Good Ideas on Marriage Therapy (I wish I thought of them.)

I have been reading a book by Wendy Plump entitled “Vow: A Memoir of a Marriage.” Because I mention the book does not mean that I recommend it for your reading. In fact, I do not recommend it particularly.

There is a chapter entitled “The Efficacy Of Therapy” where the author designs a kind of therapy instruction card for couples in crisis. I would like to give some comment to the several things that she says. (The author’s words are in italics.)

One, everything doesn’t have to be solved in one session. And, in fact, it will not! Short-term marital therapy is usually 8 to 12, one or two hour sessions over several months, when we want the problem solved immediately. Sometimes it takes a couple 10 to 15 years to create an “unsolvable” problem and then the expectation is that through a few short conversations that all will be resolved.

Two, be clear about your need. I often sit with people who think I am reading their minds. I find this humorous – or at least I used to find it humorous – that people submit their intelligence to someone who is looking at them with care and concentration. Please do not forget that you are paying for concrete advice and not just consolation, so get what it is you want and need.

Three, remember that it is the two of you who matter most. It is very easy to allow the therapist to intrude herself or himself into the marriage. No matter how well trained the therapist is, he or she will have opinions and judgments and it is very important that the couple understand that they are there for them only. As Wendy Plump says, “it is you and your spouse against the world, not you and your therapist.”

Four, each person in the marital dyad needs to take some responsibility for the efficacy of your therapy. The therapist may be marvelous in every way but the therapist cannot make the changes that the couple needs to make. As the author says “put some serious energy into it. I admit to being lethargic or overly daft in the therapist’s office.” Often times the couple will say, we are paying you, make it work! The couple is really the experts on how their marriage can work as well as how their marriage is unworkable. The therapist collates this information and provides direction and support in the progress.

Five, be willing to hear that you screwed up royally and need to make amends and then make amends. It is so common to use excuses, or explanations, or “context” to avoid personal responsibility. Apologies and forgiveness can be very difficult for most people and it is especially complicated in the intimacy of couple conflict. In my experience as a marriage therapist, no one moves ahead without consistent and thoroughly thoughtful apology.

Six, there are many ways to get out of the woods. If you are not going forward in your marital therapy with one counsellor, you can switch. There are times when you need consolation and support and there are other times when you need confrontation and challenge. One counsellor may be able to do both but your therapist cannot read your mind – say what it is you want. Also, therapy is not necessarily better or more efficient then good friends, a supportive community, and the consolation and direction from healthy parents. There are many ways to get out of the woods.

Seven, and most important, understand that you can bear it. Of course, most of us do not want to bear the responsibility or challenge of change. We also do not want to bear the pain of the loss of ideals and covenant. But flailing about looking for relief will only make therapy more difficult and less helpful. A competent therapist will help a couple defuse their emotion and increase their thinking. At least, that is the goal. (Tell me if I am doing this!)

Wendy Plump summarizes that “therapy has its value, but it remains a stubbornly limited one. Even in the concert with all of our best intentions, therapy could not rescue our marriage. I’m not sure that therapy can rescue any marriage…. A therapist will listen and listen and listen, which is one of the things you need most. Rescuing the marriage seems a tall order. But there is a chance that therapy can rescue you. Perhaps the expectation should end there. It does seem like enough.”

“Vow: A Memoir of a Marriage” by Wendy Plump, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2013.

Standing for the Relationship

I am used to conflict both in myself and with those that mean the most to me. I read somewhere (a Family Systems Theory book) that conflict is most likely a result of too much closeness (as in smothering) or too much distance (as in cutoff). Either way, people then often blame, attack or hide and get all emotionally flooded. We stop thinking. Emotional ruminating is not thinking.

Even when we hide from the other who we feel has hurt us, we probably fight with them in our heads. We imagine beating them into powerlessness with our wonderfully practiced attacks. Our opponent is probably doing the same thing right when we are.

It seems to me that when we attack and defend, we ignore our relationship. How we are covenanted suffer-ers in the elusive benefit of defeating the other.

Who stands for the relationship?

I visited with a couple in noisy conflict yesterday. Like pugilists whacking and hacking, they listened only to their “inner dialogue” not to each other and thus projected rage and hurt to their partner.

I asked them “how is your hatred working for you?“ The husband complained that he didn’t hate his wife, but she agreed with the word “hatred.” I said, “how is your hatred towards your marriage working for you.“

Hmmm.

When couples bicker they bleed the goodness of what is between them. The couple may harangue each other thinking that it is just about them. But it is the marriage — a distinct entity — that loses most.

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.

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44 Years — Still Surprised

In about a week, Carole and I will have been married for 44 years. We made a covenant back then in which we promised to love and obey. We’ve been fighting over that ever since and mostly in good humour.
September is a time for promising. Much less glamourized than January, September is a time for covenant making and renewing promises. Kids begin schools in sparkling clothes and lunch buckets, workers return from holidays with renewed vigour (one hopes), church initiates newness remembering its traditions and stretching for hope.
I am glad for this September. 44 years is a wondrous marker for someone who was surprised that he was still married after 20.
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