Monday, October 13, 2014

Setting an Agenda for Marriage Counseling: Five Questions to Answer Before Your First Session

Before you go into a business meeting you would set an agenda. Yet when couples schedule a meeting with a therapist they often fail to discuss their expectations and set an agenda for the session. If they discussed anything it expectations are only stated broadly such as we need to communicate better, but not how counseling would help to improve their communication. Rarely has the couple even considered harm that could come from the counseling session.

Here are five questions to help you set an agenda before you meet with your relationship therapist:

If counseling is effective, how will our relationship be different? To answer this question, it is helpful to think in terms of behavior change. How will you behave differently toward each other if therapy is successful. Don’t think in generalities, consider specific changes you would want to see in your interaction, then each of you consider what your contribution would be to this change.

How will the therapist help in our effort to change? Will the focus of the session be on the past, the present or the future? Will you expect the therapist to be more of a teacher, coach or judge? What role will emotions play in the session? What do you hope to take away from the session?

How will the work we do in the session change how we relate once we are at home? Do you expect to have a different perspective, gain communication skills, or have more motivation to work on the relationship as a result of meeting with your therapist? Do you expect to work on specific homework or more generally behave better toward one another?

How much of a commitment do you expect to make toward therapy? Do you expect therapy to be limited to a specific number of sessions or do you expect the length of therapy to be based on how long it takes to achieve your goals? Have you considered how much your are willing to spend in money, time and effort to build a better relationship? Can one partner make a difference in the relationship if the other drops out of therapy?

What negative outcomes could arise from therapy? How uncomfortable do you expect the therapy process to be? Could you generate greater tension as a result of hearing how much dissatisfaction exists in the marriage? Could one of you end up deciding to divorce while the other wants to continue working on the relationship?

By addressing your expectations of couples counseling, you and your partner can avoid having different agendas for your session with the therapist. Your expectations may also not mesh with the therapist’s expectations. The sooner you, your partner and the therapist can set clear goals, the sooner you will be able to make progress toward creating an improved relationship.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Less Me and More We

A mobile couple2

One thing I always assess when a couple comes to see me for counseling is how they present their struggle to connect. Do they describe the struggle as a mutual struggle or do they just describe what each partner is not getting in the relationship?

Me issues are presented as something you are getting that you don’t want, for instance, “He gets angry whenever I discuss our relationship.” or something you are not getting, for instance, “She never reaches out to me, I always am the one reaching out to her.”

Me issues are presented from your point of view. Often they are presented aggressively with a tone of frustration or anger. The implied message is that I am not getting something I deserve in this relationship.

We issues are quite different. The frustration is presented as a shared experience. The desire is for each to find a way to contribute to a better connection. The blame for the relationship dissatisfaction lies in the relationship, not in one partner’s shortcomings.

One partner says, “We’ve lost the connection we once had.” and the other adds, “Yes, it seems as though we are living as roommates instead of lovers.” Such a presentation implies that each are ready to join in an effort to improve their relationship and are not so interested in parceling out blame.

Moving from me to we

Start with how you view the problems in your marriage. Ask yourself how you have contributed to these issues. Then, ask yourself how you will need to contribute to a solution to the problems you face.

Next, ask yourself what your partner’s views, feelings and desires are for resolving this issue. How might you let him or her know that you can see the issue from more than one perspective.

Finally, ask yourself, “Do I want to get what I want or what is best for the relationship?”

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

When You Hear, “I Want To Separate.”

Separation“What does a separation mean? Are we taking a step toward divorce? I’m not ready to give up on our marriage.”

The message that your partner wants a separation can be overwhelming. But how you respond can make a difference in whether the relationship further erodes or improves.

Your natural reaction is to resist a separation. You argue for all the reasons why a separation is uncalled for, dangerous or impractical. Unfortunately, your arguments are met by your partner’s case for a separation, perhaps even making his or her resolve stronger.

So what is a better response to this message? Responding with empathy, patience and self-care are more likely to minimize the damage from a separation and maximize your chance of rebuilding an emotional connection with your partner.


Instead of arguing against separation, your first effort should be to understand your partner’s message.  Send the message that you want to understand what your partner wants from the separation. Does he or she want time to decide whether to remain committed to the relationship? Is the message really one of wanting a divorce but trying to soften the message?

Often the message is, “I want you to know how much pain I feel in this relationship.” By showing empathy for the pain, you can avoid a separation and focus on improving the relationship.This conversation can show your mate that you want to understand and respond to him or her. Responding to what your partner wants takes patience.


While your initial goal may be based on a desire to stop the separation, a better goal is to prolong the decision-making process. The decision to separate has many facets to be considered; the decision to divorce has many more factors to be considered. Your mate can appreciate the need for time to make a reasonable (versus an emotional) decision.

