I've been counseling couples on marriage skills for over 14 years and to this day it is my favorite type of counseling. I counsel people together, and at other times one-on-one, to help teach them new skills and to identify hurtful patterns. When clients enter my office I try to educate them on the process of marriage counseling, and that they will only get out of the process what they are willing to risk. Putting a marriage back together is hard work and it requires being open to new information, to learn new aspects about you that may be ugly, and a wiliness to go through the hurt which means becoming vulnerable. It is a lot of personal risk, pain, and emotional turmoil to put a marriage back together. However, I never assume that is the goal of each person in the marriage to remain married, which is why I generally state in the first session marriage counseling will either help the marriage to be better than it has ever been if you put the work into it or it will aid in the process of saying good-bye.
The First Step to Success
The dynamics that occur in my office on the first session are generally the same; very rarely does it deviate from this. When the couple first comes in, they want to tell me how their spouse has wronged them in hopes I will agree with them and then they can say see I'm right. You need to change. However, this dynamic is what brought the couple into my office, so those of us as marriage counselors have learned not to engage, but to change this dynamic. If we engage in it we will harm you more than help.
For at this stage it does not matter who did what, but how are we going to move forward and the answer to that question is very simple. In order for a couple to reconcile both people in the marriage have to begin looking at their own behavior first and stop focusing on their spouse’s behavior. They each need to look at what they have done wrong to help create the breakdown of the marriage and what they need to change. Before a couple can focus on what the other person has done to hurt them, they need to own up first or it will not work. One of the key skills for marriages to survive is to be able to man/woman-up and own how you are hurting and possibly destroying your spouse. Both people bear responsibility for the success or destruction of a marriage and it does not matter in this stage what the other person has done to you, but what you have done to them.
The first step takes awhile to get through, especially with LEO couples, because the cop is used to being in control and to challenge them to be vulnerable... What the crap??? That is a hard concept to sell because your survival skills on the street teach you never to let your guard down, however, if those tactical skills are used within the marriage intimacy will not develop and your spouse will feel distant from you. When a couple feels distant they start to feel lonely, which turns into resentment, and then the anger turns into blame. It is best to reverse this cycle by owning your stuff. Blaming only feeds into the anger and leads you to divorce court.
The Second Step to Success
Once the couple is open to discussing their stuff we begin the process of how. The how takes up many sessions and is often a couple's roadblock. For some reason, couples come to a belief they can say whatever they want to each other to keep it real and honest. In doing this couples also alienate their spouse because most of what they hear at this point is criticism, anger, disproval, and hurtful comments. I will then at this point tell couples the number one reason I see for divorce is not financial difficulties or infidelities as most people think, but the words people say to each other. Destructive words and phrases over time will wear someone out so that the person on the receiving end no longer has the strength to fight for the relationship anymore. Plus in our marriage vows each of us promise to love, honor, and cherish each other even when we are mad at them or do not like them in that moment. Simply put, to not love your spouse with your words is a breaking of the vow you took to your spouse.
Some simple, but pertinent steps in beginning to change communication patterns with couples is to first work on being positive in what you say. It goes back to what we learned in kindergarten; if you don't have anything positive to say, don't say it at all. Now I know this goes against the often cynical, sarcastic LEO world where confronting what is wrong with a situation or the persons in it is your job, however, even if your spouse is a LEO, they don't want to hear what you think is wrong with them. Your spouse already knows what their faults are; it is not your job to confirm their belief. Part of taking your marriage vows means turning on the communication filter when you come home. Think before you speak. If it is not positive, keep it to yourself. Until you learn this skill and put it into practice routinely, the challenges in your marriage will never be resolved. Positive communication promotes emotional safety. Spouses need to feel safe; that you are for them rather than against them. Safety needs to be established for problem-solving and resolution to begin before the bigger challenges can be tackled.
In reading this article many of you may be thinking, Hey wait, I want more answers. That is all you have to say? Yes, for now. The above two skills of owning your own behaviors and positive speech are hard habits to develop. Most marriages, even good ones, often lack in these areas because they go against human nature. So start here with your spouse. These skills are the foundation of marriage. If the foundation is not solid and couples skip steps, your marriage will crumble. The reason marriage is challenging is it takes commitment to wake up every single day and consciously choose to be married in all of our words, thoughts, and behaviors all day.