Article IV. Hope For Troubled Relationships:
A Detailed Description of the Marriage/Couple Counseling Process

by Reuben E. Gross, PhD, ABP, ABBP, LMFT

Please note: When referring to a person I interchange "he", "she", with the understanding that all points made in the article are relevant to both genders. Similarly, the word "partners" and "spouses" will be used interchangeably.

This article has eight sections labeled 1- 8

Please Note: You may go directly to any of these eight sections by clicking on it.

1. Overview of The Marriage & Couple Counseling Process

2. Why Do Individuals Initiate Marriage Counseling?

3. Couples Differ From Each Other

4. Beginning the Process of Marriage Counseling

5. How Does Counseling Help?

6. Spouses Look Into the Mirror

7. Separation Can Spark the Adrenaline Surge
Which Can Lead to a Much Improved Relationship

8. Hope For the Future


Section 1 of Article IV:

1. Overview of The Marriage Counseling Process

This article touches upon some of the techniques that I employ in working with couples. This article is limited in scope since it can hardly begin to describe the twists, turns and complexity of the marriage counseling process. Furthermore, the needs of each couple vary, and my attention to this results in variations on the themes recorded here. The paragraphs below are merely designed to give the reader an introduction to my approach to marriage counseling. One of my goals with this description is to offer hope and encouragement to couples who are in need of counseling by removing the mystery and consequent anxieties that surround this subject. These anxieties often result in delays of many months and even years before a couple will take advantage of the professional help that is available to them for their relationship difficulties.

My approach during counseling sessions reflects an amalgamation of theories and procedures that I have learned from others, and techniques that I have developed on my own in the course of seeing more than two thousand couples over the past 39 years. Based on your answers to the questionnaires that I send you before we even meet, and on your statements at our first session, we get down to business at our very first meeting. My approach is active, direct, action- and results-oriented, and flexibly responsive to the specific needs of each couple. For more information on my training and experience please Click Here for "Credentials and Theoretical Orientation."

In the last analysis, marriage counseling is an interweaving of art and science. For this reason, no two counselors work exactly the same way. In addition to the techniques and approach described here, the reader will get a feel of what else might take place with a specific couple by reading the following two articles in which I cite case histories to illustrate certain points: "The A-B-C's of Communication" and "Thirteen Reasons Why Spouses Fail to Communicate."

Marriage Counseling As a Learning Experience

As I observe the dynamics of my work with couples, it is clear that a couple who participates in the marriage, couples and relationship counseling process with me has the experience of being enrolled in a private learning program personalized to help them achieve their goal of lasting happiness in their marriage. The program includes two sub-goals, viz. how to bring out the best in your spouse, and how to bring about the best in you.

This Structured Program Consists of:

  • A private learning experience, tailored to the specific needs of each couple in a warm, friendly, safe and  supportive atmosphere
  • The guidance of a personal mentor who directs, encourages and guides each of you in this experience wherein you learn the theory and mechanics of what makes a good marriage
  • Hands-on experience that spouses put into practice when their newly learned  techniques of effective communication, explorations of each person's needs from their partner, diplomatic approach to complaints and problem  solving, and emotional bonding,  both during the counseling session, and between sessions during at-home assignments
  • Session content includes topics that are brought up by each of you as well as exploration of answers you gave in response to the initial questionnaire that I sent you before the first session. 

 
This article also enumerates some of my theories about the necessary ingredients for a happy couple relationship. It describes my ongoing efforts to promote with both spouses a process of self discovery and self revelation so that each person may gain a better understanding of himself and his partner, as well as insight into the psycho dynamics of their interaction. The article describes some of the techniques that I demonstrate (and have the couple practice during the counseling session) which will help them solve the problems that brought them to therapy. As a follow-up to our sessions together, I give at-home assignments to each couple when spending a minimum of quiet time with each other nightly, having a weekly "business meeting" and reading articles or even books.

The Goal of the Marriage Counselor

The ultimate goal of the marriage counselor is to give you the tools to solve with each other as many as possible of the issues that are eating away at your happiness. Now, even if a problem cannot be totally solved, with a new perspective, the comparative magnitude of the problem can usually be lessened, and the negative emotions attached to the arguments/fights can usually be eliminated or greatly reduced. Although the reader is welcome to employ the ideas and exercises presented here to his/her benefit, this article was designed as an overview of my approach to marriage counseling rather than as a self-help article. Many of the techniques described here work much better when they are explained and acted upon under the guidance of the counselor with a discussion centering on how these techniques might best be adapted --and implemented, to serve the specific needs of each couple.

