Does Marriage Counseling Work? Reversing the Stigma of Couples Counseling

Posted October 19th, 2017 in Couples Counseling, Featured, Marriage Counseling, Relationship Issues by

If you’ve found yourself here, something’s probably not going as planned. Where did it go wrong? Why can’t he just listen to me? Why can’t she understand? How could he have done that to me? Perhaps these are some of the questions you might be asking yourself.

You’ve opened up your computer or phone and have started searching for answers to these questions. You’re looking to make sense of what’s happened in the last six months or six years.

Let me first say, just by looking for some understanding you’re taking great first steps toward growth in your marriage. Acknowledging the invasion of marital pain and stress shows great potential for you to grow both personally and as a couple.

Often, such as in this very moment, we tend to look for help on the internet – but why is that? Hopefully by reading this article you’ll find some comfort and hope; I desire that for you. However, we can gain so much more from interpersonal interaction.

If you were learning to play the rules of a new game with your partner, such as a sport or board game, would you rather read about it online or get into it and learn through experience? I would guess the latter. Why then, when the stakes are so much higher, do we seek help through the online world?

There’s the obvious immediacy and convenience the internet provides – however, for married couples I’d gather there’s a large component at play: the stigma on counseling for married couples.

Let’s start by acknowledging the problem: there’s a stigma around coming into couples counseling. Where did this stigma come from? Where did we as a society go wrong and decide that admitting we experience relationship problems was taboo?

This is just my opinion, but I think it stems from deep-seated beliefs in our cultures. Here in America, our culture is so wide and varied. We used to say melting pot, but that seems to indicate a sort of homogeneity not actually found. Rather, the metaphor of a tossed salad better describes the cultural complexities and varieties we find in our borders.

In Seattle in particular, we have such a wonderful mix of families from every country and culture coming into our city to try and make a life for themselves. While every culture brings something valuable to our community here, many different groups have beliefs that can contribute to the stigma around couples counseling.

In our Western culture, the value of individualism seems to shy us away from admitting our problems. We have a desire to do things by ourselves at any cost. We don’t want a handout – that would indicate what we worked for wasn’t done entirely on our own. Asking for help indicates a perceived “weakness” in ourselves. Coming to counseling, then, would seem to indicate a fault or weakness.

In some cultures, family strength is valued and we must present ourselves as a united front to the world, perfect from the outside looking in. In these families, harmony is valued and problems are usually to be dealt with internally. Coming into counseling here might violate an internal familial contract and allow an outsider to peer into what’s really going on inside.

Stigmas usually come from culturally held and transmitted beliefs and can be difficult to overcome. Let me present, then, another way to look at what counseling for married couples can do.

First of all, let me say this: marriage problems are normal! The Joneses down the street with the BMW, perfectly manicured lawn, and golden retriever? They’re going through financial problems, keeping Mr. Jones up at night, leading him to be more irritable with Mrs. Jones. The Browns around the corner smiling at the potluck with two kids in top colleges? Mr. Brown is having intimacy problems, causing Mrs. Brown to feel inadequate and unwanted, leading them to a silent suffering and stale marriage.

The family that moved in recently from Korea next door that bought the nicest house on the street? They can’t figure out how to adjust to their kids behaving more independently than what was expected in Korea, so they are constantly fighting with themselves and their children about how they should behave.

Does Marriage Counseling Work?

Every couple and family goes through rough patches and periods of strife. They can range from misunderstandings to infidelity. Further, no issue indicates any sort of worse prognosis than another. Couples get divorced for simply lacking connection while others stay together through multiple affairs. However, in any sort of issue, I believe hope exists. Problems are normal, and growth is possible.

While couples often suffer in silence, growth and hope come to those who reach out and seek help. To a certain extent, this does mean coming in some humility. But know this, everyone has been there and needs some help from time to time. Remember these words from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven . . .  Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:3, 5).

Jesus does not condemn the downtrodden and the hopeless; rather, He prescribes blessings for them. Further, I truly believe admitting our struggles is a strength. Think about it this way: to learn a new skill requires first the acknowledgement that you don’t know how to do the thing you are learning. Or let’s say you’re a professional athlete coming back from an injury. Everyone, even the best, needs some rehabilitation and practice to get back at it and perform at the level they once were.
Recovering from an Attachment Injury
One way we talk about romantic relationships is as an attachment relationship. As food and water are to our body, attachment is to our soul. Everyone attaches emotionally and socially to someone or something. At birth, we attach to our mother and then our father if he is around. If a child doesn’t have a mother or a father intensely attending to his or her needs, then attachment is not formed and dysfunction occurs. The baby will react strangely when its parent leaves the room, perhaps crying beyond what is expected and then become unable to soothe when the parent returns, or, at the other end of the spectrum, have no emotional response at all.

