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Marriage Counseling and Therapy Made Me a Better Dad

I was angry, hurt, upset, and depressed. I just didn't have the emotional tools to realize what was going on.

John Crossman is a husband, a father of two daughters, and an established businessman. He’s also one of the many million men diagnosed with clinical depression. For that reason, John regularly attends therapy and has engaged in marriage counseling. It’s part of how he copes and makes sure he’s there for his family and the other people in his life that rely on him. This has all become normal to Crossman, but — like many men — he was initially resistant to the idea of help. He was angry when he first walked into counseling — his dad had just died, his newborn daughter had nearly died, a hurricane had destroyed his family home, and he was suffering from physical pain — but he wasn’t quite capable of expressing that anger clearly. Now, he is. And that has made all the difference.

Crossman didn’t just learn to express his feelings. He learned about the size and weight of them. He unpacked a lot of the stuff from his childhood that he had planned on never dealing with. He learned how to communicate with his wife — and say no to her more often. Now, Crossman thinks everyone should try therapy or some form of counseling — maybe not for forever, but if only to gain what he refers to as “skill sets” to get through the rough patches of life.

John spoke to Fatherly about why he began counseling, how it helped him in every aspect of his life, and why he thinks everyone should give it a shot.

My dad was a pastor and a civil rights leader. He counseled people. Growing up, I thought the people coming to the house to meet my dad for counseling were losers. I had this negative image of counseling. I would think, Man, just figure it out. Just pick yourself up by your bootstraps. Then, my wife made the decision to go to counseling on her own. Watching her do that changed my view. Part of it was watching her unpack stuff from her childhood. That made me realize I had some stuff from my childhood. I had just assumed I could leave it boxed up. I couldn’t.

In 2004, I had one of the roughest years of our lives. In this 12 month period of time, my dad passed away, I had a serious back injury where I was in the hospital for days, our house got damaged in the hurricanes, we had to move out, and we had a baby and were pregnant. When our second child was born, she had an acute life-threatening event. We thought we lost her, I had to ride with her in the ambulance when she was 2 weeks old. After I went through that, my wife said to me, “John, you’re angry all the time. You need to go see a counselor.”

I was like, “I know I’m angry. My dad’s dead. My kid almost died. My house is messed up. My back hurts all the time. It makes sense.” But when I went through that process of going to see a counselor, I was blown away by how much it helped me at work. I ended up quitting my job about 18 months later and it was one of the most healthy job transitions I know of. When people quit in my industry, it’s usually like a scene out of Jerry Maguire, with people blowing phones up.

Since my wife and I were both going through some different stuff, it was my wife’s idea for us to go to marriage counseling. I was, again, stunned at how much it helped. There were many moments that were very difficult and painful, but it was completely life-changing for me, and for her as well.

With therapy by myself, I needed to deal with my own moodiness and issues, in a way that had nothing to do with my wife, but that had a direct impact on my marriage. I had to express to my wife where I had the most pain. Why certain issues trigger me. It also helps me communicate with her. If something is really bothering her, and she’s emotional about it, I can’t overreact. Marriage counseling, for us, is about being there together and learning how to talk things out and communicate in a healthy way.

It’s funny. I feel like there are certain aspects of marriage that are really easy, and there are aspects that are hard. If you look at what society teaches and is out there, it’s all stereotypical, cliched crap. It’s just not helpful. To get to the deep stuff, it takes deep work.

I ended up getting diagnosed with clinical depression, which kind of blew my mind. I’d always thought of myself as a happy person. But learning that, and learning my own boundaries and frailties, made a big difference. Being aware of mental health is so key.

One of the things I learned over the course of the process was that one of the greatest gifts I could give my wife and my daughters was for me to try to become as healthy of a person as I could be. If the other people in my life — be it at work, at home, or whatever — aren’t healthy, I can help them because I am.

I had this theory at the outset that if you were to ask me, “John, how are you doing?” That I should just always say “Good. I’m good.” I think I even believed that. My therapist actually even teased me about that, like, “Really? Are you good? There are all these terrible things happening – are you really good?”

I didn’t know or understand feelings. I didn’t understand how to go deep. People would say, “You’re not transparent” and I’d be like, “What the hell are you talking about? I’m being as transparent as I possibly could be.” I didn’t even know.

It was through that process that I learned that my addiction, for a huge part of my life, was success. When I would have a tragedy happen, instead of sitting, crying, or dealing with the pain, I just would try to go do another deal, or get a promotion, or achieve something. So, learning just to deal with my own pain has been really hard but it’s also been lifegiving.

I’m not a person that thinks you need to go to marriage counseling, forever. But I do think there are seasons of life where you’re just onboarding skill sets. And what you need for your life are close, healthy friends of the same gender.

Guys need to learn to talk about what they’re feeling. Having healthy male intimacy is really, really important. Like, having a guy friend and being like, “Sometimes, I don’t know what I’m doing as a dad” or “I don’t know how to handle this situation,” that’s really, really relieving. And sometimes, you need professional help to help deal with what’s from your past. It’s hard, but it’s good. I tell guys all the time, if you really feel like your marriage is over, if you really think it’s over, pay for eight counseling sessions. Try to go to them with your wife. And if she refuses to go, go to them by yourself. Go to all eight. Even if the marriage doesn’t turn around, you’ll be happy you went to those counseling sessions and dove into it for yourself.

Professionally, counseling helped me understand what was driving me, sometimes. Sometimes, I was like, why am I pushing for this? What’s going on? It had a dramatic impact on healthier relationships at work, healthier employee relationships, and learning my own weaknesses. I promoted a guy to be president of my company and now I don’t do hiring anymore. I realized that other people are better at hiring than I am.

I will also say that, as the dad of two teenage daughters, counseling has been incredibly helpful with those relationships. I am really grateful for that. Counseling helped me learn to speak a different language. Before, I had no concept of talking about feelings. Now I do.