Have you ever thought, “I’d love to see a marriage counselor, but I have no idea what happens in a session.” I love this question because answering it gives me a chance to debunk any myths you might have in your mind about what marriage counseling is all about.
So here is my sneak peek into what usually happens during our very first hour together. We cover two very important topics: communication and learning to head off a fight.
First, We Work On Enhancing Communication (Can you believe it, we start this right away!)
Tool #1: Learn to say, “Yes And…”
If you’re human, and your partner comes at you in what feels like an attack or some other negative direction, you might just respond like most everyone else and defend yourself. Your voice might hold a tone of indignation or resentment followed by the one big word that stops conversations in their tracks: BUT
-never return my phone calls.
-didn’t do what you promised to do.
-hurt my feelings.
-cut me off.
-yelled at me.
In one of his many social experiments, Charles Darwin stood in front of the window and on the other side was a snake. Now the snake being a snake, would try to strike at Charles through the window. And try as he might, Charles could never prevent himself from pulling back from the attack, even though his logical mind knew that the glass was there, and he was safe.
When the two of you start having at it, even though your logical minds know you’re safe, you can’t help but react when attacked. Chemically, you will crank out a bucket load of adrenaline when your best friend for life reminds you of your many failures. Unfortunately, you will tend to react with equal or more venom.
So in your first session, as I become aware of your patterns, I might suggest that you borrow a tip from professional actors. Improvisation actors learn to pick up a line tossed out by a partner be saying, “Yes and” to keep the dialogue going. You will find when you use this phrase your partner does not feel you have slammed a door in her face by the too often used “but you.”
Tool #2: Avoid Polarization
Most couples show up with certainty that the other will take the opposite point of view on almost any subject. Spouses will say to me, “If I say this our daughter needs to study, he will say, no she needs a break.” Or “When I comment on this book being black, she will say no it’s white.”
Of course, once one or both of you start to believe this, you will find endless examples to confirm your clarity on this subject. “See she does contradict everything I say.”
Instead, you will find, I will ask you “Is that true? Can you name a few times even this week when your partner has recognized the sheer brilliance of what you have said?”
Catch yourself, when you hear things like, “You are always bringing up how I forget things. Why do you keep forgetting that one thing I want from the to the grocery store.” Don’t retort with your usual, “that’s not true all of the time.”
Practice saying things like, I can see how you might feel that way and move into a “Yes, I do believe I need to grow in not forgetting things,” you take a step towards the middle. Now your partner doesn’t have to defend how his good intentions should be recognized. Instead, he might even challenge himself to name an emerging edge he needs to work
Tool #3: Let Your Partner Have The Floor
You know Robert’s Rules of Order: to have an organized debate only one person can speak at a time. Allowing only one at a time facilitates your hearing someone’s point of view. By the time couples arrive for their first session of marriage counseling, they interrupt each other with their next point. They do so without giving any indication of having heard the other. So each will continue to make and remake points without getting to first base in resolving the problem.
Listen to understand and validate. When you are only seeking to justify your position or make your next point, your partner will feel they might as well not show up.
Tool #4: Demonstrate You “GOT” What She Wants You to Appreciate
You will accomplish zilch by saying, “I understand you but…..” Don’t even imagine this will work. Until you put into words what you are hearing, your beloved will flat out not believe you get her and as I mentioned above keep repeating until she believes you have taken grasped the deeper meaning. Assume that you might not understand.
Let yourself imagine your partner would feel if you said, “I didn’t appreciate all that you do for our child, and you felt hurt. Did I get you?” If she says you did, “Follow up with the questions, “Is there more you want to tell me?.”
Then say,” I can understand how I have not paused to let you know how much I see you stretching to make our home a warm and secure place for our kids. “ This way you l offer validation which will help you spouse will realize that you do see the positives.
At first, this may seem tedious, but it will lead to closeness and understanding
Tool #5: Naming Your Experiences
By saying, “Can I tell you what it’s like to be me?” you open the door for sharing feelings rather than attacking him with them. So talk about what you see from your side of the castle. Use this specific formula: “When I see ——–happening, I begin to imagine—— then I find myself feeling.” In this way, you are practicing non-aggressive communication.
So say, “When you left the kitchen a mess after we talked about it, I began to imagine you don’t care about me and so I felt devastated.”
You have just opened a door that might allow your partner not to get defensive but instead, to tell you how much he does care. If he begins that way, you may hear that he heard on the phone about a crisis erupting at work so that he dropped the “kitchen cleaning” part. End result: Donnybrook between you avoided.
But, sometimes, it’s not so easy.
So Let’s Talk About Skill #2: Learning to Head off a Fight Before It Gets Out Of Hand
Yes, sometimes a rip-roaring interaction clears the air if you treat each other with some decorum. More often than not, though, you will find yourselves in the middle an intergalactic warfare where you say all manner of nasty things. Then you both will have lousy sleep and wake up the next morning chagrined at you spouted. You will want to hear a profound apology from the other. Such humility from your beloved, of course, may not be readily forthcoming. Like many couples, you may tape record and store in your grudge box what has been said and bring it up during a fight six months to six years later.
- Making The Key Commitment
Couples who stay together make a primary covenant with each other. They agree to head off devastating battles. They recognize that such internecine warfare eats away at the heart of their relationship. They come to believe that recurring confrontations do not have to be, and either can step up to the plate and make a turn away from letting things get out of hand.
Simply saying, “I am not sure I want to have this battle tonight, do you?” can save a multitude of disasters.
- Setting the Stage for Battle Interruption
“How?” you might ask. You may have tried to walk away from a battle. You may tell me, “It just doesn’t work.”
You will achieve success only if you adhere to the following protocol. You need to agree to a unilateral ceasefire. You both must assent to granting the other the right to postpone the escalation.
Promising ahead of time to allow an interruption will the stage. Still, if you don’t’ do it In the following way, you will wind up with one partner feeling abandoned.
- An Effective Protocol
Begin by saying, “Honey I am flooded. I am beginning to say things I don’t want you to remember tomorrow morning. I can tell my heart is beating like it’s going to burst. I need to take a break and talk about this tomorrow when we wake up or this weekend. I think I can be more creative in helping us resolve this problem. I see this is important to you, and I do love you.”
Having had many unsuccessful attempts at ending a vituperative eruption between you, you may find yourself surprised that this works. You simply need to take full responsibility for the need to hit the pause button. Don’t say: “You’re making me so angry, I can’t think.” Exclaiming that will lead to more reactivity. Your vulnerability about your feeling overwhelmed and saying, “I love you,” will soften the situation.
So there you have it: some tips I will encourage you to practice during your first marriage counseling session. Who knows? If you find yourself trying them successfully ahead of time, maybe you won’t need a marital therapy after all.
For over 40 years, Dr. Walkup has helped couples rebuild their relationship and find a joie de vivre in celebrating their life together. If you’re in New York City or Westchester, NY community, call him directly for an appointment at 914-548-8645.