Couples Counseling

coupleLast year, I wrote about investing in your marriage in a post called Marriage Takes Work. It’s been a popular read and has generated a number of comments but that’s not why I wrote it.

I wrote it because I grew up surrounded by divorce and because my husband and I reside at almost opposite ends of the Myers-Briggs personality spectrum—I’m a sound ENFJ and he’s an ISTJ. If you’re curious about yourself, you can take a quick test here, (thanks Marisa Hopkins for the link).

DH and I entered into marriage knowing it would require our constant care. So last spring we enlisted the help of a clinical social worker and started Couples Counseling.

People have funny misconceptions about the term “counseling;” it often seems to connote that one is seeking counseling for something that is in trouble. In our case, we’re not in trouble, we just want to make sure we don’t lose our way. We’re not asking for help but rather seeking “guidance.”

Guidance to help us better manage the way we communicate with one another, guidance to bring up topics we didn’t know have the potential to evolve into challenges later, and guidance to prepare us for future hurdles that we may encounter along the way.

Given the option, we’d prefer to sit down once a month with a familiar, non-related, older couple. Folks who have raised their kids, weathered storms and come out strong (or stronger) on the other end. A couple willing to take a younger couple under their wing and mentor them through the journey but sometimes finding the right fit takes time and we wanted to get started so we decided to put our health insurance to good use and find an “in-network provider” to defray the expense of using professional guidance.

A number of you have asked me to follow-up with our experience focusing on our marriage so here’s how it’s been. In the past several  months, DH and I have visited our “guide,” Cynthia, a dozen or so times (we took the summer off); at first we went every other week, then, since the fall, just once a month.

In the beginning, Cynthia explored our relationship, delved a little into our pasts and determined what sort of space we were making in our busy lives for each other. She would start the sessions by bringing up topics and getting us talking about something that might be difficult to discuss over dinner or on a nap drive.

First she’d get us talking, then she’d give us the tools for a successful discussions. Her main objective was teaching us how to listen.

Active listening involves not just hearing the person who’s talking to you but really absorbing what that person is saying in a way that you could then paraphrase it back to the speaker. It’s called empathic listening.Empathic listening involves allowing a person to say their piece and relaying back to them what you, literally, heard them say. Not what you think they are saying or what you think they ought to say but truly what they did say.

Take this example of how people typically communicate vs. how to empathically communicate:

Speaker #1: last week you borrowed my red umbrella and left it at a store without even feeling bad about it. I loved that umbrella, that was really thoughtless.

Speaker #2: Thoughtless?! My hands were full when I left the store and by the time I realized I left it, I was too far away to go back and didn’t have time. Besides, one of the prongs was broken and it wasn’t very functional.

Empathic listening::

#1: Last week you borrowed my umbrella and left it at the store then you didn’t even seem sorry about it. It was my favorite umbrella and it really hurt my feelings that you lost it.

#2: What I hear is that you’re upset because I borrowed your umbrella and left it somewhere. You’re upset because I don’t seem sorry about it and it was you’re favorite umbrella. Is this right?

The human tendency (especially for women) is to analyze and interpret what is being said. Undoing and relearning how to communicate can be both frustrating and belittling but the outcome is both rewarding and cathartic. You go beyond hearing one another and are practice learning how to really listen to each other.

For DH and me, learning to do this is not easy, sometimes we launch right in to our 50-minute session by introducing something very fresh, like a disagreement over something, a concern about one or the other’s character, or bringing up a personal habit that we’d like to adjust.

Initially, even giving both of us equal chance to open the session, I would introduce most of the topics, leaving DH on the defensive and feeling vulnerable; and certainly that was not the goal nor hope. Recently, however, we’ve turned a corner and DH has been the one introducing the topics. Now both of us, using the tools Cynthia has given us, work through the topic empathically. If the conversation becomes one-sided or if Cynthia feels like We are not making progress, she’ll interject.

In our last session—just after my birthday and right before the holidays—DH brought up the topic. He introduced it not by sitting and pondering for a few silent moments as the precious 50-minutes ticked by but rather in the manner in which a person with a burning idea might speak out. Instead of bringing up a recent disciplinary issue regarding our kids, accentuating our different parenting techniques and how we could have done things differently, as I was expecting him to, instead, DH told Cynthia that he didn’t feel like he had enough time with his wife.

I was floored.