2. Why Do Individuals Initiate Marriage Counseling?

Section 2 of Article IV:

An open-minded couple will come for professional help because they are unhappy in their relationship and want to do something about it. In view of the fact that society fails to prepare any of us for marriage should we be surprised that so many of us are disappointed with our partners, unhappy in our marriage, and even reach the depths of hopelessness and failure (divorce)?

The level of unhappiness varies among couples and sometimes within the couple. People sometimes come because they have not achieved much success in their  efforts to solve a particular nagging problem, but more frequently, to address a number of problems that are causing them distress. Persons who come for professional help, realize that they have exhausted their own efforts at remediation, and are looking for light at the end of the tunnel. In a moderate situation, they see themselves stuck in a less than happy situation; in a worst case scenario they are rapidly losing patience and hope and fear dissolution of their relationship. Although there is no guarantee that counseling will help, they are making the right decision. Studies show that most couples report very positive results from their counseling experience.

3.Individuals Differ From Each Other

Woman Upset By Her PartnerSection 3 of Article IV

The fact is that no two individuals are the same not only in their DNA, but we each have one hundred billion neurons in our brain, containing very different experiences, memories, attachments, habits, philosophies, etc. Thus it is axiomatic that no two persons (or couples) who come for counseling are the same in terms of their personalities, interpersonal skills, and other dimensions that come to the fore during the counseling process. These differences also include the nature of the relationship difficulties, the chronicity and severity of the problems, the duration and depth of each person's unhappiness, the willingness of each person to admit to his contributions to the situation, his willingness to commit to the process of counseling, and his staying power. 

Other differences between individuals, and therefore within couples, include:
emotional sensitivity, capacity to see the situation from spouse's point of view, intensity of disrupting emotions (e.g., anger), flexibility of each partner (ability to learn new ways of relating and changing old ways), and the strength of each person's desire to enhance their partner's welfare and happiness.

Differences in The Male/Female Dimension

Differences between males and females have been described by John Grey, PhD, a psychologist with many years of experience working with couples in his best-seller "Men Are From Mars: Women Are From Venus." The most up-to-date research on the brain has demonstrated notable differences in brain structure between men and women. Additionally, differences between the sexes are noticed in areas of the brain that are activated by men and by women even when performing the same task. These differences are often manifested in different emotional responses and behaviors in real life situations. These differences should be understood by both partners and tolerance as well as accommodation should be made accordingly.
 

Baking IngredientsWhat Are the Necessary Ingredients to Improve the Relationship?

Although the strength of each person's love for each other and their commitment to the relationship are extremely important, love or commitment alone will not solve the problem(s). Virtually all people who marry in this country marry for love; sadly, love alone does not stem the epidemic of marital breakups. Click here for article "Love Conquers All?"

In order for marriage or premarital counseling to work, all of the personal competencies, and caring behaviors listed in the previous paragraphs play a role. Above all, it is crucial that there be a total commitment to the counseling process and a sincere desire to resolve the problems to the satisfaction of both parties.

With patience and perseverance, a focus on reality, and a sense of fairness and kindness, virtually all interpersonal impediments to happiness can be removed --or reduced greatly, with a resulting sense of peace, comfort, contentment, happiness and enjoyment of each other's company. Reviewing the first session in your mind, and applying the lesson of the handout(s) that I will give you initiates this process with the first session.

4. The Process of Marriage Counseling: In The Beginning...

Section 4 of Article IV

A. The First Step Takes Place in the Home

Sun Rising Over Lake When a couple makes their first appointment, I send each person twenty three pages of questionnaires via email. Completing the questionnaire provides each person with an opportunity to organize and put his/her thoughts about the relationship onto paper.The questionnaires are filled out at home and brought by the couple to the first session. Some of the questions are specific, e.g: How well are you understood when you discuss personal relationship issues? How successful are you at resolving differences, or do they turn into fights? How critical are you of each other? Are your opinions and feelings respected? Feel alone in the 
relationship? How often do you express love, gratitude or praise to each other? etc...

