Power CoupleOct 27, 2023
We went on our first date. We went to the movies and held hands for the very first time. We got engaged. Our lives were moving forward quickly to fellowships and careers. We needed to know what we were doing and where we were headed, and he was adamant that we get married before we were Attendings and making the big bucks! He didn’t want us to overspend on our wedding in the delirium of new money.
I realize now, all these years later, that I knew right away that Victor was my person. I was so in awe of his ability to do and be everything he put his mind to. I put him on a pedestal and I never felt like I’d be enough—it’s part of what made me shy away instead of leaning in when I had the chance four years earlier. Instead of just believing in myself, I worried I would never live up to his standards. We all do this. We look for external validation in our partners, when really the person that we are is enough. It has to be. If we’re not enough in ourselves, there’s no possibility for real intimacy with another person.
When I Knew There Was Work To Do
As time went on, in my marriage, it became clear that there were pieces that weren’t working. We were in love, passionate, connected, but still something wasn’t quite right.
Victor and I had, shall we say, insufficient conflict management skills.
The first few years of our marriage were incredibly passionate. We had a ton of fun together. We were committed and honest with one another, but things could get explosive. And neither of us were very allowing of it. If he got over-stimulated and angry I would think that something was wrong with him. And when I became passive-aggressive and shut down, he would think something was wrong with me. Then we would each react and do something that pushed each other’s buttons even harder. We didn’t allow one another to have space to just be.
I found myself saying things like, “I can’t have a child with him if we can’t even get through conflict together.” But we were such an amazing team most of the time. We were able to make huge changes in our lives, especially financially. By other people we were viewed as a “power couple.” Able to visualize and achieve our biggest goals. From the outside we were unstoppable. But inside the marriage, we were struggling, at least when it came to handling conflict.
Fast-forward six years. We had two kids, and though our values and goals and desires were in total alignment, our communication and conflict skills, or lack thereof, left us teetering on the edge.
Like so many couples and families and individuals around the world, it was the beginning of the COVID pandemic that really created a sea-change.
We decided, early on, that we would live apart. Victor was working with immuno-compromised patients, and he saw death at the hands of COVID every day in those early weeks and months. He moved into a hotel close to his work, and my mom drove down to start helping with the kids. We had an au pair but she left after a few months of COVID because she was so depressed. Part of it was the strictness of our household. We did outside activities but saw no one—not even family, other than my mom—and we expected the same of her. Which was difficult.
That separation from Victor made me feel a huge lack of connection. There was no touch, no kissing, no playfulness. All of the things that bound us together had been taken away. Victor, for his part, was facing his own mortality. He has asthma and the threat of the havoc that COVID could wreak on him and his lungs was very real. His brain works on data, so he saw the numbers of people dying, especially with comorbidities, and envisioned death on his doorstep because of it.
I, on the other hand, am quite adept at denial.
I didn’t see what he saw. I joke sometimes that I would be the worst ER physician, because I would send everyone home! Aw, you’re okay. You’ll be fine. It’s why radiology is such a good fit for me, because I actually see, on film, what’s wrong in a patient’s body. My job is to describe exactly what I see. There’s not the same guesswork as there is in the ER.
In general, I live in a rose-colored world, and I didn’t want the pandemic to make things gray and dark—death looming in the background—the way it had become for Victor. We’re both cautious and we took COVID very seriously, but my level of concern didn’t match his and it was hard on both of us.
During those days, everytime we saw one another—outside, masks on—we would get into an argument. Victor started to call it out. “If you’re this unhappy,” he said to me, “eventually you’re going to be asking me for a divorce.”
It hit me hard when he said that. I remember having great times too, during this period, but our inability to have healthy conflict was clearly causing problems—and now that our connected time was limited by the pandemic, the bad was outweighing the good for the first time ever. I knew I had to do something about it.
