Marriage is a commitment, a bond, a covenant like no other. It is so special, so unique that in Scripture it is comparable to God’s relationship with the church, described as His “bride.”
As it says in Isaiah 62:5, “For as a young man marries a virgin, so your sons will marry you; and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so your God will rejoice over you.”
Marriage counseling is available to couples seeking to address a variety of challenges. For some, it is to process losses, ruptures, struggles, or unforeseen circumstances that have come their way. Others seek counseling to determine whether their marriage is at risk. Some seek counseling to discuss divorce.
Unfortunately, it is almost as common to talk about marriage nowadays as it is to talk about divorce. With the divorce rates being anywhere from 40-50% in the last decade, it makes sense to pursue marriage counseling as a way to preserve that relationship.
What to Expect from Marriage Counseling
Are you wondering what to expect from marriage counseling? Well, as mentioned above, couples seek out marriage counseling for many different reasons, which means what you can expect from it is different from the couple who might be sitting next to you in the waiting room.
There is no ‘one size fits all’ model of couples counseling, but there are a few approaches to marriage counseling that I would hope your counselor explores with you and your spouse. No matter the concern, there are a few primary ‘tips’ if you will that can be learned in counseling for a marriage to be successful.
Before we delve into these tips, let’s take a look at a couple I worked with whose story I think acts as a great example of what many other couples’ experiences are like:
Couple: The husband is a successful doctor. He recently finished schooling for his degree and they are now working to pay off those loans. His wife has her own practice on the side that she enjoys and makes good money at, but in their first year into his career they ran into many setbacks.
Aside from being granted his full license months after he was eligible to receive it, he was incorrectly accused of some bookkeeping errors and let go of his job without a final paycheck.
In addition, they had their first child and there were many complications with the birth. Now, with their child about 8 months old, they are coming in for regular couples counseling to address issues they’ve been having together.
The wife feels like she is not being emotionally supported. She feels her husband often resorts to yelling or walking away when he gets upset, making it difficult for her to have a conversation about how she feels without him hearing it as her blaming him.
The husband feels the wife is ungrateful for the 50+ hours of work he puts in and is frustrated by their differences in financial goals for housing and paying off student loans. Overall he would describe feeling “everything I do is not good enough for her.” On top of all this, they live at her parents’ house to save money, an environment which is in and of itself a huge stressor.
So, what did marriage counseling entail for them? Here are some of the things we worked on, talked about, and explored together both in individual sessions and as a group:
While meeting with this couple, I began to notice the husband’s tendency to minimize, dismiss, or altogether deny his own emotional needs. He often would share a scenario from his week in which things went horribly not as planned and he was blamed for it, and yet he would say something like, “It’s okay, it just happens, I can do better.”
What ended up coming about was a conversation of what his upbringing was like. I learned how little support he got. He began living on his own at a young age. He described his parents as narcissists who to this day see their needs as more significant than his own.
All in all, his wife and I empathized deeply with the emotional neglect and even shaming at times he received growing up. This transpired into a question: What would it look like for him to allow himself to need others emotionally?
There is a reason he avoided leaning on others emotionally, because it brought up all sorts of feelings. He became an incredibly self-sufficient person at such a young age simply because when he did present a need, it often was dismissed or not met well.
This translates into Tip #1 for marriage counseling: take time to understand one another’s upbringing, attachment style, and other styles of relating.
Discussing a partner’s reasons for their behaviors, the way they think, feel, or act often makes a lot of sense when we look at their upbringing, and more closely, their attachment style they formed from being in relationship with their primary caregivers.
John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth’s contributions to relational psychoanalysis are immeasurable. One area of their research on relationships that has probably been the most helpful in understanding clients’ needs are the four different types of attachment styles.
Attachment styles can best be described as: “people’s comfort and confidence in close relationships, their fear of rejection and yearning for intimacy, and their preference for self-sufficiency or interpersonal distance” (Meyer & Pilkonis, 2001, p. 466).
One of the three types of insecure attachments is the dismissive/avoidant figure – this was displayed fairly well by my client’s spouse: he could deal with his own emotions, but could rarely feel them. These types of partners are quite capable of moving past feelings of loss and betrayal, but may not fully see how their emotions can be influencing how they respond in relationships.
Though very independent, they can also be emotionally detached. Because of this “a basic biological need for the other is seen as a major threat instead of a source of protection and comfort” (Silverman, 2011, p. 304) and, “Interactive regulation is replaced by more familiar self-regulation” (Silverman, 2011, p. 302).
Learning your spouse’s styles of relating and attachment style and upbringing is just so crucial to understanding who they are and why they might respond the way they do. Often before we can change or eradicate unhelpful relational patterns, we first have to understand where they originated from and what function they served the person in the first place!
