Tag Archives: marriage counseling

The Problem with Compromise in Marriage

“Keeping the Sparks Alive” Series

True or False?  Marriage involves plenty of compromise.

Marriage therapist Corey Allen, PhD, explains in this insightful post why compromise isn’t helpful in your marriage. In fact, he says it can be causing a lot of damage in your relationship. This seems counter-intuitive to much of the advice we read and hear about, so I wanted to delve into this further.

The problem with compromise, says Allen, is that it involves both spouses to make concessions, and both parties go away feeling dissatisfied. In addition, there is usually an expected reciprocity when one party gives in. This leads to keeping score and unmet expectations, which we know can cause conflict.

“True compromise can only occur when two equally powerful people both clearly state their needs,” says Allen, adding that only then can they work on a mutually satisfactory solution. The solution may take some creativity or seeking an option that is not already on the table, but often both people can end up happier if they both keep their needs at the forefront.

My husband and I redecorated our family room this spring, and we both had strong feelings about what we wanted. It took months of shopping (which neither of us enjoyed) before we pieced together the elements we were both happy with. It may have been easier for one of us to compromise, but now that it’s done, we are both pleased that we each got what we wanted.

Sometimes the less outspoken spouse has a tendency to go along with what the other person wants. He or she doesn’t want to make waves, and finds it is easier to just give in on something. However, each instance of coming away unhappy can lead to a little bit more resentment and feeling of powerlessness.

 There are a few questions I still have about this issue, and I’m glad to hear Allen will be doing a follow-up post to further explain. There are several points I would make, and I’d really like to get more views on this:

  1. I do think that we still need to be very willing to hear one another out and give each other our influence and encouragement. Sometimes it really helps to hear the other’s reason for wanting something. We may change one another’s perspective before even solving the problem. How we discuss an issue has so much to do with the outcome.
  2. When we are in the midst of a conflict in which both spouses’ heels are dug in, I think sometimes—rarely—one person does need to “give in” or agree to disagree. I’ve interviewed mature couples who are able to do this and respect each other even more for it. It seems I may disagree with the experts on this. If something is not a deal breaker, and it’s gone unresolved after working hard, something’s got to give.
  3. Getting our needs met doesn’t mean we always get what we want. For instance, if one spouse wants a new boat and the other a new car, and there is limited money, we can’t get them both. We can’t use the marriage advice not to compromise as an excuse to be irresponsible and do what we want no matter the consequences.

Let’s hear your viewpoints on this. Do you compromise in your marriage? Do you feel your needs go unmet? Is one person likely to give in regularly? Do you think give and take is a bad or good thing?

Photo courtesy of Stockvault.net by Radu Mihai Onofrei

Does Marriage Counseling Work?

There’s a good deal of debate about the efficacy of traditional couples therapy. We’ve talked and debated this issue a bit, but I found a few facts to share with you.

  • 70% of couples who go to a well-trained couples therapist make substantial progress on the problems that bring them to counseling, says Howard Markman, author of Fighting for Your Marriage in this video clip from The Today Show. The key point here is the therapist is well-trained and pro-marriage, and is working to build understanding and reestablish the bond between you, not focusing on your individual needs.
  • Couples wait an average of six years with significant problems before seeking help, says well-known marriage researcher Julie Gottman. While patients who have a terminal illness seem medical help immediately, those who see their marriage as potentially terminal drag their feet.
  • 80 percent of couples who marry and divorce do so without EVER seeing a marriage counselor. (Don’t blame the high divorce rate on marriage therapists.)

What about the contrarian opinions you’ve heard? If you hear from individuals whose marriages have failed despite seeing a therapist, their complaints are certainly valid. Chances are either one of the spouses was not motivated to make the marriage work, or they were not seeing a therapist who was trained to help them reconnect in a meaningful way. It could be that the offenses (or perceived offenses) were too significant for one spouse to consider staying, such as with serial indelity. If you know of couples who have had a positive experience with a therapist, that’s a great reference for you to consider if you are looking for a good therapist.

What is the therapists’ role? A marriage therapist is a neutral, confidential party who will help you fight for your marriage and hopefully will help you both see the relationship and one another in a new light. They should assist you with how to move forward in a more positive, meaningful way.

