This couple therapy session was the last chance before Anna and Guy’s upcoming wedding in Paris. They had reached out to me for a premarital counselling session via Skype, knowing that I was working with mixed couples.

Their situation, as Anna exposed it to me in her short email, needed to be addressed with some urgency: they were due to get married in the town hall of Guy’s native Paris within two weeks, and Anna still had serious doubts about her final “yes.”

Their two faces appeared on my screen, one next to each other, cramped into the frame of the Skype window. From the start, I mentioned one of our challenges: neither of us was using our native language here. Anna is Polish, Guy is French, and I am Russian. From my experience, this multilingual field would be played out at some point during this session, but how?

Their respective English was fluent, even though Guy had a strong French accent, which made him sound like an odd TV-series character. In the first minutes, I learnt that they had started dating online, and now Anna had finally moved in with Guy in Paris. Since then, their respective lifestyles had been drastically altered: Anna had an 8-years old daughter from her first marriage, and Guy had an autistic sister who lived in the same building. Those two were constantly challenging their shared existence. They were their respective “burdens,” as Guy shared.

When he pronounced this word, Anna’s face hardened with pain. She was clearly hurt by the reference to her daughter as a “burden,” and was getting defensive. Their typical argument then started to unfold. These fights happened on a daily basis, leading inevitably to door- slamming and painful silences.

Now their faces were flushing with all kinds of emotions.

“You are so slow and uninterested!” she stated, bitterly.

“You always sound so aggressive and impatient!” he responded, defensively.

I could clearly see what both of them meant. Anna did sound irritated; her aggressive facade seemed to hide a deep insecurity. Guy did come out as a bit slow and detached. He was carefully looking for his words, avoiding eye contact, and every time, before speaking, he would make a pause, recollecting and revaluating his thoughts. This habit of his could be easily taken for a lack of interest or passion. In Anna’s view he simply did not feel enough love for her, or enough acceptance for her daughter, to become a good husband and father.

And yet, they were really willing to look at their relationship, ready to fight for its survival, avoid its ending. I was starting to wonder how I could be of any use, when I heard the sound of a distant doorbell. They both jumped on their chairs. Anna smiled badly; Guy shivered and disappeared from my sight.

“See?! This is what happens. She comes in and out when she wants, uninvited.”

I understood that Anna was talking about Guy’s sister, and I invited her to pause and wait for Guy’s return.

Such interruptions of the sessions are frequent in my online practice. They are somehow an unexpected gift of this particular setting. I always endeavour to make the most of them. In this virtual space, silences are tougher to tolerate, even for the psychotherapist.

Anna and I were staring at each other, hearing their voices at a distance, and I could sense her disappointment and growing anger. She looked lonely and lost, with the other half of my screen left empty by Guy’s absence.

When he finally came back, she had that look of resignation. They are not going to make it, I thought.

Guy, clearly shaken by this sudden illustration of “his side of the problem,” muttered some excuses in French (he knew I understand it well). In his native language, he sounded surprisingly fast and emotional.

We had only half an hour left in the session, and a few days until the big day, so I decided to risk something, and suggested an experiment: would Guy be willing to repeat what he had said earlier about their “respective burdens” in French? I knew Anna could understand most of it.

Je t’aime…”—this is how Guy started his difficult speech. He talked about sharing their respective pains and responsibilities: his sister but also her daughter. He talked passionately. His body animated (at least the upper part which I could see). He seemed to almost forget about me.

Anna was listening, and this time she did not seem impatient.

That was the midpoint of the session, and such a precious opening! I felt blessed.

We then explored how using his native French had changed their common experience. Guy was finding it difficult to understand all the details when Anna spoke English quickly (which she did naturally). So his mind wandered, he looked uninterested. It reminded Anna of her first husband, who was distant and absorbed by his own activities.

As for Guy, he would see his role as a protector of his autistic sister. In his speech in French he said something valuable, which became an anchor for the rest of our session:

"Elles vont être maintenant notre fille et notre sœur."

I made sure Anna understood this: “they will now be our daughter and our sister.”

That felt manageable for both, and Guy was here to protect them all. It switched the whole perspective.

I cannot know for sure whether Anna and Guy will stay together, but I know that they did try hard to understand each other better...

File under: The Art of Psychotherapy, Couples Therapy, Therapy & Technology