Michael and Nancy, an attractive middle-aged couple, found their way to me through a referral from a concerned friend. They greeted me with warmth and enthusiasm as we introduced ourselves to one another in the waiting room. By the time they had settled in my office, their emotional tone shifted considerably. Their uneasiness was evident as they sat at opposite ends of my large sofa. Nancy looked sad. Michael looked anxious. Both looked as if they would have preferred to be anywhere else in the world instead of my office, which was probably true.
After gathering some basic information, I began the session by establishing basic ground rules:
1. Only one person may speak at a time.
2. Everyone has the right disagree with the other.
3. Feelings are neither right nor wrong – they just are.
Then I asked each of the partners to answer my standard opening question, “Well, why are you here?” Nancy responded, “Our marriage is in trouble. We always seem to be fighting. We have been together almost twenty years. While I want to stay in the marriage, I’m not sure that we’re going to make it.”
When answering the same question Michael responded by saying, “I agree. We have had problems for several years now and things just aren’t getting any better. We have been to several counselors, off and on, and nothing seems to help. We try to talk but never get anywhere. Things always end up in an argument. I’m getting frustrated and am not sure that going over the same things again and again is worth the effort. I think that maybe getting a divorce is a good idea. Maybe this marriage is not worth saving.”
I pointed out to Michael and Nancy that both had said that they fought a lot. I asked them what it was that they fought about. They glanced at one another and then both said nearly in unison, “We fight about everything!”
Next, I invited both parties to tell his or her own story. In the course of telling his story, Michael mentioned that he had been previously married for a short time, many years ago. When asked why that marriage ended Michael answered, “We were both young. It was a mistake. Eventually we just drifted apart. It was no big deal.” I asked who was the first to leave the marriage emotionally and he suggested that the decision to divorce had been mutual. Even when pressed, Michael did not provide further details. To him his former relationship was an inconsequential event in his life. It was barely a blip on his radar screen.
When it was her turn to talk, Nancy spoke at length about her own parents’ long-term marital relationship. “In all of the years that Mom and Dad have been together, I’ve never seen them fight once.” Per her report, her parents’ relationship was nearly perfect. By comparison, she described her own marriage as being severely flawed. Nancy confided that she had difficulty telling her parents that her own marital relationship was in trouble for fear of their disapproval and criticism.
As they told their stories, Michael and Nancy proved to be intelligent and educated individuals. They were two interesting and likable people that most of us would enjoy knowing. Yet, as a couple, both were in misery. At one time, Michael and Nancy had joined forces and through the years they were able to accomplish many significant things. Together they had successfully raised two children, purchased a home, managed a household and supported one another in order to build successful careers. They found their way through numerous significant life changes that included serious illnesses, job changes, relocations and the loss of parents and in-laws. For many years they had not just survived but had thrived. Now, they fought with one another continually about almost everything.
Throughout the session I had to remind the couple about my rules on numerous occasions. Both seemed unable to resist interrupting one another to correct the details regarding who had said what. Both denied the validity of the other’s feelings about the events that were being reported. As they struggled to define “the problem”, I noted several unhealthy patterns in the dynamics of this relationship. Clearly, this couple was in distress. Their willingness to talk about their marriage was commendable. Yet, the more they
talked the worse things seemed to get. Something made it difficult for Michael and Nancy to talk with one another.
Overall, the two versions of the marital story were quite similar. Michael and Nancy agreed with one another’s account of the basic events. Yet, when divergent opinions occurred, the tension between them escalated. It was clearly difficult for one to listen to the other without reacting defensively.
Near the end of the session each voiced frustration with how the session had gone. While admitting that they had been able to address more issues in this session than they had had in others, they believed that they had merely spun their wheels once more. Nothing had been resolved. Both Michael and Nancy were extremely unhappy about their shared situation and neither had a clue as to what to do next.
Herein lies the value of working with an uninvolved third party. A trained marriage counselor serves as a neutral entity that can validate divergent opinions and perspectives. When I say neutral I mean that by being disinvested, a counselor can acknowledge and/or challenge what either party is saying without taking sides. He or she is not a judge who listens to the details of a case and then pronounces a judgment as to who is right and who is wrong. Rather, a counselor is more like a referee who ensures emotional safety for both the speaker and listener and makes sure that both parties have equal opportunity to give voice to their thoughts and feelings.
