Tim and Marcia saw several different marriage counselors before they found one who was able to help them with their relationship. Married for 12 years, both are very involved in the activities of their two children. But during that time their involvement with each other deteriorated into nothing but bickering.
They first sought therapy with a counselor who was a nice lady. She listened, sitting quietly. They argued, as usual. Occasionally she asked how they were feeling. Pretty much the same way they felt at home – crappy. She was empathetic. Nothing changed.
The next therapist took a much different approach. He stated from the start that his job wasn’t to save marriages, but to help them grow as individuals. He told them that they each needed to resolve their own personal issues from their past in order to have a healthy relationship.
Tim learned that his alcoholic father had provided a poor role model of what it means to be a loving husband. He found pleasure drinking from a bottle rather than engaging in relationships. Marcia discovered that her depressed mother had remained miserable in her marriage for far too long. The result was that Tim became anxious about his ability to be a loving husband, and Marcia became angry and adamant that she wouldn’t repeat her mother’s mistake. Their arguing intensified. They stopped going to this therapist because highlighting problems made their relationship worse – not better.
Marcia started seriously thinking about divorce. Tim pleaded for her to not give up. The holidays were approaching, and so Marcia tabled the discussion about divorce because she didn’t want to ruin Christmas for the kids. Being around the kids always made them feel good. However, the tension and loneliness they felt around each other was painful. It was sad for them to think this might be the last Christmas they’d spend together as a family.
While at a holiday party, Marcia noticed that one of her girlfriends was getting along much better with her husband. In the past the two of them had commiserated about being dissatisfied with their marriages. Marcia commented to her girlfriend about how much happier she and her husband seemed. “It only happened with a lot of great coaching,” her girlfriend disclosed. Marcia said that she and Tim hadn’t had much success with counseling. “This doctor is different,” her friend told her. “He’s more like a teacher who tells you how good marriages work and makes you do homework until you get it right.”
Tim and Marcia decided to try counseling one last time with this psychologist. He too listened, but insisted on hearing the good parts of their relationship as well as their problems. How did they meet and fall in love? What works in their present relationship? What would they want to see happen in the future? Astoundingly neither of them could articulate a clear picture of what a loving relationship would look like.
However, when the new therapist ask about the challenges that were keeping them from having the loving relationship they desire, the floodgates opened. Tim and Marcia provided a long list of specific problems they saw in their spouse. No wonder they didn’t have much hope that the relationship could change, he explained. They were spending all of their energy reacting to what was wrong rather than redirecting it toward making things right.
The psychologist told them about research that identified how loving couples collaborate to create satisfying marriages. Many people, he explained, are able to transform their marriages by learning to create positive connections, displacing the negative encounters.
Like any tough teacher, this therapist was adamant about their testing these new behaviors to see if a positive outcome would result. He challenged couples to make a full-fledged effort to put healthy relationships skills into practice to determine whether their marriage could be salvaged. He helped Tim and Marcia identify their best qualities that enabled them to be successful in other areas. What strengths empowered them to be such loving parents? What would it look like if they used those with each other?
The counseling sessions started with progress checks on homework assignments, and ended with next steps to further enhance their loving feelings. Rather than criticizing each other, they discussed what they valued most. They shared their fears and their desires, and got to know one another at a whole new level. Tim and Marcia discovered that their relationship blossomed when they supported each other in learning how to be more loving.