She sat on a floral-patterned couch across from us, awkwardly staring at the wheels on my wheelchair. We had just given her a general overview of what we were hoping to accomplish in therapy and were waiting in a long, uncomfortable silence for her response. One minute of complete silence passed. I looked over at my husband and mouthed, “what is happening?” He shrugged and yawned as he relaxed into his chair. Another minute passed before she enthusiastically said, “Well, aren’t you two an unusual couple? Wow!”
When my husband and I got engaged, we made an agreement to go to marriage counseling for our first year of married life because we wanted to ensure the smoothest transition and strongest foundation possible for our new life together. We were committed to growing together through whatever life would throw at us, but we knew this wouldn’t happen magically on its own. With all of the major changes marriage brings, the first year seemed like it would be the most difficult. Not having our own separate lives or space anymore was both exciting and daunting. It was overwhelming to think about how to coordinate unpredictable and conflicting schedules, make all decisions great and small together, and everything else that a successful marriage requires. The first year seemed like it could become fertile ground for resentments, misunderstandings, and letdowns to take root and grow. We wanted to do everything we could to bring these issues into the light and deal with them in hopes of building a rock-solid marriage, so we proactively sought counseling.
This was our first visit with marriage counselor number one, and things were already beyond weird. I stared at her blankly and asked, “What do you mean by that?” I looked in the direction of my husband, who was sitting next to me in an oversized swivel lounge chair, leaning back with his hands behind his head. He winked at me, which is his unspoken way of letting me know that he’s aware things are about to go completely off the rails but to stay cool because he’s got me.
He leaned forward in the chair and said, “Unusual.” He crossed his arms, “How so?” His tone was clipped, and I knew he was irritated. We both already knew the answer, but out of curiosity, he wanted to see how far she would take this.
She leaned forward, seemingly trying to match his positioning. “Well, you see,” she paused, sighed, and had the look of someone that was just tasked with delivering devastating news, “Jessica is a handicap, and you’re not. You seem like a capable, strong man,” she giggled. “It’s unusual that a woman in her condition would have any man at all, especially an outstanding guy like you.” My husband smiled ear to ear at me, raised his eyebrows, and gave me his I told you so look.
“Jessica,” she continued, “do you know how lucky you are to have him? My goodness, if you want to be a good and supportive wife, cut him some slack. Focus on the fact that he married you, and be happy with that!” She lowered her voice, looked at me over her glasses, and said, “Lower your expectations, honey.” My husband quickly turned a laugh into a cough, and I bit my lip, forcing myself not to smile. Her eyes were scolding me as she talked down to me, frowning. “Women in your condition need to be realistic about what you bring to a marriage.”
There it was—the meaning behind the long silence, out of place staring, and off-the-wall comments.
Views like this counselors are not uncommon. As a wife with a visible disability, I am viewed as the less valuable one in the marriage who shouldn’t have expectations of my selfless husband. I have to work hard not to internalize these attitudes and begin seeing myself through their eyes as worthless, a burden, or inferior.
Sometimes it’s easier for me to handle if the comments are extreme and callous like they were from this counselor. It helps the words lose power when they are so obviously coming from a place of pure prejudice not based on reality. I had never before been referred to as “a handicap,” and I don’t think I’ve heard that description before or since. The absurdity of that phrase made her comment almost humorous, though no less reprehensible. This mental health professional was projecting her own biases while giving me terrible, damaging, disparaging advice.
Luckily, I could see through it, and I was fascinated and entertained by her unprofessionalism. I wanted to appear as if I were actively listening, so I smiled and nodded at her, but I was also thinking about the car ride home. I knew I wouldn’t hear the end of my husband’s I told you so win. I put my hand on his knee, looked into his eyes, and said as sincerely as possible, “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you I was ‘a handicap.’ I was under the impression that your observation skills were legendary, and I thought that you could have figured this out on your own.”
“A handicap!” he gasped. “This is information you should have disclosed,” he deadpanned. He shook his head and said disapprovingly, “How could you have thought a capable, strong, outstanding man like myself would have married a handicap like you?”
Laughing and amused with ourselves, he motioned for me to head towards the door, and without saying a word to the counselor, we left, never to return.