From my perspective, this session had been very valuable in helping me to understand the problematic dynamics of the couple’s relationship. I learned about each person as an individual and about his or her shared history. Of greater importance, I was able to begin assessing the dynamics of their relationship by observing their interactions.
So, I asked Michael and Nancy if what I had just witnessed was a good example of how things went at home when they tried to talk about their relationship. As I expected, both agreed. They welcomed my offer to provide them with feedback from my observations.
First, I pointed out that both parties continually disagreed with the other about what behavior was problematic. Each was inclined to defend themselves by saying, “That’s not a problem.” At other times, each deflected responsibility for issues by saying, “That’s your problem.” Neither was inclined to validate their spouse’s perspective or claim responsibility for the problem behaviors being identified. When this occurred, the person speaking seemed disinclined to continue trying to explain their point of view.
Second, when talking to me about the other, both were inclined to use labels: “Michael is crazy.” “Nancy is neurotic.” “Michael is insensitive. ” “Nancy is far too sensitive.” “Michael is passive-aggressive.” “Nancy is depressed.” The effect of these comments was to raise the level of anger and frustration in the person being labeled.
Finally, when talking to one another, each used irrefutable accusations. “You have always taken me for granted.” “You never appreciated the things that I did for you.” “You always compare me to your father.” “Your mother never thought that I was good enough for you.” These comments stalled conversation because they could not be affirmed or denied.
I concluded the session by acknowledging that Michael and Nancy had helped me to begin identifying several significant problems regarding the dynamics of their relationship. I expressed my willingness to help them work on these things as I saw them as do-able. Then I then asked them if they had a desire to schedule another appointment. They agreed to return.
Before they left I gave Michael and Nancy a homework assignment that they were to complete independently. I gave them three questions to consider:
1. What about your marriage is going well?
2. How will you know when your marriage is meeting your needs?
3. How long do you think that it will take to get things back on track?
We would begin our next session by discussing their answers.
It is impossible to determine whether a marriage is worth saving until a couple assesses and understands what exactly is wrong. Prior to that point, no effective problem solving can be attempted. Suppose that one morning your automobile fails to start. In frustration your first inclination might be to sell the vehicle and purchase a new one. However, it would be foolish to make such a decision on the basis of your feelings of frustration. A rational approach would be to first identify the problem and then find out how much it will cost to make the necessary repairs. With that information in hand, you would also review what about the car is in good condition before making the decision to sell it. A few months ago you just put on a new set of tires and had it tuned-up. The engine and transmission should have a lot of good miles left in them. The exhaust system and the air conditioning are problem free. The paint job and the interior are like new. The sound system is great. Obviously, there are many factors to consider in making a final decision.
Unfortunately, there is no “silver bullet” in the process of marital counseling. Determining whether a marriage is worth saving involves a thorough assessment and not just the clarification of one’s feelings. Make no mistake about it; this process usually involves hard work. Why bother? The answer is clear. To end a marriage in haste has long-term negative effects on everyone involved. I believe that it is not until an individual can say that they have tried absolutely everything that they could possibly do to save the marriage that they are emotionally free to leave. Otherwise, there are the certain to be “guilt ghosts” that will visit periodically. Believe me, no one deserves to be haunted! Admittedly, there are certain circumstances in which divorcing may be the best decision. Unanswered questions will exist if a decision is made prematurely without first ruling out all possibilities for making things work.
You may be surprised to hear me say that at this early point in counseling, I believed that Michael and Nancy’s marriage was worth saving. I say this without knowing anymore than I already did because they were only beginning to understand what was wrong. So far, their insight was limited to identifying their negative feelings about each other. Our job would be to define their relationship problems. Once Michael and Nancy could understand and agree on the problematic dynamics of their relationship, they could better devise a plan for making things better.
I want to be clear from the onset that I am biased about marriages. I like to see them work if at all possible. I believe that neutrality about marriage is actually a bias toward either not caring about them or not valuing them. As for Michael and Nancy, their decision to remain together for years in spite of their shared frustrations was a good indicator that they too cared about and valued their relationship. We were on the same page.