When Chalupa and I had been married for five years, we started marriage counseling.

Your first reaction might be to think that our marriage was in trouble, or that after five years of being together, we were hitting some hard times. That wasn’t really the case at all.

I’ve always heard so many people talk about how rough the first year of marriage is on a relationship. For Chalupa and me, it wasn’t hard at all. I think we only fought four or five times in our first several years of marriage. We eased well into sharing a life and a home. I wanted a dog and he didn’t, but otherwise, we were in good shape. We both had jobs we liked–he worked at our alma mater in Educational Technology, and I worked at Cornerstone Center for the Arts in Muncie with a good friend. When I suggested applying to grad schools for writing, he said I should go for it.

We had been married for about a year and a half when we moved to New Hampshire, where I started my MFA program and he got a job at the university. It was there that our daughter was born, three years into our marriage. Without family or friends closeby, Chalupa and I were our own little team. We worked, we went to the movies, we traveled home to see family, we went on trips, we went bowling, we hung out. During my first year of grad school, when I was also working at LensCrafters, we went a year without spending a full day together that wasn’t a holiday or a day spent traveling to visit family, but we were still incredibly close. We made friends and built a community.

Five years into our marriage, and we were doing pretty well.

However, we also have a big thing in our life called chronic illness. I’ve written about it before and don’t need to rehash the specifics, but our entire married history has been accompanied with my husband’s health problems. We’ve canceled a lot of trips, spent a lot of time in emergency rooms, and rescheduled a lot of outings with friends. I’ve done a lot of things on my own because he hasn’t been able to join me.

Five years in, and Chalupa and I were still very happy, very committed, and very in love with each other. We had a one-year-old who was easygoing and happy and healthy. We were in good shape, rarely fighting and talking often. But we also needed to come to terms with the fact that Chalupa’s health problems weren’t going away, and our lives were always going to be affected by this stuff.

For six weeks, we attended counseling sessions in the little home office of a counselor in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. The room where we met with her was quaintly decorated with the kinds of antiques you can find just as easily in rural Maine as you can in rural Indiana. Doilies, paintings of lighthouses, and a fireplace. Our psychologist was blind, and her German Shepherd guide dog laid quietly on the floor beside her every week as she asked questions and we talked. We chose the counselor we did not just because our insurance would cover it, but because she specialized in both relationship counseling and counseling for people with chronic health problems. (Also important to me: she wasn’t affiliated with a church of any kind.)

There were no big breakthroughs. No tears shed in our counseling sessions, and no fights.

What did happen during our sessions was talking. A lot of it. We talked about how Chalupa felt about his illness, and how I felt about it. We discussed his discomfort at admitting when he was doing well, and my habit of asking him the wrong questions to gauge how he was doing. We talked about our visions for the future, and what that looked like depending on his quality of health.

I didn’t feel that counseling was some sort of revolutionary thing for us, or something that changed our relationship in a drastic way. It did, however, teach us how to talk to each other in a new way. And when Chalupa’s health took a bad turn last year, right as I was dealing with the difficulties of pregnancy and a little girl who became extremely clingy after I went to India for two weeks, I was extremely grateful for the habits we developed thanks to those six hours of marriage counseling.

It was enough that I want to encourage all the couples I know to get some sort of counseling, even if they feel like they’re doing pretty great for the most part. Any chance you can get to learn to improve the way you communicate with your partner is worth taking!