December 2022 – January 2023

Arts & Letters

The couples therapist

By Abigail Ulman
A new story from Abigail Ulman, author of ‘Hot Little Hands’, for Summer Reading

The couples therapist told us to stop in the middle of a fight and say, “I love you.” It didn’t matter how bitter the argument or how virulent the anger. We had to stop and say it, both of us, and then we could continue on.

We did it for a week. “Can you not leave the vacuum cleaner sitting in the hallway overnight? You know I don’t put my contacts in first thing. I love you.” “Why are you asking me what’s for dinner as though I also didn’t go to work all day? I love you.” “I love you but can you not talk to me for, like, ever?” “I can’t – I love you – stand the absolute fucking sight of you.” “Love you, too.”

It was unclear to us, my husband and me, whether or not this exercise was a success. We went back to the couples therapist, sat on the two-seater couch and told her how it was going. Our son had overheard some of the arguments and probably thought we had lost the plot, and the phrase “I love you” had lost all meaning for both of us. My husband had even said it in the car when someone pulled out in front of him, too close and without warning.

“Okay good,” the couples therapist told us. “That’s good.”

The couples therapist told us to sign up for a dating app. It was the one that made you answer a series of questions before it connected you with your statistical matches. “Let’s see if you find each other on there,” the couples therapist said. “Let’s see if you can find your way back to each other.”

I answered the questions on my phone while sitting up in bed at 2am, and my husband answered them on his iPad before work while sitting on the toilet. This was a pretty good snapshot of why neither of us could bear the other one any more. Nevertheless, the app did connect us, with an 81 per cent compatibility rating.

Would I date this person now? I asked myself as I swiped through my husband’s photos. It was obvious he was someone who had liked to travel before the pandemic. He had a cute cat and he enjoyed the beach; he didn’t mind posting a slightly unflattering photo, which made the flattering ones seem more worthy of trust and admiration.

We had answered most of the survey questions in similar ways, except for one right near the end. “On some level, do you think it might be exciting to be taken hostage in a bank robbery?” the survey asked. “Not at all,” I had answered when the app fed that one to me. “More or less,” was the answer my husband had selected.

“More or less?” I said. “Being taken hostage would be more or less exciting?”

“What the fuck?” My husband lifted his head off his pillow. “It’s, like, one in the morning.”

“What about me? What about our son? We’d just be waiting here, watching the news, not knowing if you were alive or dead inside of an ANZ.”

“Turn the fucking light off,” my husband said. “There’s a reason your phone is backlit. You don’t need both.” He put his head back down and closed his eyes. “I love you,” he said.

The couples therapist said we were doing well. “Neither of you mentioned other people.”

“Well, we’re obviously worried about our son.”

“No, I mean other people on the app. The other people you were matched with. Neither of you seems concerned with that. It’s a promising start.”

“Start?” my husband said. “We’ve been coming here for seven weeks.”

“Hating my husband is exhausting,” I said. “I can’t imagine having the energy to think about someone new.”

“I’ll tell you what’s exhausting,” my husband said. And then he told her all about how exhausting I was. My habits and tics and the things I said and the expectations I had. Usually when he went on like this in couples therapy, I sat listening and waiting for my turn to complain about his habits and tics, personality and demands. But today I just zoned out. I thought about dinner. I thought about a team meeting at work the next day that I didn’t want to go to. I thought about a high-school friend who had wanted to be a therapist. I wondered if she’d done it. Then I found myself thinking about myself as a baby. I pictured myself at the very beginning of my life, when my parents had just brought me home, and neighbours and relatives and friends had probably all popped round to visit. “Can I hold her?” I imagined someone asking. I pictured a pair of arms reaching for me, cradling me, while my parents watched on, loving me. Could it be that I was ever that loved? That held? Had I gone spectacularly wrong in my life somewhere? Was it a problem that I wasn’t loved now?

“Where did you just go?” the couples therapist asked me. “You’re frowning.”

