If the truth be known, I am probably only a  marginally effective marriage counselor. The  only redemption in accepting this statement is  that I am not sure any of my peers rank higher. It  is not that I don’t have enough education or  technique. I have licenses and diplomas that  clearly illustrate that I am educated well beyond  my own intelligence. There is a contributing  factor to this process, however, that limits a  counselor from moving the couple along to a  higher functional level. That limiting factor is the  willingness or ability of the couple themselves to participate. 

    Whenever a couple comes in, one or both  acknowledges that they have problems in the relationship that need to be fixed, and even  “probably have some things they should look at  about themselves.” This is code for “I need to  look like I am open to the process, but frankly, if  the other one in this relationship would deal with  their issues [that are offensive to me], we would  be fine.” The only exception to this slam dunk  truth is when one or both have been working on  their “stuff” individually before relational  counseling and have dealt with their contribution  to the relationship. Then the slam dunk truth is  only partially true.  

    As marriage counselors, we work with what  shows up in the office and the art of our job is to  identify the level at which the couple is playing  and try to coach them further up the curve. Again  the growth is limited not only by our educational  skill but by our ability to relate at whatever level  the couple arrives with. So couples, here are  some things you can do to further growth in your  relationship, whether you use a counseling  process or not. As the line goes (with apologies  to Jerry Maquire), “Help us help you!” First, tap into your ability to be self honest. Growth begins when you look at you. Of course  you see the faults in the other better than they do.  The ability to focus on others rather than  ourselves leads to blame which ensures we never  see our part. The relationship does not improve  until both parts improve their offering.  Second, learn that you are responsible for  your own feelings, and your own happiness. If  you are not sure of what it is you need or want,  how in the world do you expect your partner to  participate?

Handing them responsibility for your happiness again puts you into the victim  role and you hand away the power you have for  getting your needs met. “They should know what  I want/like without me having to ask for it” is a recipe for disaster, frustration and is not true. Third, develop better boundaries. Protective  boundaries keep us from having to take on what  others say or do. Containment boundaries keep  us from stepping on other people’s toes. Learn to  develop both or you will drain your level of  emotional energy that is required to work in an  effective relationship. This is very difficult work  and most don’t do it very well. I usually spend  several sessions with couples just on boundaries.  Take a class, read a book, practice with each  other. You and the relationship deserve better  than what most of bring in the area of  boundaries. 

           Finally, marriage is not a net-sum relationship.  There should be unlimited love, acceptance and  positive regard. For one to win, the other does  not have to lose (a feature of dysfunctional  homes). The quick indicator I watch for is the  level of reactivity around criticism and  defensiveness. Couples describe horrible fights  from last Tuesday, but 3 weeks from now cannot  even tell you what they were about. This indicates reactivity not a meaningful conflict or  difference. Reactivity is always tied to history  and almost always predates the couple. Deal with  the history and learn about you or you will blame  the other for your unhappiness for the rest of the relationship. (Then whoever dies first wins).  Most of us spent more time in Driver’s Ed  than we did learning about healthy relationships.  If you want to improve yours, growth is available, and it is a rewarding effort. Help us help you. 

Rev. Daniel Gowan, LCDC, LPC-S