Most people cringe at the sound of those two words. Just the idea of sitting in a room with your grouchy spouse and a complete stranger to talk about your problems is not very enticing. Yet marital conflict is one of the most common reasons why people find themselves in counseling. Many couples reach a point of constant arguing. Others begin to question when their spouse changed so much right before their eyes. Some have experienced a betrayal of some sort. No matter what the reason for conflict is, there are some fundamental aspects that I have found necessary to address in counseling.
As relational beings, we crave validation and security. We want to be reassured that we are important, that we mean something to someone. When self doubt and insecurities arise, we yearn for another to believe in what we are capable of. We want to know that we have a safe place to be vulnerable (though many of us have trouble doing so). We want to know that at our worst, there is still someone will love us for who we are. Believe it or not, marriage has the potential to be this place of validation and security. The problem is that we get lost in our issues. We lose the ability to give and/or receive all of the qualities that marriage can offer.
Though every couple is different. There are three common steps I tend to address with couples.
1. Identify individual emotions/fears
Each individual needs to explore what emotions he/she is experiencing when their spouse does something he/she doesn’t like. When your husband doesn’t call when he’s going to be home late, what emotion does it produce? Is it a feeling of rejection? Or maybe it makes you feel abandoned? When your wife would rather spend time with her friends rather than watching a movie together, what emotion does it provoke? Is a feeling of not being good enough? Or maybe it is a feeling of failure?
In his book, The Five Love Languages: How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate, Gary Chapman puts it this way, “People tend to criticize their spouse most loudly in the area where they themselves have the deepest emotional need”. The reason things like this bother us is because it causes an insecurity to creep up within us. Then we go one month without identifying the emotion, then it turns into a year of not saying anything, then you wake up 6 years later next to someone you feel like hardly know!
2. Communicate emotions to your spouse
Once you identify the emotion caused by the issue, you must learn how to communicate it to your spouse. Doesn’t it seem so easy to communicate our complaints? This is how arguments get started.
Communicating the emotions you have identified means you name the behavior you don’t like and admit to the emotion (i.e. fear) you feel. For example, “When you don’t call me to tell me that you are going to be home late, I feel rejected, like I’m not important to you” or “When you would rather be out with your friends instead of spending time with me, I feel like I’m not good enough for you”.
As you might have guessed, communication is key. When your spouse feels attacked, it makes it difficult for him/her to listen. What is the good in saying something if it is not being heard?
3. Support your spouse
One of the best aspects of marriage counseling is that you are not simply venting to a stranger; your spouse is actually there to hear it! The goal is that you not only develop a better understanding of each other, but that you also support each other in your growth! Support is when your wife feels alone but she can turn to you for the security that you will never leave her. Support is also when your husband feels inadequate but can depend on you to be reminded that he means the world to you.
This is what growth and progress look like. When you identify your individual emotions/fears, learn to communicate them to your spouse and support your spouse, you gain the ability to experience the qualities that marriage can offer.
No matter what feelings marriage counseling brings up in you, it is never too late to being investing in your marriage and learning new ways to communicate with your spouse.