What Happens in Marriage Counseling?
Family Psychology of South Bend comes from a tradition of clinicians who try to demystify counseling and psychology, thus the straight forward topic of today’s article about marriage counseling. I want to begin with some words from the famous psychiatrist Alfred Adler often quoted by my mentors. He said “Everything can be different.” He wasn’t speaking aspirationally about the positive effects of counseling. He was cautioning psychologists and counselors to be open to being wrong and to be prepared for things to go differently than anticipated. He insisted nobody fits nicely into a category. Clinicians here are committed to doing what works for you as a unique couple and not fitting you into a mold according to pet theories we hold. Who you are trumps all theories.
And yet, there are patterns to our work and procedures that we find very helpful for the large majority of couples. We want to share these patterns with you in the spirit of collaboration. We want you to be prepared for us and our general processes, and we commit to being open and attentive to your uniqueness.
In my experience there are four general styles of marital struggle. Counseling adjusts accordingly. Here I will review the styles and describe briefly what happens for each in counseling.
As a couple you have drifted apart and it has come to a point where one of you is not willing to continue the status quo. Emotional distance has set in over years, hastened by demands of career and children. You may live like roommates with a lot of shared investment in trappings of success and the good life, but some aspect of the dream has been lost. Sometimes this couple is facing an empty nest and look at each other after years of distance and ask “Now what?” Or maybe there was a conflict that provoked one of you to give voice to distance and discontent that has been present but not talked about, and now you want to fix it. You intuit turning this around without help might not be possible or would take too long without a roadmap. Sex is perfunctory or rare or non-existent.
With Drifting Apart couples marriage counseling focuses on reconnection, and the course of treatment is building and trusting connection. We examine how connection ebbs and flows, where it is disrupted or damaged. As connection heats up, shared dreams are recaptured or redefined. By the end, couples know how to nurture love, and how to protect it from conflict and outside stress. They have organized their lives to privilege the marriage as a primary value and they are excited about long term direction. For this couple, sex often improves as emotional connection improves and it can become a point of strength again. If the marriage is sexless by agreement, the couple finds other ways to express affection and have intimacy.
You have close connection – a good friendship and good intimacy – but conflict is also passionate and it goes nowhere fast. You may think, “If we could just figure out our disagreement or fight differently, we’re great!” These marriages are often fairly young, two to seven years old. The bad conflict has not yet significantly damaged the connection but the couple is confused about why they struggle when they love and admire each other so much. Sex is typically great. If not, it is a sore point of conflict and part of why you sought counseling.
With Passionate Partnering marriage counseling begins with learning how to interrupt escalating conflict and then how to regulate intensity of conflict by identifying the four factors research shows leads to harmful conflict. This couple learns that conflict is not an argument or debate. It is not a win/lose contest. Conflict is a difficult or delicate dialogue that requires room to speak vulnerably and to listen well. In session your counselor will begin with a structure for managing conflict and you will practice it during session. With the structure, we can insure conflict goes well and you will almost immediately appreciate the difference. From there, you practice the skills and make them your own at home, a more difficult learning curve but even more rewarding than in-session practice.
Love and admiration are present but conflict has taken a toll and emotional warmth has cooled. There may be resentments from past hurts that one or both carry to remind yourself to stay guarded and not to risk too much, or to keep some safe emotional distance. You are like every marriage in that you fight about the same few topics over and over again throughout the years, but unlike couples who aren’t stuck, you have been turning either away from each other or against each other during conflict. You do not know yet how to turn toward each other in perpetual conflict. Sex has it’s seasons of ups and downs.
Marriage counseling Waning and Wounded couples is a combination of repairing old hurts, building connection, and learning good conflict skills. If old hurt is present, we address it at the second meeting. Usually Session Two is what we call a reparative dialogue, and it is used to understand and heal past hurt. We address connection and conflict at every session after that. These couples discover conflict requires us to turn toward the other and can enhance intimacy. As things progress, sex is often unchanged unless the couple is so encouraged by improvement that they want to devote one session to the sexual relationship. And what a difference a session can make in this area!
Betrayal is fresh and at least one spouse is feeling disoriented. “I was trusting something that wasn’t trustworthy. Things were not as they seemed. Is this repairable? How?” If you are having sex, it can be reassuring and reconnecting, but reassurance can disappear at unpredictable times and the betrayed partner is rattled by this. If this is not handled appropriately, the apologetic partner can start to feel hopeless. “I can’t undo the past. I want to get beyond this but we will never get there if the past haunts us.” Sometimes this partner feels put in the impossible position of proving a negative, for example, proving infidelity will never happen again. Often they feel great pressure in the delicate balance of explaining their actions without justifying their actions.
Marriage counseling to repair betrayal typically begins with making sure the betrayed partner feels understood in their shock and hurt. They often have not had the space to put it to words and the partner rushes in so quickly to reassure that they have not taken time to acknowledge and honor the emotional experience of the other. We have to decide how to ask and answer questions about the details of the betrayal. “How much should I want to know? I need to know enough that my mind does not go wild with the possibilities but I’m afraid if I know too much, I’ll never get it out of my head.” The apologetic partner is tempted to withhold information and spin things to soften the blow for the other. But if further untruths are discovered, the fragile building of trust is leveled to the ground. This is high-stakes, careful dialogue. The counselor is your caring but dispassionate, clear-headed, experienced guide through this delicate work.
The lovely fact is that on the other side of this disorienting time is rebuilt trust and understanding, the relationship is almost always much stronger. Repairing betrayal is intense and is not the preferred method of relationship growth, but the repair can be priceless.
I want to emphasize that we work for you as you are. We have no interest in fitting you into a program or model. We do whatever it takes to improve your relationship in a manner that makes sense to you. But we do have expertise and if you can follow our lead, the patterns I shared with you here can be a rough blueprint of what to expect.
Yesterday a psychology student interviewed me about my work for an assignment she was given by her professor. She is just starting on the road to becoming a counselor and was wondering if she will like the work day-in and day-out. “How do you manage to work with people’s problems every hour of every day? Doesn’t that get you down?” Well the answer is that our work is largely very lovely and encouraging. We do hear routinely about pain and struggle and we see some couples treating each other poorly. There can be lost dreams, shame, sexual struggles, deep hurt, maddening conflict. And it is truly a hard day when, in the small minority of cases, things end in divorce. But the problems are where the work begins. The rest is about all of that improving. I’m strengthened to see couples reconnect, repair hurt, re-trust, discus conflict with honest vulnerability and respect. At the risk of sounding overly romantic, I am deeply moved that couples do all of this out of love.
It is a deep privilege to help couples improve. This is important work and very successful work that sustains and inspires us at Family Psychology of South Bend. We appreciate your trust in us and we look forward to getting down to work for your marriage.