“Oh, I was just—” I felt embarrassed saying it. “I was thinking about myself, but as a baby.”

“Ugh, grow up,” my husband said.

“No, there’s something to that,” the couples therapist said. “There’s something to the vulnerability of that.”

The couples therapist told us to get naked. Every time an argument was building, she said, we should strip down to at least our underwear and then continue the fight.

“We can’t do that,” I told her. “We can’t do that with our son around.”

So, the couples therapist came up with a more elaborate plan. We had to book a room at a hotel somewhere in the city, travel there separately and enjoy a drink together at the bar. Then we had to go to our hotel room and spend the night taking off our clothes every time we argued and putting them back on once we’d resolved an issue.

“What if we never resolve an issue?” my husband asked me on the way home. “And how is any of this supposed to help us help our son?”

Our son was a lifecel. He had come out to us as a lifecel about six months earlier, over dinner at home. After he said it, I had reached out and gripped my husband’s knee under the table, as hard as I could. My son had sat there, staring at his plate, waiting for a response.

“Sooo you want to be celibate?” I asked eventually, trying to keep my tone breezy. “That’s fine with us. We’re supportive of you.”

“You’re 15,” my husband said. “There’ll be plenty of time for that stuff later.”

“No, you don’t get it,” our son told us. “I’ve taken a pact to never have sex. Ever. For my entire life.”

“You’ll change your mind,” my husband said.

“No, I won’t.”

“Who did you make a pact with?” I asked.

“A group of guys online.”

Nothing can really prepare you for when your son comes out as a lifecel. Nothing really prepares you for helping your son get through a pandemic, either. We had done what we could ­about that – had pancake-making nights, sushi-making nights, watched all of Stranger Things and the superhero shows, driven past his cousins’ house so he could wave to them on his 13th birthday, and then his 14th. But the fact was that we only had one kid, and he had grown bored at home.

For a while, when it was allowed, he had gone on daily walks with a girl from his class who lived a few streets away. They did that for about a month, during which time he’d developed feelings for her, and then for another month, until he told her he’d developed feelings. Apparently, she said she didn’t share his feelings but she didn’t want their friendship to change. Then she stopped answering his messages and invitations to go for walks until he stopped sending them. That, he told us the night he came out to us as a lifecel, was what had led him to his new community of friends online. It seemed like that was the biggest, most important part of his new identity: the community online.

I was still gripping my husband’s knee when I asked our son if being a lifecel meant he harboured a desire or intent to hurt anyone. He assured us that, no, he didn’t want to harm anyone at all. He simply both identified as heterosexual and never wanted to talk to girls again.

“But all people blow people off and ghost and stuff,” I said. “Not just girls and women.”

“This wasn’t just her,” he said. “It was all her friends, talking shit about me. It was this whole thing.”

“But what about you and your friends online?” my husband asked. “Are you doing, like, hate speech about girls on there?”

“No, the point is we don’t talk about girls. We just talk about, like, crypto and games and dumb politics and stuff,” he said. “There’s one guy I talk about music to.”

“So you’re volcels?” my husband asked.

“No, volcel is temporary. Lifecel is forever.”

“And you’re not incels.”

“No this is voluntary.”

“Why not just change the name, then?” my husband asked. “You guys are never gonna shake the bad PR of that association.”

“Because we’re lifecels, Dad.” Our son stood up and pushed his chair away. “Don’t you get it? That’s what we fucking are.”

At first, our son’s revelation brought my husband and me closer together. We stayed up late in our room with the door closed, searching the internet for information about his new subculture, and discussing whether or not we needed to tell his school. The last lockdown had finally ended and things outside were slowly becoming busy and social again, but we mostly stayed home, huddled together with worry. A support group of two.

Over time, though, our opinions on our son’s situation began to diverge. “Let’s look on the bright side,” my husband said one night, his mouth full of toothpaste. “If he’s going to be celibate for life, we don’t have to worry about consent.”