The next group of questions are open-ended. For example, on the "Wish List" each person is encouraged to express his specific wishes regarding his partner. Spouses are asked to make as long a list as they desire of hoped-for behaviors from their partner, such as, more attention, understanding, respect, support, affection, sex, etc. In another exercise, each person is asked to list those negative behaviors of his partner that that he could do without because they annoy, anger or hurt him, e.g., yell, criticize, minimize or ignore partner's feelings or opinions, reject sexually etc. Other questions follow.

By the time the couple comes to their first appointment, they have clarified a good part of their thinking and have already established some of their agenda and goals in counseling. I have found the use of advance questionnaires time-effective as well as cost effective. This approach is especially efficient for persons who might be intimidated or nervous in the presence of a marriage counselor. But the approach has universal value since the couple is freed from the task of digging into their psyche on the spot and coming up with a litany of complaints or an analysis of their situation the moment they walk into my office.

During the initial interview and at every successive meeting, both persons are always free to add to their original agenda. Spouses are encouraged to redefine the problems originally cited. Or, if they wish, explore problems not previously mentioned, because they did not comfortably fall into the categories or formulations offered in the questionnaires, or not delineated during the initial phase of counseling for any other reasons.

 
B. It is customary in the initial phase of marital counseling for both spouses to express their unhappiness in the relationship and to elaborate on this theme with a list of complaints about their partner.

Couple Talking In some situations both partners are fairly equally unhappy in the marriage and similarly accusatory of their spouse's shortcomings. At other times, one person is more unhappy or accusatory than the other. The questionnaires that are filled out prior to the initial meeting give each person an opportunity to air their complaints, and in the process, give their partner the keys (road map) to the solution.

In session, we read aloud, in a quiet peaceful manner, the sources of each person's unhappiness, and their detailed expression of needs and wishes that they would like their partner to satisfy. During the airing of each person's complaints or "Wish List" the counselor will not allow yelling, insulting, changing the topic, counter accusing or any of the negative behaviors that the couple might be exercising at home. Nor will the counselor permit interrupting. When one person is talking, the listener might be provided with a notepad so that he will better remember what his spouse is saying. If he puts his comments on paper he will be in a better position to respond appropriately. Neither partner is allowed to hog the conversation. If "fighting" is one of the couple's complaints The Nineteen Rules of Good Communication are introduced and put into effect at the very first session.

For more information on this senstive subject click here for "How to Complain Diplomatically and Argue Constructively Without Fighting."

 
C. Developing Insight, Compassion and Willingness to Accommodate Spouse

After the initial exchanges, we draw upon some of the points raised in the session in addition to the statements made in the documents filled out at home. We discuss in detail how far each person is willing to comply with their spouse's reasonable requests and needs. We explore internal as well as external barriers or impediments to total cooperation. We inquire into the psychological forces motivating each person, as well as the psycho dynamics at play in the relationship. We help each person understand his own motivations and needs and how they affect his attitudes and behavior. We also explore how these needs and behaviors interact with his partner's needs, wishes and behaviors. All marriages are dynamic. In the counseling process, partners become acutely aware of the healthy as well as unhealthy interplay and reciprocity of their relationship, and are helped to increase their healthy, positive, mutually supportive and loving behaviors.

5. How Does Marriage or Couple Counseling Help

Section 5 of Article IV

A good portion of couples who come for help complain of frequent fights. Not only does rational discussion go to the winds and problems can't be solved that way, but the activity of yelling, accusing, insulting, etc that accompany these fights poison the atmosphere and make cooperation and accommodation less likely. Counseling opens both partner's eyes to the significance and reciprocal nature of their own and their partner's behaviors and attitudes, and gives them new perspectives on cause and effect in their relationship. By understanding the psycho dynamics of their interactions, the couple learns how their neglectful/avoidance or negative/hurtful behaviors make matters worse and contribute to a vicious cycle.

In such cases the marriage counselor encourages each person to stop adding fuel to the flame (if fighting, neglect or passive-aggressive behavior is one of their complaints). The point is made that 2 wrongs don't make 1 right, and that reacting to a provocation with a provocation only makes things worse.

