It is in marriage counseling that an emphasis on the mind, the body and the spirit is very important. Let me explain. Because we are wired for our own survival, with many couples, emotions can override the “knowledge” of how to best treat our spouses. That is because of the fight or flight gridlock in our brain. We are wired to view the breakdown of a relationship as a matter of survival, which at one time it was. Our “old” or more primitive brain maximizes everything that is happening in the relationship that indicates a potential loss, and we find ourselves over-reacting. If book knowledge hasn’t worked for you, it is time to “tune in” to your own body and to your spouse and their reactions as well. It is possible to learn some very simple techniques that will work for you right away.
For example, research has shown that if a person’s heart rate is greater than 100, they will not be able to listen to what you are saying. Studies also show that men have a harder time restoring their heart rates after being agitated by a verbal fight with their wives. No wonder we all have a hard time listening to each other when we are upset! It’s important to understand how the body and the male and female brains function, in order to learn the most optimal tools that will help you fight for your marriage and not against it. Taking time-outs and not “flooding” your spouse when they are upset, learning techniques involving “deep-breathing” and how to start a conversation so that the other person doesn’t feel “attacked” are all tools that can be easily learned in the first 6 sessions. Learning how to listen to your spouse helps them to feel “safe”. If “safety” is not quickly re-established after an incident has harmed the marriage, it will be much more difficult to learn the “communication” techniques so commonly taught in books and classes on marriage. That is because the primitive fight or flight brain literally hi-jacks the more rational brain to ensure its own safety. We need to feel ‘safe’ before we bond, and before we’re ready to communicate on a deeper level. Things such as defensiveness and criticism, stone-walling and contempt are the “viruses” in a marriage that destroy the sense of “safe” that has been already built in. These are the bugs that can ultimately destroy a marriage if not given a strong antibiotic, according to John Gottman, author and psychologist who researched hundred’s of couples (see resource list below). Without learning to get these viruses out of a marriage first, it is difficult to learn the other communication techniques that are essential to growing a marriage.
Secondly, although it is tempting to put marriage therapy off, the distancing and/or fighting that happens in marriage tends to get worse if not attended to. When patterns are “established”, hopelessness sets in. Most couples start out intimate, go through a time of conflict, then if they do not know how to resolve their conflicts, some go into a place of withdrawal or shutting down, where communication no longer takes place. Although not outwardly threatening like the conflict stage, withdrawal is actually more damaging to your marriage. When this happens, know that your marriage is in trouble. You need to seek help right away in order to avoid further discouragement, detachment, decreased motivation, apathy, bitterness, resentment, affairs, and potential divorce. Divorce is never the answer that really solves your problems, yet some may deem it necessary. However, in most cases you can learn to work through your problems. One study showed that if a couple stayed together after considering a break up, after five years a large proportion stated they were now happy in their marriage. Most importantly, if you do divorce, these issues will come up again in another relationship. And, divorce is more costly than counseling, especially if you include the emotional toll on the children, friends, relatives and physical health of each spouse.
Thirdly, love is simply a mystery, sometimes difficult and sometimes exhilarating, but still a mystery. Not everything can be understood, but staying on top of what is working for couples that are researched is not only interesting, but can save years of trying the wrong things with little result. We do know that respect, love, affection, friendship, laughter and honesty all help to re-establish emotional equilibrium and bring a sense of peace and calm to a marriage. And we do know a little about the brain and how it works. To start with, marriage was created by God to help us better be able to meet our needs in life, especially the need for companionship. When positive experiences occur, it is rewarding, and motivates both of you to want to spend more time with each other. Learning to balance life and all of its demands, with some fun and relaxing time with your spouse, is not only fun, it is essential. Planning a date every few weeks, a marriage get away two to three times a year can really rejuvenate a marriage. And, variety really is the spice of life. Try something different and respond with the opposite of what you usually do, to take the predictability out of your routine. Sometimes, just by accident, you can find a great solution to a life-long habit in your marriage. For example, if you usually pursue your spouse when they try to avoid you, try backing off and let them find you. You may find that they are more likely to spend time with you. Or, if you are the one who distances, try being the first to initiate a conversation or romance. You may find that not only does your partner calm down and relax, but that you too feel less suffocated. Love is much like a dance. When you change a few steps, your partner must follow. Oh yes, and dance lessons can be fun too!
With Christians, since the word of God is the standard in their lives, if a couple is open to using the word in therapy, there are many scriptural principles that help marriage. One is found, of course, in Ephesians 5 where God instructs men to love their wives, as Christ loved the church, and for women to respect their husbands. The book “Love and Respect”, by Dr. Eggerich, is a wonderful tool for learning how to claim this principle in your marriage. In defining the “crazy cycle”, Eggerich states that the problem is not your spouse, it is the “crazy cycle” that occurs when one is not loving or respecting the other. If a man feels disrespected, he can act in a way that is unloving to his wife, and not know it. If a woman feels unloved, she can act in a way that is disrespectful to her husband, and not be aware of it. Thus, both are feeding into a downward cycle in ways that are not conscious to them at the time. By obeying the scriptures to love and respect each other, this cycle can be ended. This is one of many scriptural principles that Denice uses as she guides each person toward living out their faith through genuine obedience to the standard set out in the scriptures for marriage and relationships.
In marital counseling I usually do an assessment that takes four to five sessions and includes one to three sessions with the couple together, and then one session with each person individually. After the first 4-5 sessions, the couple then always comes together, unless they decide to take a break from marital counseling and proceed with individual. In these sessions I teach tools and techniques as well, so there is much progress that can be made in six sessions, if both parties are able to do their homework in between sessions.
“His Needs Her Needs” (book and workbook) by Willard F. Harley
“The Seven Principles That Make Marriage Work” by John Gottman
“Love and Respect” by Dr. Emerson Eggerichs
“Getting the Love you Want” by Harville Hendricks.