What Marriage Counseling Is … And Isn’t
Meghan McCain’s version of marriage counseling is “drinking Jack Daniels, shooting some guns and hanging out.” Is that what you should expect?
“My version of marriage counseling is drinking Jack Daniels, shooting some guns, and hanging out.” Meghan McCain recently drew ire on social media for her exchange on “The View.” She talked with Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang about marriage counseling.
McCain brushed off criticism, explaining that different people deal with things in different ways. But domestic abuse survivors challenged her perspective and urged her to disavow her comments.
I think McCain was really just caught up in the pressure of a live show. She probably didn’t think much about her words before she spoke them. That, combined with the know-it-alls on Twitter, created the perfect storm of controversy.
But the whole matter opens up the opportunity to look at what marriage counseling is all about.
As a longtime licensed marriage and family therapist, I agree with those who believe the pairing of alcohol and guns is a fool’s errand. And one that can result in devastating consequences.
It’s important to iterate that there is no such thing as a perfect marriage. Because there are no perfect people. Even on our best days, we each have our struggles.
Every one of us misreads signals. We fail to verbalize our thoughts and feelings accurately. We misjudge our partner’s capacity to have an honest conversation. These things are normal in all human relationships.
But when those things become more and more common, the stress on the marriage relationship becomes increasingly difficult to manage. That’s when a lot of couples consider seeking help. Except they’re usually afraid of some common misconceptions.
So let’s set those straight.
Marriage counseling isn’t a waste of time.
Most people spend more time and money maintaining their vehicles than their marriages. How many marriages could benefit from a regular checkup?
Many couples wait until their relationship has gone completely off the rails to even begin seeking help. It’s the equivalent of continuing to drive your car until the four flat tires are rolling on the rims.
Many marriages are in this unfortunate shape by the time they consult a counselor. But even in the most difficult situations, I look for opportunities to inject hope while being realistic about the challenges ahead.
Marriage counseling isn’t just an opportunity to create a paper trail for divorce proceedings.
Well, for some couples this is clearly the case. That always makes me sad. But thankfully, that’s not how most people approach counseling.
I know very few counselors who get excited about testifying in divorce court. We are trained to help individuals and couples work through issues, not navigate legal minefields. As a result, most of us make pretty lousy witnesses.
Marriage counseling isn’t just a bunch of psychobabble for couples.
Media reinforces this cynical viewpoint time and time again. I cringe at the way TV shows portray therapists—all in an effort to get a good laugh from the viewing audience.
Counselors go to school for years and practice under a high level of supervision before they can be licensed by the state counseling boards. Sure, we tend to focus on emotions more than other professions, but that’s the nature of the work at hand.
Marriage counseling isn’t just one spouse’s attempt to control the other.
It’s true that one spouse is almost always more invested in counseling than the other. Sometimes one spouse gives the other an ultimatum – essentially ‘agree to counseling, or the relationship is over.’ Most often the need to control is more general. That is it’s common to multiple facets of the relationship. And simply a symptom of the emotional distress.
So what is marriage counseling all about? No two situations are exactly alike, but here are four general tasks all counselors engage to some extent.
Marriage counseling is about assessing the damage.
When a storm comes through town, things can get scary. The lights may go out. The wind might blow debris around. People may get hurt or killed. The damage may be minimal or quite extensive.
An early goal of marriage counseling is to help the couple assess their strengths and growth areas. Help evaluate trouble spots. Then we work through issues in a way that is healthy, respectful, and productive.
Whether the couple decides to push through the pain and fight for the relationship or go their separate ways is up to them to decide.
Competent counselors and therapists guide each spouse to express his or her own feelings in the emotionally safe confines of the counseling office. When I meet with couples, I like to get a good sense of the history of the relationship. How they met. The nature of the relationship before marriage. And the trouble spots and hot topics that are bringing them to seek professional help.
It is triage and crisis management.
Rarely is one person sufficient to manage a major crisis, whether a physical storm or an emotional one. Depending on the nature of the issues and their impact on each partner, referrals to a psychiatrist or other medical doctor may be warranted.
For example, it’s almost impossible for an individual to think clearly and communicate effectively while experiencing extreme anxiety or depression. Sometimes the ‘marriage work’ has to take a backseat to allow primary concerns to be appropriately addressed.
A team approach to crisis management allows for other helping professionals to speak into the situation. As an added benefit, the therapist’s own blind spots can be identified so that fuller progress can be made.
It is a place for rebuilding trust.
Trust is the foundation of all personal relationships. That’s even more true for intimate relationships like marriage.
I’ve never worked with a couple that didn’t struggle at some level with issues related to trust and accountability. It just goes with the territory. If the marriage is under stress due to emotional or sexual infidelity of one or both partners, then identifying the contributing factors becomes crucial.
Rebuilding trust is one of the most difficult and time-consuming processes a couple can experience. That’s because consistency across time and situations establishes trust. There are no shortcuts.
And in a day and age when it’s possible to hide secretive communication in all kinds of high-tech places, the battle is overwhelmingly uphill. Even the counselor is constantly weighing the trustworthiness of the clients. It’s a frustrating fact.
Counseling is a means to charting a way forward.
When a tornado damages a home, the owners meet with various parties to determine what to do. Contractors may be able to repair the damage, but sometimes insurance adjusters recommend starting completely over.
These are the kinds of decision points that couples in crisis invariably reach. Good therapists help couples see all the possibilities. Then the couple can make decisions that are consistent with their values, beliefs, commitment level, and mental, emotional, and spiritual resources.
I always remind my clients that marriage is a journey, not a destination. My wife and I have weathered our fair share of storms over 20+ years together. It hasn’t always been sunshine and rainbows. But it has always been worth it.
From my own vantage point, marriage counseling is not about restoring the relationship. After all, what the couple had wasn’t really working all that well in most cases. Rather, marriage counseling is about rebuilding and creating something new, even better than what they had before.
When it’s time to seek help …
If you are struggling in your own marriage relationship, it might be time to seek help. I’d urge you to begin intentionally investing in your relationship.
Sure, do the date nights together. But more than that, take advantage of marriage enrichment classes, seminars, books, and getaways. FamilyLife’s Weekend to Remember® is an experience thousands of couples—including my wife and me—have found extremely rewarding.
If it’s time for marital counseling, I encourage you to research multiple options for counseling before settling on one. One of the most significant indicators of potential progress is the relationship between the couple and their therapist.
It’s important the couple sees that person not just as someone who is trained and educated, but also as someone who truly cares about them and their family. The connection cannot be overstated. Find someone who shares your values and beliefs about marriage, and who will be open and honest with you. No matter how difficult the truth is to hear.
I’m in this with you. Your marriage is worth fighting for.
Copyright © 2019 Garrick D. Conner. All rights reserved.
Garrick D. Conner is a licensed professional counselor, licensed marriage and family therapist, ordained minister, and freelance writer. He serves as discipleship pastor at Park Hill Baptist Church in North Little Rock, Arkansas. You can read more from him at garrickdconner.com. Find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.