When should a therapist be sought? Expert Patricia Love, PhD, says at the earliest signs of resentment or when one partner has a withdrawal of interest or energy in the relationship. In other words, when you don’t care what your partner has to say, or you don’t prefer to spend your time with him or her. If you have to ask if your problems are severe enough to seek a counselor, that should give you a hint that your relationship could use a boost. Dr. Love advises couples always go together to counseling if at all possible, because a therapist can’t build a bond with only one of you there.

How about before problems arise? Experts suggest marriage education classes and weekends are strongly encouraged as a form of regular care and maintenance for your marriage. In other words, you may want to seek tips and advice before you have a serious problem. Preventive care may be the most effective kind of marriage help yet.

Here’s a national directory of pro-marriage counselors. This directory was founded by William Doherty, PhD.

Have you heard any other statistics on the effectiveness of marital counseling? Or are your views influenced by a personal experience?

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Is There an Imbalance of Power in Your Relationship?

Generally one spouse within a drifting marriage notices first that there is a disconnect or loss of closeness. Usually, this spouse is the wife, says marriage and family therapist Tim Heck, PhD. Women just tend to be more in tune with the emotional health of the marriage, he says.

Depending on how she (or he) addresses the issue and is responded to, the relationship may go in different directions. Hopefully, the other spouse will understand that a perceived disconnect is still a disconnect, and will be motivated to work together to solve the problem. This happens in relationships where there is a balance of respect and power, and a mutual desire to stay connected. If approached in an ideal manner (“I feel…” or “I miss you”), the other spouse may respond very positively.

Sometimes the spouse who is hearing the concerns will feel attacked and will instead become defensive. And sometimes he (or she) doesn’t see a problem and is not at all motivated to change. Maybe he even knows there is a problem, is not committed to improving the marriage, or has one foot outside the marriage.

The latter scenarios can lead to an imbalance of power in the relationship, with one spouse asking for more, and the other spouse pulling away. In these couples, there is often an imbalance of respect, too, says Dr. Heck. As one partner pulls away, it’s natural for the other spouse to pursue them, but it continues to distribute the weight toward the partner who is pulling away. The pursuing spouse loses respect in the process—often self-respect as well as respect from the distancing spouse.

A skilled therapist can often help this couple get back on track. Dr. Heck says he often recommends in order to re-stabilize the relationship that the pursuer pull back. This can work effectively unless the spouse who is pulling away has already reached a point of “seemingly no return,” where perhaps there has been an affair or emotional alienation. In these cases, pulling back may be a catalyst for the emotional divorce to turn into a real divorce, says Dr. Heck.

Another scenario that sometimes occurs involves the pursuer becoming frustrated after sometimes years of trying to get their spouse to respond. By the time the distancing spouse realizes the marriage is in crisis, the pursuer has given up and has made plans to end the marriage. Dr. Heck sometimes hears from husbands in this situation, who are suddenly willing to read anything and do anything and want to be in counseling immediately; however, the wife has lost her motivation due to years of unresponsiveness from her spouse.

Understanding of these kinds of patterns and causes and effects are what makes a trained therapist so helpful during crisis periods. For instance, a wife may be working to do anything to win her husband’s love back, but in the process be pushing him further away.  The problem is not the wife, but the husband’s lack of motivation. Unfortunately, couples may wait an average of seven years before seeking professional assistance. During those years much damage can be done, and sometimes the spouses are too far apart to come back together.

Of course, Dr. Heck recommends preventive strategies to help keep marriages from reaching these crisis points. “Friendship is so vital,” he says. “Have fun together. Be a student of each other’s life. Don’t develop two different worlds. Be aware of and on top of what is going on in each other’s life. Maintain regular conversation. Take care of the marriage even if it means pulling away from the kids.”

Dr. Heck also recommends bringing faith into the marriage. “Praying together makes a great deal of difference,” he says.

Whether couples are doing well or in counseling due to a crisis, Dr. Heck suggests focusing on your strengths, not your weaknesses. “If you keep talking about your problems, it tends to get depressing,” he says, adding that this “problem approach” is not highly motivating. The average spouses he sees have good motives for their actions, but are dealing with entrenched conflict or disintegration. The strength-based approach calls out the good, even within less-than-good situations.

Finally, Dr. Heck says the sexual relationship within a marriage often becomes a metaphor for the rest of the relationship. Sometimes couples are afraid to address this, but “you give them a language to address all areas.” They may not have broached the topic before, but therapy “gives them permission to talk about the untalkable.”

I found Dr. Heck’s insights to be thought-provoking. What do you think?