“He still needs to learn about consent,” I said.

“STDs won’t be an issue. Or unwanted pregnancies.”

“Our son is a misogynist,” I said. “He told us himself, he hates girls.”

“Not all girls,” my husband said. “He seems okay with you. And his female teachers. He told me the other day that he’s not against trans people.”

“Why are you making out like our son’s hate group is an interesting new hobby?”

“Why are you treating it like it’s anything more than a passing phase?” My husband went into the bathroom and I heard him spit and rinse before he said, “Your reaction is going to make this into a bigger deal than it is.”

By the time the two of us were driving to the GP to talk about finding a therapist for our son, my husband and I could barely look at each other. I hated even breathing the same air as him. When he told the doctor being a lifecel was “kind of like being a priest, but with more hormonal acne”, I had to excuse myself and go stand in the waiting room so I didn’t scream. The receptionist smiled at me behind her mask. When my husband came out, he handed me a business card that the GP had given him. “Couples therapist” it said on it. I dialled the number from the car.

The hotel had been used as a quarantine hotel during the pandemic and, even though it was perfectly nice, I couldn’t shake the association. I didn’t tell my husband that, though. Instead, I kissed him quickly when I saw him in the lobby and said, “You look nice.”

“So do you,” he said.

We pulled out stools at the hotel bar and sat down.

“How was your day?”

“It wasn’t bad.”

Having to say “I love you” when we were arguing meant that it felt safer to stay within the bounds of polite interaction now. Explosive expressions of hatred had come to necessitate forced declarations of love, and all of it added up to a raw intensity and vulnerability that was best avoided.

The same went for getting naked. When it was time to go up to the room, we rolled our overnight bags in and then sat down, side by side, on the bed. We both stared straight ahead at the TV without looking at each other, avoiding eye contact even in our reflection on the blank screen.

At home, we didn’t have a TV in our bedroom; we’d agreed from the beginning of our relationship that we wouldn’t watch TV in bed. For a long time, we’d managed to be completely screen-free in our room, until one day a phone found its way onto a bedside table, and then another, and then the iPad got plugged into the socket next to the bathroom sink. It was true that no TV had ever been brought in, but staring at this one now, I realised that our shared values hadn’t saved us. A TV-free bedroom didn’t mean we hadn’t found other ways to avoid facing each other.

“You hate this hotel,” my husband said.

“I kind of do,” I said.

“This was never gonna work. None of the couples therapist’s ideas worked.”

“I guess not,” I said. “But it’s good we tried. For him.”

“That’s true.”

We looked at each other then. And it was clear that we didn’t need to say “I love you” or take off our clothes and then put them back on, or even get under the covers and stay there overnight. Our marriage was over – we both knew it – and it was time for us to go home.

We agreed to tell our son about our decision when he came home from his cousins’ place the next morning. The next morning, though, we decided we’d tell him after our next session with the couples therapist, so she could advise us on the most careful way to share the news. The morning after that, it was a Monday, and I woke to the sound of my husband’s phone alarm going off. I opened my eyes. The sun was beaming in around the curtains. I blinked a few times, then a thought floated into my brain. My marriage is over. I turned to look at my husband. He was still sleeping, his forehead furrowed. I reached across and turned off his alarm. I waited to feel a surge of annoyance and disdain, but it didn’t come. I felt neutral. A little positive, even. My marriage is over, I thought.

On my way down the hall, my foot got caught on the vacuum cleaner hose and I grabbed on to the wall to stop myself from toppling over. Again, no annoyance, no anger. My marriage is over.

My son was in the kitchen, spreading marmalade on toast and listening to a lifecel podcast. “You can optimise your brain and body and achieve maximum potential,” a guy with a South African accent was saying. “But women will always fuck that up. They will emotionally leech the energy out of every cell in your motherfucking body if you don’t keep them as far away as possible. I’m sorry, is it okay if I swear on this thing?”