These sorts of responses are evidence of an attachment injury as a child. In adulthood, attachment injuries look different. If we are unable to attach to a friend, family member, or spouse, we find things to attach to. This can look like substance abuse, pornography addiction, or digital addictions. Rather than getting the emotional reward from attachment from someone, we seek and find it in something.

So what then occurs in an attachment relationship in adulthood when an attachment injury occurs? Or, what happens when a marriage hits a rough patch? Maybe there was a big fight or lie. Maybe there was infidelity. This would be like an acute attachment injury, like a broken leg. Maybe over time the problems have been small enough to just “let go” and so they were never dealt with. Never large enough to pull away from and deal with, they’ve been left to build up over time and have resulted in a years long pattern leading to resentment on both sides. This might be akin to more of a stress injury, like a bad elbow.
How Marriage is Like Baseball
Now let me talk about baseball for a little bit here to illustrate how this can play out in a marriage. The motion of throwing a baseball at 90+ miles per hour is not “normal” for the human body. Throwing contorts your arm and body, and looking at a slow motion video of a pitcher can look awkward and painful if you had to hold that position. The “proper” motion is very specific and needs a lot of practice to do it safely.

However, over time you can develop strength and be able to do it routinely and effectively. With slight variations, though, pitchers can begin to stress their elbow. At first they might notice some discomfort in their elbow. If dealt with properly, this might not be too much of a problem. However, they might fear that if they speak up about it they might get pulled and not get to compete in the game they love. As such, many pitchers continue to throw using just their slightly bad form, fighting through the little discomfort that doesn’t really hold them back.

Over time, this pain will build and it can become unbearable. You may or may not have heard of the infamous “Tommy-John” surgery, but once it’s time for the surgery, pitchers pretty much have no option but to undergo it. It’s derailing to say the least – for most, it’s at least a year out of the game. After the surgery there’s healing, then rehab, then starts in the minor leagues before being able to pitch again at the big league level.

Had they just dealt with the little things, the little discomforts that every pitcher experiences, they might have been able to avoid the long process of recovery. However, it is still a normal experience that a lot of pitchers go through. And here’s the good news: once pitchers go through the surgery, usually they come back with an even stronger elbow. They could have just quit baseball altogether, but by going through the long and painful recovery, they are able to come back and be even better than they were before.

How does this relate to couples counseling? Well, it is incredibly normal for you to be experiencing some little discomfort over time. Dealing with the little things can prevent them from developing into big things. While that might seem obvious, many choose to just “let things go,” leading to long term build up of resentment. What started as little quirks and patterns have developed into a debilitating attachment injury in your relationship.

Now if you’re a pitcher in baseball, you go to the surgeon and he fixes you up. Why don’t we do the same in our relationships? Something is broken. Let’s fix it! It seems that most couples I work with would have done well to come in six months to two years earlier than they did. There’s no point in letting these little things draw out.

Perhaps the financial element is a burden, in which case I’d encourage you to think about it as an investment in your future. Two to three months of couples counseling to work on some smaller issues is a lot less money than six months to a year, or even a divorce. Plus, think about how much more productive you can be in your life if you are not living under the cloud of a stressful marriage!

While the stigma is there, holding us back from working on our relationships, we can overcome it. That is done by not only coming into couples counseling, but proclaiming it proudly! Let’s change the narrative that couples counseling is a shameful thing to go through, but rather a normal point in your relationship.

For every couple, there will be a season that could benefit from counseling. Maybe none of your friends or family members are there now, but there’s a good chance they will be. One of the most comforting things is knowing that someone you trust and admire has gone through this too, and you can be that for someone else.

If you know a couple who has gone through it, ask them what their experience was. Granted, just like rehab for an injury, it can be a difficult process, but for most they find it better on the other side. We work with professionals on the physical side of ourselves, why not the social and emotional?

What to Expect in Couples Counseling

Should you make the big and brave leap and begin to fight the stigma yourself by coming into couples counseling, expect a few things. Expect to work hard in the session. There’s a good chance there will be tears, maybe some yelling and arguing at first.

But also expect this: expect to find a newfound respect and admiration for your partner. Expect to connect emotionally, perhaps in a way you haven’t in years or even never had. Expect yourself to grow as an individual and as a partner. Finally, expect to live life freer and less encumbered than you do now. And that’s a really good thing.

Photos
“Hold my hand,” courtesy of pixabay.com, pexels.com, CC0 License; “Just to be with you,” courtesy of Haley Powers, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Fast ball,” courtesy of pixabay.com, pexels.com, CC0 License; “Beach Stroll,” courtesy of Joyce Huis, unsplash.com, CC0 License 

Author Info

Spencer Fox, MS, LMFTA

Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist Associate

Contact Spencer directly:

(425) 361-0551 | spencerf@seattlechristiancounseling.com

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