Reflections from a Couples Counselor: Averting Marital Disaster
“The wisdom I would impart
Is take what you hear to heart”
“I want a divorce.”
“I’m done trying.”
“I’m not in love with you anymore.”
Way too many times over my 35 year career in helping couples I hear these words spoken to a surprised or tearful spouse. But, is it really a “surprise?” Do they really mean they literally want a divorce? Sadly, the answer is frequently “yes.” So they have come to me too late to repair the relationship.
If I had the magical ability to speak to all couples, here’s the wisdom I’d impart: Listen carefully and take what you hear to heart. Ignoring or even minimizing what we hear begins to pave the road to relationship disaster. People begin to emotionally disconnect when they do not feel heard or validated, and when their basic needs are not met.
Fortunately (or unfortunately based on the outcome) I possess the ability to predict the trajectory of relationships. I’m not a gambler, so this is not about chance or luck. Observing couples “communicate” and interact is a reliable predictor of future success and satisfaction (or lack thereof) in the relationship. And while it’s obvious to me, it’s often harder for couples to see it themselves.
Jim and Julie
Jim and Julie come for an initial appointment. Married 12 years, they have two children ages 8 and 10. Julie has decided to move out “to be happy and find myself.” Jim, who has refused couples counseling over the last five years is surprised and devastated. He wants to do “whatever it takes to fix our marriage.” She is angry at his surprise saying, “For at least the last five years I’ve told you I’m unhappy. All you do is work, work, work and I feel alone and overwhelmed with the kids. You never appreciate what I do for our family. Instead you question and criticize how I spend my time and how I spend money. You only see things from your own point of view. I am sorry, but I don’t feel close to you anymore. I’m done trying.” Jim is able to acknowledge this is true, but “thought it was not that big of a deal or a stage she was going through.” Since they were not “fighting” he thought “we were basically okay.”
Sandy and Bob
Sandy and Bob come to my office after Sandy is “shocked and devastated” that Bob has served her with divorce papers. Through tearful eyes she says, “I wish you had let me know you were so unhappy. Tell me what we need to do to keep our marriage together.” After 14 years of marriage and five children Sandy says she loves Bob and wants to make it work. Bob, with a neutral and detached tone says that he is “checked out” and “just don’t have the feelings for you I once had.” “I’m done trying.” Sandy says she realizes their life is busy with multiple children and both working full time, but “that’s how life is, and we need to deal with it.” She has not “heard” Bob over the last several years when he expresses his disappointment about their lack of “couple time” which includes time away from the children, lack of sexual intimacy and a feeling that his wife no longer sees him as special. Instead, Bob claims, she spends her energy criticizing his parenting, demeaning him for not finishing home projects, and acting tired and distant all the time. “When I have told Sandy these things, she always has some logical explanation and defense. Obviously she doesn’t share my feelings.” As a result, Sandy couldn’t take advantage of the things she never heard.
Scott J. Pontier, M.A., M.S.W. is a NJ Licensed Marriage and Family Counselor. With graduate degrees in both theology and mental health he brings a unique perspective to his work. He has been providing psychotherapy and couple’s counseling for over thirty years. Scott maintains a private practice in Bridgewater, NJ, leads corporate presentations on a variety of topics, and is also a provider for First Step Counseling (a service of North Branch Church). He can be reached at (908) 203-9444 or via email at email@example.com.
No couple wants to find themselves in the situation shared in these painful examples. Couples desire to have a long- term, satisfying relationship. Individuals might consider this for an improved path forward:
When your partner expresses a feeling…
“All we do is work, manage the kids and take care of the house. There’s never any time for us.”
Don’t respond with logic or discount what you hear…
“Well, it’s what we signed up for you know. Life is not easy. We decided to own a house and have kids. They don’t raise themselves you know. You’re not the only one who’s busy in this marriage.”
Rather, respond by affirming their feeling and suggesting a next step…
“I know you’re feeling overwhelmed and that life doesn’t feel very balanced right now. I understand that. Let’s work on finding some time for just us or more ways to have fun.”
We’re all unique individuals. Our needs vary. Marriage is not about being right or wrong. It’s also not a “competition.” You may have a spouse who is overwhelmed while you aren’t. You may desire more sexual intimacy and your spouse doesn’t. One of you might need more alone time or time with friends. It’s okay to be different. Don’t “judge” or “provide logic.” It does not help. Instead, hear the needs that are being expressed and acknowledge them.
Even if you don’t “agree” or “feel the same way,” you can affirm feelings, desires and concerns of your partner. Try saying something like, “I’m glad you’re willing to talk about this with me. I understand your concern and I know it does not feel great to you. I am willing to work on this with you.” This goes a long way to preserve the relationship and avert marital disaster.
To hear a concern expressed repeatedly and not respond to it, or acknowledge its seriousness — that starts the trajectory to discontent, disconnect and often dissolution.
You can find a better way. Listen to your spouse. Take heed in what you hear. And then take what you hear to heart!
“The wisdom I would impart
Is take what you hear to heart”