Ssomething interesting happens in the first few pages of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s recent memoir-cum-self-help book Be Useful: Seven Tools for Life. It begins in a moment of weakness, as he describes his lowest point: the day he told his wife that he had fathered a baby with their housekeeper. “No failure ever felt worse than this,” he writes.
But that’s not the interesting part. “I won’t repeat that story here,” he sniffed, refusing to dwell on it for even a sentence longer. Instead, he instructs readers to Google the story if that’s the kind of gossip that gets them going. The rest of the book continues at the same sort of clip, with Schwarzenegger shrugging off any looming hint of introspection that might touch on another anecdote about the time he cut the legs of his pants to remind himself to take care of his calves to work.
I must confess that I tumbled a bit of an Arnie-hole after reading Be Useful, sought out all sorts of interviews with him, simply to see if he ever managed to reveal any vulnerability in public. The closest I got was an interview with Howard Stern, ostensibly to promote the forgotten 2015 film Terminator Genisys. At one point, Schwarzenegger admitted that he once attended couples therapy with his then-wife. But, just like in the book, he lashed out when asked if he got anything out of it. “That was the biggest mistake I ever made because that guy was so full of shit,” he said. He claimed the sessions were full of “nonsense talk” that was “counterproductive to our future relationship”. So why did he go? Because apparently his wife talked him into it.
It made a million memes: “Men would rather become an indestructible robot and exterminate humanity than go to therapy.” The thing is, though, his book and his life make a compelling argument for just marching on unexamined—though whether his ex-wife would agree is another matter.
For Schwarzenegger, a moment he spends exploring his inner motivations is a moment he is unable to manifest his external motivations, whether it be briefly becoming the world’s highest-paid actor, successfully entering politics, or videos of the donkey he lets run around on Instagram. around his kitchen. It seems like a good life.
But that doesn’t seem particularly fair of him. A big part of couples therapy, maybe even the biggest, is finding a space where you can learn to communicate properly again. And it’s going to be difficult when one half of the couple a) doesn’t want to do it in the first place and b) is determined not to get anything out of it.
Counselor Priya Tourkow has a number of theories about why people might not want to take the plunge. “They think the therapist is going to sit there and say nothing. Or they worry that the therapist will be on their partner’s side. There can be a real fear of opening Pandora’s box.”
That fear might be exacerbated if you accidentally caught Showtime’s Couples Therapy, currently on iPlayer – a series that seems to exist as a warning to people who aren’t into couples therapy not to have couples therapy. Admittedly, this may be a bad example to extrapolate from, because the show is not just about couples getting therapy, but about couples who are actively sessions to be televised; an impulse that, you suspect, might not be so good for a relationship. But even taking this into account, couples therapy is not a particularly good advertisement. This is the kind of show that forces you to take sides. It is Jeremy Kyle with better dentistry.
Fortunately, that’s not what most couples therapy actually is. This isn’t a contest where you pay someone to pick a winner, where there’s a hero to root for, and a villain to despise. And that, I would guess, is why Schwarzenegger didn’t enjoy his session.
“Couples therapy is based on the premise that the best relationship you can have is a good idea,” argues Tourkow. If that’s not how you see it, it might be a waste of time. However, even with the best will in the world, it’s still going to be difficult, “because there are habits that build, and we’re all going to be activated… One of the things that happens in couples therapy is that you learn to talk to each other. How much more grounded does it get than that?”
I should probably come clean and point out that I know Priya quite well. My wife and I started having sessions with her almost as a joke – a newspaper asked us to get couples therapy and write about it – only for us to immediately realize, oh shit, we may actually need couples therapy.
It wasn’t fun because it wasn’t natural. It’s not easy hearing all the ways you’re not perfect, and the sessions never end when the session ends because you always have to travel home together afterwards in the immediate aftermath of some horrible home truths. But it helped. We learned techniques to cool things down in tender moments that would otherwise have soared into the stratosphere. We actually apologize to each other sometimes. Imagine.
This is not a general endorsement. For some, perhaps especially the overthinkers among us, certain forms of therapy may make you more trapped, rather than freeing you. Esther Perel, the closest thing the therapy world has to a superstar thanks to her wildly popular podcast, warns, “Ironically, we often tend to seek the form of therapy that fits our defenses rather than helping us change them.” Not only that, but “for many people, therapy is still filled with stigma and talking to a stranger is a bizarre practice”.
Bizarre it may be, and judging by his book and his social media, Schwarzenegger is doing just fine. But it seems rather strange that someone who has made a career by working hard and fighting through adversity can’t have the prospect of sitting in a room with his wife and talking about his problems. That said, it’s not unknown for couples who initially resisted therapy to return once they’ve exhausted other options. With any luck he will be back.
Be Useful: Seven Tools for Life by Arnold Schwarzenegger (Ebury Edge, £20)
The state of affairs: reconsidering infidelity by Esther Perel (Hodder & Stoughton, £10.99)
Us: Reconnect with your partner and build a loving and lasting relationship by Terrence Real (Cornerstone, £18.99)