Love + problems + stress can lead to marriage counseling.

If you asked Travis (not his real name) what love is, he might give you a deer-in-the-headlights stare. But you can tell Travis knows that he is loved by his wife when he says, “She always has my back.” No, his wife Gina doesn’t lie for him to cover up things. What he means is that she knows him, understands his weaknesses, and never uses them against him.  They both feel truly seen by each other.

Travis has the privilege of being married to a strong woman who is also tender and kind. She is quite able to take care of herself in an argument. But she genuinely cares for her man. Like most healthy couples, they have their share of conflict. But when they argue it never gets mean.

In fact, if his argument starts to sound ridiculous, she doesn’t pounce. She hesitates, she softens. She knows that she can out talk him. But she’s careful to not use that to crush him. Instead, she says, “You know, what you should be saying is … If you said that, it would really touch my heart.”

“She always has my back.”

This little story illustrates some characteristics of love. First, love protects. Second, love is kind. Third, love looks for a way to preserve the closeness. There is an underlying respect for the intimate and vulnerable connection that attaches two people together. Fourth, and most importantly, love gives effort or attention to bring about the highest good of another human being. What happens when two people feel that way about each other? Well, … it just doesn’t get much sweeter than that.

But when the problems come it can be excruciating. A woman and man will press each other’s buttons. Anger and resentment flare. The sweetness can turn so bitter that one of them starts throwing around the “D” word. There is a lot of anxiety and anger precisely because there is so much to lose.  Because the stakes are so high, it’s extremely important to learn good, solid skills for keeping love alive, recovering love when you can’t find it, and taking it to new heights when it seems just “adequate.”

Travis and Gina found this out the hard way.

Not only did problems come up, but they came in a big way. Travis’s father died suddenly. Two weeks later Gina was shocked to find that she was pregnant with their second child. Six months later Travis lost his job. The stress was over the top.

Increasingly, they would press each other’s buttons. Anger and resentment flared. The earlier sweetness of their relationship turned so bitter that Gina started using the “D” word in their many arguments. Travis found a new job within a month. Hearing Gina talk of divorce in their many arguments made him feel justified in give extra attention to female employees at work. Gina had been sick for most her pregnancy and Travis felt resentful that intimacy seemed to disappear without a thought.

Neither of them liked what was happening, but they didn’t have solid skills or tools for repairing their relationship. They knew the stakes were high and they still had a memory of how things used to be. So they decided to seek marriage counseling. They had friends who had tried to wing it through rough patches and ended up divorced. The few things they could agree on now, were that things had to change and that they should try couples therapy.

What advice would you have for Travis and Gina?

As for me, the first thing I would advise them is to avoid certain types of marriage counseling. There are at least four popular types of therapy for couples that are a waste of money at best and damaging to the couple at worst. These are:

  1. The Passive therapist: Therapist sits and watches the couple verbally destroy each other
  2. The “Me-do-it-for-you” therapist: Therapist solves the problems for the couple and they never learn to solve problems for themselves (other than sweeping them under the rug)
  3. The therapist without a method or one that is not based on solid research (I discuss this in more detail under Types of Therapy on the Couples Therapy page).
  4. The therapist who primarily thinks in terms of fixed roles and rules for husband and wife

If Travis and Gina asked me about my approach I would tell them what I will tell you now.  If you work on your relationship with me, you will discover that my style of couples therapy emphasizes at least five things throughout the process:

  1. An interactive approach: the time in the session alternates between conversation and coaching with the couple and listening to each partner talk to the other
  2. Training in specific, research-based communication skills and tools: if you have know-how, it’s MUCH easier
  3. Regaining perspective … repeatedly:  conflict and anger makes us lose track of what’s important
  4. Closeness: strengthening the love attachment both emotionally and sexually
  5. Individual responsibility without blame and shame: each person must own their own stuff

Here are some other characteristics of my approach:

  1. Even-handed: equally in the corner of each person and each gender
  2. Research-based training: discerning enough to know what to focus on and what NOT to focus on
  3. Appreciation for the importance of sex and intimacy in a relationship
  4. Persevering: a witness to what your relationship is becoming
  5. Understanding of women AND men; actually likes men and women equally
  6. Clarity about the meaning of love and knowing how to peel away the debris that has covered over the underlying love between a man and a woman
  7. Strong: can handle intense anger during a session while knowing how to channel it in the right direction

Keeping the story of Travis and Gina in mind, let’s look at the big picture of how marriage counseling unfolds over time. I use a structured, research-based approach that breathes with life and builds love. The outline below will give you a quick idea of how couple’s therapy can unfold.

I can never guess how many sessions a couple will need. But usually it takes 15 to 30 sessions for most problems that couples typically face. I tailor the order of things to the needs of each couple. However, generally speaking, you can expect the phases of therapy to proceed according the following outline.

  1. Assessment
    1. Understanding your strengths
    2. The Gottman Connect Relationship Checkup Questionnaire
    3. Making the problems manageable
    4. See the real connection between you
    5. Creating a unique strategy (pacing, the order of things, etc.)
  2. Creating Safety
    1. Increase your knowledge of what works and what doesn’t
    2. Replacing the four deadly poisons: criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling (Gottman’s 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse)
    3. Communication tools to replace these verbal toxins with health and joy
  3. Transforming the Connection
    1. Rediscovering the power of love: the emotional bond
    2. Clearing away the barnacles
    3. Re-learning how to have fun together
    4. Rebuilding trust
    5. Recovering longing and belonging
    6. Love, sex, and intimacy
  4. Practice, Practice, Practice
    • Why a relationship coach is crucial: practicing the right things
    • Skills and tools bring confidence in problem-solving
    • How to troubleshoot the blocks
    • Working myself out of a job

Regarding this last point, my goal is to coach you how to use each tool without me. Each time this happens it allows us to move on to another tool or issue. By the time we are finished, you have worked through the most important issues in your relationship AND you have confidence for the future because your toolbox is full of the right tools. Research indicates that tapering off the frequency of sessions at the end allows couples to better retain the skills they’ve acquired in the process.

Pre-Marriage Couples Therapy

Premarital counseling starts in a similar way to marriage counseling. There is a meeting with the couple together, an individual session with each partner, a detailed online questionnaire, and a feedback session. This feedback session shares the results of the Gottman Connect Relationship Checkup questionnaire and integrates the findings into an understandable portrait of the inner workings of your relationship.

One of the most powerful and useful aspects of the premarital assessment is what it can do for the first year of marriage. Even couples who have lived together before marriage often find that there is something about that first year that is particularly stressful. The premarital assessment allows a couple to make sense of any current conflict they are having.

More importantly, this assessment helps you see the future of your marriage in a hopeful light.

The assessment helps each of you see which kinds of conflict are likely to be ongoing for years to come so that you can prepare. The sessions after the assessment focus on equipping you both with effective strategies to protect and grow the bond between you.