“Absolutely,” the host said.

“Morning!” I said to my son, my new mantra in my head as I opened the fridge.

“Morning,” he said.

The mantra got me through the next few hours – the traffic on the way to drop my son at school, the inane drivetime radio playing in the cafe as I waited for a coffee, a snide remark my boss made in the company chat about a missed deadline. It was the mantra, not that remark, that pushed me to work harder than I had in months, meeting the missed deadline, problem-solving at the team meeting, sending my final email at 4.59pm before texting my husband “What should we do for dins?”

The mantra made it feel okay to not cook and get food delivered that night. It made me feel okay about going out to eat the next night. The night after that, I made a giant bowl of nachos and my son and I ate them on the couch in front of the TV. “I’m glad you and Dad are seeing the couples therapist,” he said after dinner, when he stood up to go to his room.

“You are? How come?”

“I dunno, just to make things better.”

I wasn’t sure why he’d said it or why he felt that way, but I knew it had something to do with the mantra. I knew it was changing everything.

The mantra helped me fall asleep at night, and it gently woke me in the morning. It made every decision easier to make, and every disappointment easier to shake off. My husband slept through his alarm. My marriage is over. The cat threw up under the couch. My marriage is over. I paid too much for wilted lettuce. My boss took credit for my work. I spent 90 minutes on hold with the energy company because they’d charged us twice. My marriage is over. I walked into the vice principal’s office at my son’s school to talk about the male supremacist group he’d joined online. It’s over, over, over.

“Sorry I’m late,” I said. “I got stuck at work.”

“No worries,” the vice principal said. She was sitting behind her desk, looking at her computer.

I took a seat next to my husband and glanced over at him, expecting him to glare back, maybe even look at his watch to show me how annoyed he was that I was late. But instead he shrugged and gave me an encouraging smile. I wondered if he had his own version of a mantra, secretly helping him get through.

“Your husband’s been filling me in on what’s been going on,” the vice principal told me. “I was telling him that every single student here has had some kind of issue after the lockdowns. So, your son is no different in that way. But there are a few things that can help. Have you considered limiting his internet activity?”

“We thought about asking him to leave his phone in the kitchen overnight,” my husband said. “Or even setting up his computer in the living room. We just didn’t know if it would do anything.”

“You need to block his access to certain apps and websites,” the vice principal said. “There’s software you can get.”

“I feel like that might just make him rebel against us,” I said. “At least this way he’s honest about what he’s doing.”

“Is he isolated?” the vice principal asked. “Does he have close friends?”

“Well…” my husband’s voice trailed off. “He has his friends online. That’s his main community. He’s very committed to them.”

“Those aren’t real friends,” the vice principal said.

“I mean, they are to him,” I said. “I don’t know how that would go if we just cut him off from that.”

“And are there problems or issues at home that could be exacerbating his behaviour?” the vice principal asked. “Anything the school should know about?” I looked at my husband and he looked at me. My marriage is over, I thought. But I didn’t want to share my mantra with the vice principal, or anyone else. “No, everything’s fine at home,” I said. “We’re just concerned about our son.”

The school bell was ringing when we came out of the vice principal’s office and suddenly we were surrounded by students with backpacks, rushing to leave the building. There was a parking ticket on my windshield when I got to my car; I’d accidentally parked in a five-minute spot. I said the mantra in my head as I opened the car door and tossed the ticket onto the passenger seat. That’s when I looked up and saw them: my son standing with two girls in front of the school’s low fence. He was standing a metre away from the two of them – social-distancing distance – and he wasn’t chatting with them or even looking their way, but it was clear they were there together. I got out of the car and went over.

“Hi,” I said.

“Hey,” my son said.

“Ready to go?”

“Would you be able to give me a lift home?” one of the girls asked. It was the girl who lived a few streets away from us. “My mum’s busy and she hates when I Uber everywhere.”

“I said it would be okay,” my son said.