Having patience can help to drain strong emotions out of the decision-making process. Listening and cooperating with your partner can make the decision less urgent. Being patient requires you to be able to harness your best self.


Your partner’s message is painful, you feel rejected and afraid for the future. This pain can lead you to respond in a desperate way that is degrading and unattractive to your spouse. Now is the time to present your best self!

You must find an avenue to express your pain in a healthy manner. Don’t expect your partner to lend an understanding ear at this time. Talking to a friend or family member is great but you may feel uncomfortable revealing information that could color future relationships. Reaching out to a counselor or clergyperson in order to find “a safe” ear to listen to your pain and fears may be the best route.

Further advice can be found in my post on how to respond to an ambivalent partner’s message, “I love you but I’m not in love with you” (

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

A Child’s Best Gift: Your Marriage


You’ve gone from a carefree adolescence to a carefree young adulthood, but you are now ready to settle down. You want to be married and have a family. You’re ready to move to this next stage of life.

As couples delay marriage until their late 20s and early 30s (or later), they must then consider having children soon after marriage. For many couples, marriage and raising children practically coincide with one another.

Many young adults have prolonged their carefree years well into adulthood and have a difficult transition from carefree independence to marriage, then quickly to parenthood.

Marriage does no more than offer the opportunity for a couple to develop an intimate bond, but building that bond takes time and effort. If you are distracted from the work of bonding with your partner by parenting, then you can find yourself easily disconnected from your partner but doing a terrific job as parents.

Parenting is an extremely important job, but children also need parents who love one another. Parents are older than previous generations. With this seems to be a greater priority on structuring the child’s life such that he or she is prepared for a successful future.

This structured childhood also structures the parent’s life, soccer three times a week, dance twice a week, after-school projects, etc., etc. Saying no to the children’s activities feels as though you are compromising their future.

Yet, such structure often leaves little room for parents to nurture their marriage. Perhaps you need to give your children a gift that will enrich their future more than soccer or dance classes, parents with a strong bond that will build over the years. Your bond will better predict your children’s future success than their participation in sports or cultural enrichment activities.

Forge time for your marriage. Schedule regular date nights. Have mini-dates in the evening where you send the children off to depend on themselves while mom and dad have time together. You will feel more connected to your partner, but will also note that your children will become more self-reliant in the process.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

“I love you but I’m not in love with you”: Responding to an Ambivalent Spouse

Sad Heart
When you hear these words, your first impulse is to reach out for what you are losing. You want to grasp for your marriage and hold on to prevent rejection. Unfortunately, this natural reaction can create the opposite result from what you want. Attempting to pull your partner into the marriage can actually push him or her further away and can invite more pain than it prevents.
First, it is important to understand what your partner’s message. It is a message of ambivalence, not one of rejection. When someone is completely detached, they say “I want a divorce.” When someone’s commitment to the marriage is uncertain they offer mixed messages such as “I love you but I’m not in love with you.”
Ambivalence implies mixed emotions that prevent a clear decision. Rather than resisting your partner’s message, you can help your partner to be a good decision-maker. This begins by being understanding. Show you understand that your partner is struggling and that such a struggle is painful.
I like to describe an ambivalent partner as being on the fence. It is difficult to decide which side of the fence to get off, but the fence itself is a painful place to sit.
Second, you must recognize that ambivalence is not entirely a bad thing and patience is a good response. If someone is 80% sure they want to divorce, then greater ambivalence would be moving away from divorce. Partners with little ambivalence are able to reach a decision quicker. Your partner reluctance to make a decision is a sign of this internal struggle. The last thing you want to be is impatient and push your partner to a decision he or she is really not ready to make.
Finally, understand that your partner may not talk about both sides of the decision. You may only hear the complaints he or she has about the short-comings of the relationship. You wonder if he or she has completely forgotten all the good times. Again, if one’s view of the marriage is completely negative, then you ask for a divorce, but because your partner is on the fence, trust that he or she is capable of seeing reasons to remain married.
Trying to push your partner to see reasons to remain married will trigger your partner to either outwardly or inwardly produce counterarguments. Instead, you want to accept your partner’s negative views and feelings, but understand these are only a part of the picture. This allows you to suggest that you would be willing to participate in an effort to improve the marriage, which is something every marriage needs!

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Do You Want Your Partner to Know You or to Like You?


“Be yourself, everyone else is taken.” Oscar Wilde

Is conflict good or bad for a relationship? Many would suggest that it is harmful and set out to avoid conflict as they would the flu. But is conflict really that harmful to a relationship or is avoiding conflict worse?

You and your spouse are obviously going to see things differently, feel differently and want different things. One way to avoid conflict is by not expressing your views, feelings and desires. You justify this by saying it is not important to stir up conflict around disagreements or differing viewpoints.