We both knew it would be a challenge to find a therapist who would be able to see me as an equal and valuable partner in my marriage and not just as an embodiment of the negative and flat-out incorrect stereotypes associated with a wheelchair. When I had discovered this particular counselor online, my husband had looked over her profile and, five seconds later, definitively said, “Nope! She won’t work out.” She was a divorce attorney during the day and moonlighted as a licensed marriage and family therapist. He thought the two career choices were odd and too much of a conflict of interest, while I thought the attorney in her would keep an open, rational, and neutral view of us. I was wrong.
Even though I was prepared for this search to be a challenge, I didn’t think it would be as difficult as it was. Our second marriage counselor couldn’t see past my wheelchair either. Twenty minutes into our first session, we left. For similar reasons, we didn’t make it past the first session with our third, fourth, fifth, or sixth counselors. It was disheartening to see the abundance of prejudice and blatant ignorance in all of the six therapists we met.
Eventually, it started to get to me. The evening after meeting with our sixth failed therapist, as we were making dinner, I was having difficulty focusing on my part of the new, complicated recipe we were trying because I was feeling drained and defeated from our appointment. I watched my husband efficiently move around the kitchen and blurted out in rapid-fire, “Why did you even marry me? What if these counselors are right and I’m not going to be enough for you in the long run? What if I am worthless and have no business being married to you? But none of this makes sense because if they think you’re so great, why don’t they trust your judgment in who you married? What if they–”
“STOP!” he snapped. “DO NOT LET THIS CRAP GET INTO YOUR HEAD!” His voice was so loud it startled me out of my downward spiral, and I sat in silence.
“Hey,” he said, his tone soft and thoughtful now, “we knew finding a therapist wouldn’t be easy, but we’re tough, and we can handle this. We’ll keep searching and wait it out” He hugged me. “Besides, this isn’t your first rodeo, babe. You know this beast.” He reminded me that I had a lifetime of experience dealing with this same ignorant message from society and said that it just sounded different now that I was receiving it in the new role of a wife.
He was right. I didn’t recognize it, but it was the same devaluing message I was used to hearing. It was just coming at me in an unfamiliar way that slipped past my defenses.
These six counselors weren’t saying I was a lousy wife; they were saying, in their eyes, I was a useless disabled person, and in their minds, they couldn’t comprehend why my husband would want me as his wife. They didn’t know anything about me as a wife or about our marriage, and because of their deeply misguided preconceptions, we didn’t stick around long enough for them to find out. It wasn’t about me; it was about their ignorance. I took a deep breath and relaxed because now I realized what I was dealing with. I had a lifetime of experience processing this message from all different areas in life, and I was confident in knowing how to conquer this beast.
I had low expectations when we met our seventh marriage counselor. After about a five-minute wait, we were greeted by a sharply dressed, younger-looking guy who led us through a maze of hallways to his cozy corner office with bay windows overlooking a wetland area. The windows were open, and his office was filled with revitalizing fresh air. He sat across from us on a swanky gray couch and asked, “What can I help you two with?” His face was open and friendly. He had welcoming, confident energy, and I immediately liked him. He wasn’t preoccupied with my wheelchair and didn’t stare at me awkwardly. He spoke to me with complete acceptance, and I felt comfortable and seen by him. My being disabled and my husband being nondisabled was a non-issue for him. I relaxed in the hard-won fact that we had finally found the right fit for us and felt proud that our perseverance had paid off.
Despite the slow start, our one year of marriage counseling turned out better than we expected. The counselor thought our plan was brilliant, and he was genuinely excited to navigate the challenges of that first year with us. There were more obstacles than we had anticipated, but we learned how to handle them, and our relationship grew closer and stronger. During our sessions with this counselor, there wasn’t one time that he devalued me because of my disability. He never even mentioned my disability, and it didn’t come up for the entire year. While my disability is a fundamental part of who I am, it wasn’t relevant to what we were trying to achieve with these sessions. There also wasn’t one time he treated my husband as superior just because he isn’t disabled. That shouldn’t be remarkable to me, but it is. I am so conditioned to receiving devaluation that when it doesn’t happen, it’s shocking in a good way. He called both of us out on our shortcomings, held us accountable, didn’t let us get careless with each other, and made us do the work. He truly helped us build the rock-solid foundation we were looking for.
So far, we’ve been together for twenty-six years. There have been ups and downs, twists and turns, and some bumps in the road, but life doesn’t usually take the straightest path. We have weathered all the storms, and every year, our marriage gets better and better.
Whether the familiar beast shows up as a whisper or a roar, it doesn’t matter. All that matters is that we both know it will keep rearing its ugly head, and when it does, we know how not to let it in.