“Absolutely!” I knew I sounded too excited, like a mum on a cereal commercial. “Do you need a lift, too?”

“No,” the other girl said, “I have to stay for practice.” The two girls said bye to each other, and I tried to compose myself on the walk to the car.

My son and the girl got into the back seat using opposite doors. They sat on opposite sides of the car, looking out opposite windows and saying nothing. The parking ticket sat on the seat next to me like it was my date. I drove carefully, worried that any sudden movement of the vehicle might upset the emotional equilibrium inside. I turned every corner gently, and came to slow, rolling stops at traffic lights. I lowered the volume on the radio and flicked through the stations, looking for something calming. There was nothing calming.

“Don’t you hate drivetime radio?” I asked. “It’s always the same.”

“Yeah, everyone’s called, like, ‘Bigsy and Jude’ or whatever,” the girl said. In the rearview mirror, I could see my son trying not to laugh.

The couples therapist had a new couch. It was a three-seater and, as my husband and I sat down, I wondered if it was because of all the new relationship configurations that were happening now. Throuples and open relationships and polyamory. Maybe she wouldn’t be called a couples therapist for much longer.

“We had made up our minds,” I told her. “We were breaking up.”

“It felt like the right decision.”

“But then our son got happy.”

“And now we don’t know what to do.”

“Look at you two,” the couples therapist said, “finishing each other’s sentences.”

“Is he happy because we’re breaking up?” I asked. “Or because the break-up makes it seem like we’re still together?”

“He’s happy because you’re happy,” the couples therapist told us. “So, whatever you decide to do now, make sure you’ll be happy on the other side.”

It wasn’t easy to work out what that might be. My husband said he thought we should stay together. Keep coming to the couples therapist, and trying to make it work.

“I have more exercises that could help,” the couples therapist told us.

I thought maybe we should keep it how it was; we’d be broken up but we just wouldn’t tell our son.

“How long could you do that for?” the couples therapist asked.

I shrugged. “Maybe till he’s 18?”

“So, three years,” my husband said.

“Yeah, more like two and a half.” I thought about my husband, the iPad and the toilet, and I wondered if the mantra could get me through two and a half years. I thought about what the look on our son’s face would be when we told him we were getting a divorce, and how we’d say it wasn’t his fault and he’d say, “Yeah, I know.” I thought about how moments like that are like emotional sun damage; how the results don’t make themselves apparent until years later when it can be hard to pinpoint when the actual moment of irreversible injury occurred. I wondered if one day our son might find himself on a therapist’s couch, sitting by himself, or with someone else. I wondered if he might ever bring a baby home from a hospital, and love it as much as I loved him.

“Where did you go just now?” the couples therapist asked my husband. “What are you thinking?”

“Just about telling our son,” my husband said, “that it’s over.”

I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been in my son’s room, and as my husband knocked on the door, I wondered if I’d be horrified by what I saw inside. I pictured months’ worth of dirty clothes piled up, maybe a dartboard with Hillary Clinton’s face on it. But when he called “come in” and we opened the door, it pretty much looked the same in there as it always had. The monstera next to the window had grown a few new leaves, and there was a pile of books on the desk that momentarily made me hopeful that he was a reader, until I saw that they were school textbooks and looked like they’d never been opened. My son was sitting on his bed with his laptop on his lap, his phone in his hand. The cat was curled up next to him.

“Hey,” he said.

“Hey,” my husband said.

“What you up to?” I asked.

“Just chatting with someone.”

“Who?” my husband asked. He perched on the end of my son’s bed.

“Just a friend. In Taiwan.”

“Are you chatting about lifecel stuff?” I asked him.

“No,” he said. “We’re trying to teach ourselves how to play blackjack.”

I sat down in my son’s desk chair, and thought about that for a moment. I decided to believe it was the better option.

Abigail Ulman

Abigail Ulman is the author of the short-story collection Hot Little Hands. She is based in Melbourne.

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