Consider these examples, drawn from our extensive experience working with couples, but with names and details disguised:
The first time Angie and Mike came in for counseling, they were barely speaking. Married for 5 years, the relationship had begun to unravel. The most minor disagreements turned into major arguments. They said they loved each other, but could not seem to communicate. They had a 3 year-old son who was often a witness to his parents’ loud, angry arguments. Both Angie and Mike said they were committed to the marriage.
Commitment to the relationship is a solid base to begin marriage counseling.
“I asked Angie and Mike to each tell me why they had selected each other as their lifetime partner. This was to remind each of them of the special qualities about their partner that caused them to fall in love. We explored the examples that were set for them by their own parents. I reminded them that they were the models for their young son to learn about what it means to be a man and how men and women should treat each other. I taught them how to express their needs by using “I messages”. I also taught them how to validate their partner’s feelings with “reflective listening”. We used their argument scenarios to practice their new skills. I suggested they use a couple workbook between sessions to practice communicating about important issues. Their discussions became more productive and the trust that had been breached by the ugly arguments was restored. After 8 sessions, it was obvious that Angie and Mike were very much in love again.”
Joe and Barbara were expecting their first child. They had little awareness of feeling anything other than hope, excitement and joy about being parents for the first time. Barbara’s pregnancy and delivery went well. When the couple brought their baby girl home, everything seemed to be going “by the books.” Within several months, however, Barbara felt more overwhelmed than she ever had—sleepless nights, hopelessness that she couldn’t make the baby stop crying, and loneliness from quitting her job and never being able to spent time with other adults. “If only Joe would help out more,” she thought! Joe was starting to feel more stressed out—he felt fear about being totally responsible financially for his family, and he couldn’t figure out why Barbara snapped at him the minute he walked through the door. “If only she would quit nagging me,” he signed. Their bliss was over, and the couple decided to reach out for help.
“Blaming your spouse for your negative feelings, or projection, is a common problem between marital partners. Oftentimes in the midst of sadness, fear or anger, we look at the person with whom we’re in relation, and say, “he/she’s making me feel this way…if he/she would change, I’d feel better!” In therapy, I had Joe and Barbara make a commitment to take responsibility for his/her own emotional reactions. Although this was a challenge, Joe and Barbara eventually began to understand how their unique family histories, relationships and hurts conditioned them to react to their partner in similar negative ways. Keeping the focus on himself/herself oftentimes brought up painful memories from the past; however, the couple began to empathize, accept and support each other more. Joe and Barbara began to realize that marriage and parenthood involve sharing not only positive feelings but also dealing with more challenging feelings. Through fully experiencing all their feelings, they each grew and developed more intimacy than ever.”
Sharon and Jack have been together for 12 years and for the most part would describe their relationship as “fine.” However, over time, as the demands of children, work and caring for aging parents grew, they spent less and less time together. They seemed to lead parallel lives, tag-teaming to take care of all their responsibilities. Eventually though, the relationship began to feel stale, with no connection between them emotionally or physically. Sharon and Jack each began to resent small flaws in the other and arguments and then long silences ensued. They each began to feel trapped in a relationship that gave them no pleasure or support. Sharon appreciated the time and attention she received from a colleague at work and yearned to have those feelings of being attractive, interesting and cared about more consistently in her life. Fortunately, both Sharon and Jack realized that it was time to get some help before more damage was done to the relationship.
“As their therapist, I taught Sharon and Jack about the idea of their relationship being an entity separate from either one of them as individuals. They could think of their relationship almost as a baby they needed to nurture and spend time with so that it could grow, strengthen and mature. As the years had passed between Sharon and Jack, they had become neglectful of their relationship – expecting that it would survive because of the time they had invested in it initially. However, just like a plant or a baby, they needed to continue to take good care of the relationship by spending time with each other; talking, having fun and recapturing what sparked the relationship’s growth to begin with.
Because Sharon and Jack were eager to save their relationship and all they had built together, they took seriously the challenge to prioritize their relationship in the midst of many other pressing and legitimate demands on their time. They realized it was not frivolous to focus on the relationship the loss of which meant the collapse of their family and losing the best friend they had forgotten they had.”
Conflict does not necessarily doom the relationship or marriage—denial or neglect certainly can. Experience research-based, well validated guidelines for helping you live up to the dreams you had with your partner in the beginning. Contact us at the Manassas Group.
Manassas Group Members having special expertise in Relationship Problems:
- Ellen Arledge, L.C.S.W.
- Susan Boyes, L.P.C.
- Dan DeVilbiss, Ed.D.
- Louis A. Perrott, Ph.D.
- G. Todd Vance, Ph.D.