general direction, on the other side of the table with the problem looming between us.

“You have to remember that in marriage, the priority is not on solving any given problem, or making any particular decision, though of course you want to do that eventually,” Amelia went on, ignoring the small mental darts I was launching in her direction because I don’t like admitting that I’m part of the problem.

“Instead, the priority is on the two of you staying on the same team, sitting on the same side of the table, and keeping the problems where they belong—near you, perhaps, but not between you. You need to approach them together, not separately.”

Mercy and truth have met together;
Righteousness and peace have kissed.

Psalm 85:10

Our Psalm for the second Sunday of Advent paints a picture of the way that in God’s kingdom and through God’s reign in our lives, disparate elements are brought together. It is a natural but often sinful longing that my husband and I both brought to that counselor’s couch. We each want to be right, to be stronger and better than each other. We each want to win.

But in the Kingdom of God, which Jesus ushered in when he came to earth, it is not in persuasion and prevailing that we flourish; it is actually humility that heals. We read in the book of Ephesians (2:16) that it is through Christ that we are able to embrace one another and overcome hostility—whether that’s the obvious hostility between people of different races and cultures that the Apostle Paul was writing to, or the private “counselor’s couch” confessions of people who have promised to love each other in the sacrament of marriage.

A courtroom and a contentious relationship look very similar to each other, and eventually, a husband and wife may as well be at opposing podiums in the supreme court of their own home. When we prioritize being right, we lose sight of each other. As resentment rises and self-righteousness reigns, sometimes we even forget about the very problem we need to solve or decision we need to make. But even a zinger of a closing argument is not worth the pain and distance that grows when winning is more important than loving.

I’m tempted to ask when I read Psalm 85 if mercy is better or if truth is better, if peace should win or if righteousness is a more deserving victor. But that’s not how God’s economy works, and it is only with his help that mercy and truth, righteousness and peace, can come together harmoniously. We see this so clearly in the divinely ordered relationship of marriage, which only functions well when disparate elements, and distinct people, come together for the sake of unity rather than insisting on their own way.

“Keep a soft spot for each other,” Amelia closed our session with. “Stay on the same side of the table, and remember that maintaining your connection is so much more important than who wins or loses.”

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