When a spouse tells me that he/she only yells angrily when he/she is provoked, I reply: I believe you. In my years of practice, I have never met someone who gets up in the morning, looks at his watch and wonders "When shall I start yelling at my wife." People react angrily to a provocation (or an imagined provocation). But just because your spouse tripped up (and violated the other's dignity or rights in the argument) doesn't mean that you should do the same thing and only make matters worse.

In my practice, one of the first things I introduce to the couple is a list of 19 rules of good communication. For example. Rule #1 forbids verbal (insults, name calling) or non-verbal (making a face, rolling eyes) put-downs. The desired behavior is to show respect at all times. Another no-no is interrupting. A third no-no is failure to give your spouse your undivided attention when listening. A fourth no-no is raising voice angrily etc. My next step is to get the couple to agree to the wisdom of the nineteen rules and promise to do their best not to violate them. Couples that adhere to these rules are amazed at how quickly they change the atmosphere in their household. My next approach in marriage counseling is to teach the couple problem-solving. They learn how to complain, disagree, solve complex and sensitive situations respectfully and constructively. These new skills open channels of communication that the couple has never used before.

One result of this openness and mutual exchange is that each person clarifies for himself, and expresses to his partner, his unmet underlying emotional needs as a factor in his unhappiness.

The counselor then encourages each person to fulfill his/her role in the relationship by adhering to these minimal basics:

  • Giving his spouse priority in his life
  • Showing constant respect for partner's feelings, opinions and personhood.
  • Actively displaying unstinting love, care and concern for partner's needs for acceptance, support, affection and sex
  • Frequent expression of recognition, appreciation, thanks, and praise for partner's personal qualities, his/her contributions to the enhancement of the relationship, extended family and social life, financial support, care for the children, management of the household, etc.
  • Spending more private time with each other for more communication, mutual sharing and understanding, bonding experiences, and pleasurable activities.
  • Protecting the relationship from interfering outside forces

The exercise of the above-mentioned caring and constructive behaviors will initiate and promote a benign cycle that will continually improve and solidify the relationship.

I reinforce these concepts by introducing specific interactive behaviors that many couples have barely considered in the past, much less put into practice. These might include keeping a brief diary of positive and well as negative behaviors by each spouse, daily quality-time meetings with each other to discuss the day and the relationship, a "business meeting" once a week, etc. My approach is to assign at-home exercises to the individuals which require the use of these newly learned problem-solving, empathic, caring and bonding behaviors. The sooner the couple puts these principles into practice, the sooner the old feelings of love and closeness are awakened and the sooner the relationship is back on track.

6. Spouses Look Into the Mirror

Section 6 of Article IV:

Woman Looking Into Compact Mirror In Addition to Focusing On Their Spouse's Problems, We Encourage Each Person to Face Their Own Problem(s) Squarely in The Face.

When individuals come for therapy determined to save their relationship, sooner or later, they will be asked by the counselor to look into their own souls. They will be encouraged to put their own cards on the table face up, admit to their "weak cards" (faults, inadequacies, weaknesses, shortcomings) as well as their "strong cards." They will then be asked to carefully look at their partner's "hands" too, and with an open mind negotiate a new relationship based upon fairness, kindness and sensitive understanding.

As the marriage counseling process unfolds we ask each person to look into the mirror. One of the exercises he/she will be asked to do involves making as long a list as he/she can of his/her own behaviors in response to the statement "Deep in my heart I know that I would be a better spouse if I would do the following for my spouse..." (list all the positive behaviors that would please your partner). The next exercise continues the self searching as follows: "Deep in my heart I know that I would be a better spouse if I would not do the following..." (list all of your behaviors that annoy or antagonize your partner).

At this point in the therapeutic process, each person's original focus on his spouse's unreasonable behaviors is now counterbalanced with an inquiry into the complainer's antecedent (provocative) behaviors as well as the complaining spouse's failure to demonstrate certain positive behaviors. Essentially, we are asking each person to look into himself for "sins" of omission or commission. At this point we also examine the appropriateness or effectiveness of the complainer's usual responses to his spouse's provocations. Does he know how to defuse a provocative statement or behavior, either by doing something positive by:

a) "Blowing the Whistle" on the other person, thus bringing attention to his spouse's violation of respectful conduct during an argument, and/or b). directly addressing the legitimate part of the upset spouse's complaint and ignoring (for the moment) the provocative manner? Or does he do something negative by:

b)  Adding fuel to the flame by responding to negative/provocative behaviors in kind? Do 2 wrongs make 1 right? For information on "blowing the whistle" to stop a fight in its track, click here for "How to Complain Diplomatically and Argue Constructively."