So, some questions to consider in therapy are:
- Do you know your spouse’s love language?
- Do you know your own love language?
- Do you know their Myers Briggs personality type and the strengths and weaknesses common among them?
- Do you know their attachment style or your own?
Do the things every generic marriage advice blog, article, or book recommends.
I know, it sounds like a really blanket, simple statement to make, but in my Tip #2, I am implying that marriage counseling will at times really truly ask you and your spouse to do things you have been told your entire marriage to do.
Communicate, make time for date nights, practice forgiveness, etc. And the reason? Because date nights really are an incredible way to foster intimate, consistent, intentional quality time, which is no small thing. That is the crux of investing in any relationship!
As simple as it sounds, some of these common tips and tricks that you can find on the page of a marriage magazine really are what you will be asked to revisit in therapy. Therapy sometimes requires us to go back to the basics. What made you fall in love in the first place? Revisit that!
Did you know there are about 10-20 different parts of a conversation that at any point can be misinterpreted and the entire message will be heard wrong? Anything from what we say, to how we say it, to what others hear us say, to how they interpreted it, etc. Communication takes work to be done effectively.
Nowadays there is so much reliance on technology to communicate that it’s no wonder we feel misunderstood or misheard. When you go to marriage counseling, expect your counselor to examine how you and your spouse communicate with one another on everything from what you’re having for dinner, to how you’re spending your money, to how your car breaking down on your way to work made you feel.
The phrase “communication is key” can’t be overstated. And on that note, let’s take a minute to talk about this: it’s not what you say to your spouse that matters as much as how you say it. People with Master’s degrees in communication will tell you that body language, eye contact, tone of voice, and a whole slew of non-verbal information that you convey when you talk to your spouse is 10x more impactful than any choice of words you say. Non-verbal stuff is huge.
Counselors like to call this “content vs. process.” The what of your conversations is the content. The how is the process. You can expect marriage counseling to take a magnifying glass to how you and your spouse talk to each other.
If a spouse shares a seemingly harmless remark about their partner’s use of time but says it in a tone of devastating disappointment, I might take that as an opportunity to ask if they are aware of the impact their how words had on their spouse’s demeanor. By looking at the evidence (your spouse just shifted in their chair, began looking at the ground, and looks humiliated), there is a conversation worth having about impact.
Tip #3: Similarly, notice impact vs. intent.
Similar to paying attention to the “how” versus the “what” of a conversation, this is one of the most powerful things I think anyone in any relationship can learn, especially in a marriage relationship. “I didn’t mean it like that,” we hear. Or, “you don’t understand.” Or, “you’re not getting what I’m saying.”
What you say and how you say it, like mentioned above, are sometimes very different things. Likewise, what you mean to say, and what your spouse feels like you said can also be incongruent. This is why it’s very important in counseling to take time to pause during conversations and check in with how people are feeling.
I might point out simply to John Doe, “It doesn’t seem like you meant to make Jane cry. In fact, you actually seemed to have the intent to do the opposite and make her laugh, but, if we check in with Jane, my guess is that the impact of your words were somewhat different from what you had intended.”
Our intentions can only go so far, as we all know. Just because we intended to make someone feel understood or heard doesn’t mean we succeeded. It is so good to take time to ask, “How did I really impact you?” and to make room for acknowledging and apologizing for disparity between our actions and intentions.
Most importantly, any amount of effort put into marriage counseling is only as fruitful as the heart behind it. Marriages, as with any relationship, do take work, commitment, time, and intentionality to work. But without love, even the best intentions can fall short of the real hope God has for us to be found in our marriage.
As we read in 1 Corinthians 13:2, “If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.”
By design our marriage is meant to bring us joy, to encourage us, to be a reflection of Christ’s love for us. We will never be able to love our spouses perfectly, but, through Christ we will be able to love them with His love, a love that is more pure, devoted, passionate, and fierce than any you or I could create.
If you are looking to gain wisdom or tools on how to improve your marriage, I encourage you to call today to make an appointment with myself or one of the other therapists at Seattle Christian Counseling.
If you’d like to learn and grow more in your own time, there are a plethora of wonderful books worth reading. Some of my favorites that I’ve found particularly worth reading are This Momentary Marriage by Tim Keller and Intimate Allies by Dan Allender.
“Committed,” courtesy of Zoriana Stakhniv, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Hearth,” courtesy of Cathal Mac an Bheatha, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Married,” courtesy of Sweet Ice Cream Photography, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Grow old with me,” courtesy of Lotte Meijer, unsplash.com, CC0 License