I signed up for my first coaching program with a woman I knew who coached physicians in relationships. Before the program started, I wanted to get all of my thoughts clear, because I knew I would be speaking in front of other physicians, some of whom might know Victor or me. So I just journaled, a bit of a free-for-all, about all of my feelings about Victor and our marriage. And when I got done, I looked at what I had written and I realized, “I’m painting my husband as a monster.” When I knew good and well that he wasn’t.
All of the thoughts in my head sounded like:
He doesn’t appreciate me.
He doesn’t love me.
I was shocked by my own storytelling. I knew it wasn’t true. I knew my husband to be caring and loving and generous and kind and yet here, in black and white, I was accusing him of being a man that he wasn’t. I was choosing not to write any of the good down. My heart was so filled with disconnection and resentment, it was all I could see. I was feeling unloved and I wanted him to take the blame for it.
I was the victim.
When I went on that first group call, the coach gave me an assignment. She told me to go home and write down twenty ways that I felt appreciated by Victor.
“It could be the way he looks at you when you hand him a mask,” She told me. “The way you hold hands. Any moment when you are feeling appreciated and he is in that story, write that down. Collect the moments when you feel surrounded by appreciation because of his presence.”
Do you hear the subtle distinction in this assignment? Notice she didn’t say, “Write down anytime that he makes you feel appreciated.” Because no other person, not even our spouse, can make us feel any way. But our story about another person can be focused on appreciation instead of recrimination, and that’s what she was asking me to do: to shift my storytelling from unappreciated to appreciated. I wasn’t supposed to fabricate anything, but simply to notice all of the moments of appreciation that I had been blocking out in service of my negative story:
I am unloved.
I did the assignment. I don’t even know if I got all the way to twenty, but I started the list and almost instantly the lens I was using to view our relationship changed.
I started noticing, looking for, and even creating more and more moments of appreciation.
As I looked and collected and wrote down I began to realize it was all up to me. I was in total control of which story I was choosing to tell about my husband, and our relationship, at any given moment.
The coaching was so effective for me that I started signing up for other programs, one of which was a financial program in which the primary message wasn’t about penny-pinching or saving, it was all about making more money. Her perspective was that anyone can create wealth. It’s simply a matter of recognizing where and how you create value.
She asked us all to think deeply about the skills we have outside (or inside) of our chosen careers, and where we feel called to add value.
For months I had been thinking, reading and learning all about relationships. I had successfully set my own relationship on a path to healing. I loved talking about relationships, going deep about people’s lives and goals and unfulfilled wishes. I understand how I could add value: I could make it my personal goal to figure out the secrets of a happy marriage. I would set out to interview all of the power couples I could, learn their ways, and share them with the world!
It was at this moment that I found my calling. Or rediscovered it, maybe.
In many ways I think I had wanted my whole life to help people in the way I’m helping them now. I wanted to hear about their lives and talk about their relationships and help them to heal. When I was younger I had thought about becoming a psychiatrist, but I rejected it because of the stigma around the profession and the reputation that psychiatrists have for being troubled themselves. As much as I respect psychiatrists, I did not have four youthful years to go back to residency. I decided to become a coach. As a coach I would be able to titrate how much I wanted to do and what kind of clients I wanted to work with. I could build a base of people who I resonate with and who resonate with me.
A dream I thought wasn’t possible—helping others to change their lives and get unstuck—was starting to seem like a reality.
I continued my own coaching journey, learning from incredible masters in the field. I became certified, started my podcast: “Medicine, Marriage, and Money,” and began to coach my first groups of clients.
I’m so fortunate that Victor has supported my path, all along the way. He understands coaching as worthwhile and vital. I attribute some of it to his love of sports. If you have a favorite team or athlete, you understand that those athletes got where they are today because, in no small part, of a coach. It’s not just because they practice everyday and believe in themselves—they have a coach that believes in them as much or more than they do. They have a coach to record them and play back the tape. To show them their blind spots. And to get their head in the game.
Because it’s true in sports and it’s true in life: if your head isn’t in the game—if you’re not playing to win, then you’re playing to lose.