Granted, November’s a big “Me-month” because my birthday falls right in the middle and this year it was a big one, so my first reaction was to express concern. Immediately I worried that perhaps he was feeling tapped out by the many events (like a big surprise party, getting a new car, having family come in for the weekend), which had elevated me but eclipsed him. My second reaction was to be affronted that he was criticizing me for using the sparse, kid-free time I have to pursue my writing career. Especially considering all of the missed dinners, late nights and business trips he’s done.

But, Cynthia was quick to adjust my natural tendency to interpret and analyze what is being said rather than to really listen.

So we backed up, DH expressed his concern and I had to reorder it in my head and then repeat back to him what I had heard. Here’s how it went:

DH: I feel like we’re not spending enough quality time together. Lately, when I’ve been on my computer and doing things like looking into a new family car or surfing the web thinking about Christmas, you are off in the other room “working.”

Me: What I hear you saying is that you don’t feel like we spend enough time doing things together like looking for a new family car or Christmas shopping. You fee like I’m always on my computer working while you do these things. Is this right?

Our conversation went along like this for the next 40 or so minutes and was still unresolved by the time our session time was over. As a result, Cynthia asked us to continue the conversation and especially to make time to be together in the coming weeks, whether on date nights, sitting side-by-side on our couch or just “working” at the same table.

As a result, I felt very drawn to my husband. I was touched that he missed me. That he recognized being apart and that he wanted to do and say something about it. How often couples begin to drift in individual circles rather than conjoining ones. How their interests pull them in different directions and they begin living parallel but separate lives. How often have you heard about a couple who raise their kids together and seem perfectly in sync only to send the last off to college and realize they are left alone with a stranger?

In the past month, DH and I have taken great strides to remind ourselves that we on this journey together. That, before we had kids, we had each other and that was a lot of fun. We’ve made time to take time. We’ve asked others to help us make time by staying with our kids or by spending quality time with all of us. We have stopped to ask what each other needs, a glass of water? some tea? help getting something done. It’s cathartic, uplifting and very empathic.

And I highly recommend trying the same.

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9 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Dolly Patterson
    Jan 08, 2013 @ 13:44:24

    You are so brave to share in these intimate details. Thank you for doing this as it is such an important reminder to me to listen more emphatically to my partner of over 20 years!!! Love you and love your writing. You are amazing!!!

    Reply

    • growingmuses
      Jan 14, 2013 @ 19:45:04

      If something I write about can impact anyone positively, whether they’ve been together for 20 months or 20 years, I’m enormously rewarded. Listening, emphatically AND empathetically is really at the core of any strong relationship. Nothing feels more disheartening than to think you’re not being heard or understood. Thanks for your positive words, Dolly.

      Reply

  2. slightlywonky
    Jan 08, 2013 @ 14:00:25

    Such a great post! Yes, empathic listening sounds so easy, yet it takes a lot of practice (practice that I have not done, mind you). It’s so hard even to hear a person without a parallel voice in our heads immediately reacting. It’s so great that you guys are maintaining good communication lines, as it’s so key to making it all work. I think that everyone in a relationship can think of examples where communication, even difficult communication, brings people closer…even if they may not find a “meeting point” yet. Very inspiring…thanks for sharing!!!! xoxo e.

    Reply

    • growingmuses
      Jan 09, 2013 @ 11:04:37

      communication indeed is at the core of all human relations but GOOD communication is what makes strong and healthy relationships. I’m learning that not just hearing someone but really taking the time to listen and understand them pays off in more meaningful interactions. Husbands, friends and strangers alike…goodness, even children!

      Reply

  3. Wanderlustress
    Jan 09, 2013 @ 00:30:17

    Oh how we drift! Thank you for sharing such a personal and insightful post that I think will benefit everyone who reads it for the many types of relationships in our lives. Wonderful post! And now to put it into practice…thank you.

    Reply

    • growingmuses
      Jan 09, 2013 @ 11:01:50

      By no means do I dare suggest that the knowing has resulted in applying new skills but I am certainly more aware of our need to connect and listen to each other on a more regular and valuable level than I had been previously doing. Good luck my friend and you’re welcome!

      Reply

  4. marriage advice
    Jan 10, 2013 @ 23:59:06

    Very good info. Lucky me I ran across your website by accident (stumbleupon).
    I’ve bookmarked it for later!

    Reply

  5. Edilberto Durano
    Mar 06, 2013 @ 20:58:05

    Couples counseling is important if the couples have a mutual agreement that they want to fix their relationship and want someone to listen to their troubles/problems, but if the couples don’t have this mutual concern, then it’s time to move on without hurting each other more. Ed of Family-Options.com

    Reply

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