Eventually, both partners understand that putting their marriage back on track will take a lot of soul-searching, hard work and compromising. They are well aware that there is no magic bullet and no magic wand, and that changes will not take place overnight; but as they witness the positive changes that do take place, they begin to realize that it is well within their reach to establish a much happier relationship with each other.

7. Separation Can Inspire A Couple To Seek Professional Help Which Can Lead To A Much Improved Relationship

Section 7 of Article IV:

Man Walking Out Door With Suitcase I also work with couples who are separated. Are there any advantages to separation? Often, separation serves as an advantage to the process of reconciliation. Distance usually gives a person a different perspective. The problems may seem more bearable and even solvable. The attractions of the marriage may appear stronger and take on greater importance. With a new perspective, both parties might show a greater acceptance of their spouse's demands and lower their own expectations and demands. They may also take a more realistic view of their own shortcomings and faults. If so, they will look at the process of compromise in a new light.

A higher level of motivation results in greater effort on the part of each individual to develop a lasting relationship that is based on a realistic understanding of their partner's agenda, even if it differs from what they originally thought it was, and even if their partner has changed his agenda as he matured and the marriage progressed. Click here for my article on "The Hidden Agenda in Relationships".

In such cases, as the partners begin to reconcile, the anger that they had for each other and the despair that they had for the relationship when they first separated slowly abates. The original attraction begins to reassert itself and the partners begin speaking to and seeing each other-- more frequently, going out, and spending more nights together. Both individuals now miss, more and more, the togetherness that they once had. They express their sorrow at being apart and begin to explore the possibility of living together again. Children, family/friend encouragement, finances, and other reasons may also contribute to the goal of reuniting.

But before changing their living arrangement, the separated individuals would be wise to resolve the issues that split them up in the first place. Getting together prematurely could backfire. It is better to reunite slowly and gradually.

8. Hope For The Future

Section 8 of Article IV: There is No Magic Wand

Magic Wand

Couples differ from each other in the nature, severity and chronicity of their problems, their psychological insight, capacity to change, sense of fairness and above all: their love for each other, their commitment to the relationship and their willingness to invest time and effort into the therapeutic process.

Unhappy couples should understand that there is no magic bullet, and no magic wand. But with the encouraging guidance of an experienced professional, and with hard work and sincerity on their part, each person can put the following behaviors into motion:

  • Stop the vicious cycle of negative interactions and pull themselves and their spouse out of their morass
  • Increase communication to include sharing of experiences, feelings, hopes plans, successes and disappointments
  • Express complaints, views and wants, honestly but diplomatically so as to acquire accommodation from their spouse rather than resentment and controversy
  • Show care of partner rather than selfishness and indifference or animosity to partner's needs
  • Get to see the other person's point of view and move into gear to satisfy spouse's reasonable and appropriate wishes and desires
  • Start enjoying themselves with as many shared activities that both partners like, maintain emotional bonding and affection, and the blessings of great sex
  • Initiate and promote a self-maintaining benign cycle in the relationship by displaying all of the behaviors enumerated above

Slowly, like a person going up a ladder one rung at a time, the relationship will improve. Spouses will stop looking for excuses to avoid each other, and will not dread coming home after work. In fact, spouses will look forward to seeing each other and interacting, as they continue to build a healthier and happier relationship.

Summary & Conclusion

The name of the game is perseverance and hard work. With good will and sustained effort, most problems can be solved and the relationship can be restored to the full satisfaction of both partners. Individuals can learn how to bring out the best in themselves and in their partners. When happy interactions are initiated, they are self reinforcing and a benign cycle replaces the vicious cycle that brought the couple into counseling. A successful marital counseling experience is eye-opening for both individuals. The experience with the counselor can bring the couple into a more mature, joyful, happier, richer, wiser and fulfilling relationship than they had ever experienced before, even better than when they first met.

End of Article IV. Hope For Troubled Marriages: A Detailed Description of The Marriage Counseling Process.

For more articles on the Marriage & Couples Counseling Process please click here.

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