Have you thought about the balance of respect and power in marriage in this manner? Have you experienced an imbalance in the past that you were able to rebalance?

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What’s a Pro-Marriage Counselor & How Do You Find One?

I had the pleasure recently of interviewing a pro-marriage counselor whom I know personally and respect immensely. Timothy Heck, PhD, LMFT, is founder of Family Counseling Associates in Indianapolis. He’s a Christian counselor with a pro-marriage perspective. What’s a pro-marriage counselor, and what’s the alternative? A pro-marriage counselor is a therapist who is not neutral about the marriage—one who actively advocates for the marriage, not for one or both individuals.

If I were going to choose a marriage counselor, I would insist on someone who would fight for my marriage, not just convince me that I deserve to be happy. Too often in the U.S., that is not the type of counselor you will find.

The mental health field has been strongly influenced by the sociological movements of the last 50 years, says Dr. Heck. Some of the influences have been helpful, such as the balancing of power and respect in the relationship between males and females. Other influences have been negative, he adds, such as the widespread belief that marriage is a dispensable commodity that merely serves to meet an individual’s needs. “It has been reduced to a cost/benefit analysis,” he adds. “A lot of therapy buys into that quid pro quo.” Dr. Heck says while this strategy may work in some cases, it doesn’t work when both spouses are not motivated to do what is needed to meet the other’s needs.

Dr. Heck says when choosing a therapist, it’s important for couples to know the counselor’s value system up front. “Every therapist has a value system that needs to be considered an announced, so the client may go in with informed consent,” he explains. Many—surveys say most—therapists in the U.S. have a value system that prioritizes the health of the individual over the health of the marital relationship. Within a Christian/Catholic worldview, Dr. Heck says the marriage relationship would be every bit as important as the individuals’ wellbeing. “That’s the position I take,” he says.

Non-Christians are welcome at Dr. Heck’s Family Counseling practice, and while his faith is normally part of his work, it can be behind the scenes when the patient prefers. Most patients prefer to integrate faith into their sessions, but his worldview always shapes his work with couples, and he integrates psychology with his faith. “I’m going to work very hard to maintain and reconcile the relationship, believing that it is to the benefit of the partners and their children. It’s even best for the community—socially and economically,” says Dr. Heck.

Dr. Heck’s advice is exactly in line with the advice found in Take Back Your Marriage by William J. Doherty, PhD (one of my favorite marriage books). You can download two chapters from his web site for free here. Dr. Doherty doesn’t come at the topic from a faith-based approach, but he lands at the same point. Dr. Doherty says in his book, “If you talk to a therapist in the United States, I believe that you stand a good risk of harming your marriage.” His caveat is that is he a therapist and encourages therapy, but the right kind of therapy with the right kind of therapist—one who is committed to excellence in practice and who believes in marriage.

Dr. Doherty warns there are several big problems to watch out for in therapists: incompetent therapists who are not trained and experienced to work with couples, neutral therapists (which the majority of marriage and family therapists report themselves to be) who only help you weigh gain and loss, and therapists who see only pathology. In other words, they diagnose without helping, leading you to hopelessness or fatalism. He says a fourth type of therapist actively undermines the marriage by subtlely or overtly encouraging you to end the marriage. (“I can’t believe you’re still married to him.”) The last type of problem therapist he mentions is the one who gives direct advice, which is against the code of ethics. (“I think you need a separation.”)

Following are some of the tips for choosing a therapist from Dr. Doherty’s book:

• The therapist does not take sides, but is caring to both of you.
• The therapist actively tries to help your marriage and communicates hope that you solve your marital problems. This goes beyond just clarifying problems.
• The therapist offers reasonable and helpful perspectives and specific strategies for changing the relationship.
• The therapist does not allow you and your spouse to engage in repeated angry exchanges during the session.
• The therapist is alert to individual matters (addiction, illness, abuse, etc.)
• Although the therapist may explore your family backgrounds, the focus is on how to deal with your current marital problems rather than just on insight into how you developed these problems.

(There are more tips, but that gives you a few. I highly recommend chapter 6 in Take Back Your Marriage for more complete advice.)

Visit http://www.marriagefriendlytherapists.com for a directory established and run by Dr. Doherty that helps couples find supportive, pro-marriage therapists in your area. 

Have you had experience—good or bad—with a marriage counselor? Are you open to seeing a therapist if you feel your marriage could benefit?

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