The reward for not expressing yourself is a smoother relationship free from conflict, but at what price? The ultimate cost is a loss of intimacy; the relationship becomes superficial because you become unknown to your partner. Your partner may like you, but does he or she really know you.

Another danger is losing yourself. After you have lived for years avoiding conflict by not expressing yourself, you could find yourself uncertain about what you see, what you feel and what you want. Many children are taught to want what their parents want for them. These children are not rebellious teenagers but they fail to form a clear identity. They learn to accept that they are what others say they are!

Many can recall the exhilaration you felt when you first realized your partner accepted you for yourself. “He gets me.” “She accepts me for who I am.” Yet, some believe they must hide from their partner in order to be accepted. Their partner never knows the real person they only assume they know their lover. They enjoy the ease in which they blend their lives together, yet never really know how their partner views their life, how they feel and what they want.

The real problem in bringing about change in the conflict avoidant spouse is that the spouse actually believes they are doing an admirable thing by being flexible and easy to please. They have no sense that there is a reward for being open and honest as they only see conflict as destructive.

Yet at some point conflict avoidant individuals tire of meeting everyone else’s desires while placing their own desires on the backburner. Long-suppressed rebellion emerges in anger, even rage. Unfortunately, this is destructive to relationships. Either the relationship collapses or the rebellion is once again muffled in favor of a conflict-free relationship.

If you avoid conflict, start today to question your stance. Take time to write down your views, feelings and desires. Then, after you are clear about what you see, feel and desire, take the risk of asserting yourself to your partner. Tolerate the tension of differences and notice how your partner comes closer not more distant.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Talking Isn’t Doing

Imagine you wanted to lose weight. You’ve tried everything on your own and you decide to try a weight-loss clinic. You go in for your appointment full of anticipation. You aren’t sure what to expect.

Now imagine that your time with the weight-loss counselor consists of simply talking about how you feel about being overweight. Week after week you just examine your feelings about being overweight - no goals, no weigh-in, no eating plan and no exercise plan. How would you judge the effectiveness of this weight-loss clinic?

You say, “Well I know that talking about my weight problem will not lead to weight loss. I need to change my behavior.” You know from experience that talking about being overweight does not lead you to make the changes necessary to actually lose weight.

Would marriage counseling be any different? Couples often meet with a counselor and simply level their complaints about the relationship toward their partner. The counselor justifies this by saying the couple are working on communication. Does talking lead to change?

Couples must come for counseling with the expectation that each must focus on their contribution to a new, improved relationship. This means taking personal responsibility for making changes in the home, not just talking about it in the counselor’s office.

Every change does not lead to greater satisfaction in the relationship. Just as every lifestyle change does not lead to weight loss. Just as you must monitor your weight, you must find a way to monitor your relationship satisfaction in order to measure whether your efforts are successful.

There are many ways of measuring marital satisfaction, but perhaps the easiest is to rank you general satisfaction from 0 to 100. Better yet, you can break down the relationship into components, for instance communication, conflict management, finances, parenting, sex, leisure time, etc. and rank your satisfaction with each.

Even if you are just discussing problems in your relationship, you should reach a point at which each of you commit to change and agree to measuring this change. When you are stuck in an argument, take a time-out and write down (1) what you could do to contribute to your partner’s satisfaction with the outcome and (2) how each of your satisfaction with the outcome could be measured. When you return to the argument, you will find it has changed…but there is still work to do!

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Sex and Shame


For preadolescent boys, sexual desire is accompanied by shame. Erections, masturbation and sexual fantasies are hidden under the cloak of shame. Preadolescent girls enjoy being attractive to boys and soon learn that there is a sexual element to this attraction. In some ways this pattern never ends.

Mutual attraction and passion ignited when you were falling in love. Attention and passion were in abundant supply.  So what happened?

I find that married couples uncouple attention and sex. Women complain of their partner’s lack of romantic attention, while their partner complains of infrequent sexual attention, but neither accepts that their behavior had changed.

Women shame their partner for pursuing sex without offering romantic attention. Men respond to this shame by quitting pursuing sex or become angry. So now the woman gets neither sex or attention.

Women try to negotiate by saying they are entitled to romantic attention while the man says he is entitled to sex. Such a standoff typically leads to…well…a standoff.

It is time to untangle romantic and sexual attention. Women attract the man’s romantic attention because he cares about what the woman desires. Men attract sex because the woman wants to provide (and receive) pleasure.

Women must avoid shaming men for wanting sex and they must learn to express the pain associated with losing their ability to attract their partner’s romantic attention. Men must quit complaining about their partner’s lack of sexual desire and begin to recognize the need to attract sexual desire. Sex is important to a man on many levels and they must learn to share why sex is important to them.