She Said He Said: Is it time for marriage counseling?
She Said He Said
Dear Lori and Jeff,
Our marriage is pretty good, but we have one or two issues that keep coming up and we can’t seem to get past them. My husband insists we can figure it out on our own, but I think we need to get help from a professional. When is it time to get outside support?
Signed, On The Fence
Lori and Jeff: There is no simple answer that would apply to all couples, but we can say that actions speak much louder than words. If partners are beginning to translate mindfulness, compassion and intention into new action, then it’s possible that no outside help is necessary. If the process is mostly made up of words, promises and platitudes and no real changes are taking place, then you’re likely in need of some support.
Lori: Many marriages die a death of a thousand paper cuts. Arguments, hurtful behaviors and harmful habits create micro wounds. Because these issues seem minor, partners tell themselves they can move past it, look beyond and focus instead on everything that is great about the relationship. But without resolution, and over time, those wounds accumulate along with resentments and emotional walls. It’s not true that “time heals all”; healing isn’t a passive process. It requires both partners to gain awareness of how they contribute to the challenges, develop the ability to validate the other’s pain, and commit to creating change.
In modern U.S. culture, we’re conditioned to recognize the most significant problems (including affairs, abuse, addictions, and constant fighting) as warranting outside support. But we fail to make the connection that many of these breaking point issues started as small frictions. That’s not to say that every couple with discord will be facing divorce in a decade. In fact, we believe healthy conflict is an important aspect of authentic and fulfilling relationships. But we do know from our work that the ways in which couples navigate challenges, argue, deal with vulnerability and defensiveness, and choose whether and how to reconnect are all patterned behaviors. If challenges in these areas are repeating during smaller conflicts, they will likely escalate over time and when more important matters arise.
Jeff: I don’t think anyone would be surprised if I said that most relationships can be, at times, rather challenging. One of the most impactful factors is the generational element, where most of us had ineffective role models in our parents (as they had with their parents). We’re left to fumble through the process of learning how to love, respect and hold space for our partners without letting our own fears and insecurities get in the way. We usually don’t attempt too many things in our lives without some kind of instruction or education first, so why should we think we could navigate relationships on our own? Some religious faiths had the right idea when they required that engaged couples see a priest, rabbi, minister or imam for premarital counseling before they tied the knot. But the problem was that most of these clergy did not have formal therapeutic training and could only advise based on the tenets of their faith. We recommend that all couples consider some kind of precommitment support to help shine a light on any potential blind spots they might have in their relationship before they dive in deeper. If, like you, a couple is already in a committed relationship, it’s useful to remember that we are always changing and growing, both internally and externally, with macro and micro transitions in our lives. Outside support can be very helpful in ensuring that these changes don’t create more distance between you and your partner, even if they are only focused around one or two issues.
Another common element to your situation is that we often see male partners tending to be a bit more resistant to counseling. The cliché is that we (men) can’t even ask for directions so it makes sense that we could be more reluctant to ask someone else to help with our relationships. We might be more susceptible to feelings of shame or being judged because we can’t fix things ourselves. You could suggest to your husband that a neutral professional can take some of the pressure and responsibility off of his shoulders and that you want to work together to repair any rifts that may have built up over time.
Lori and Jeff: If challenges in your relationship are impacting your well-being or overall relationship connection, it’s time to do something different. We know first hand that figuring out exactly what to do or how to do it can be overwhelming. Partners (us included) can get stuck seeing only what is in our limited view plane. Sometimes it takes a nudge from someone more knowledgeable to access new possibilities.
Lori and Jeff are married, licensed psychotherapists and couple-to-couple coaches at Aspen Relationship Institute. Visit http://www.aspenrelationship.com/blog-1 for all previous She Said, He Said columns.