Having worked with couples for over 20 years, there has been such joy to be on the front row seat witnessing healing and restoration. Being used as a vessel for God to show up and work miracles is no short of fulfilling. Recently, I worked with a couple who had been married 15+ years, finally gotten to the hard-worked-for chapter of retirement, found themselves not enjoying one another during this supposedly “golden” chapter of leisure and relaxation, and now living in two different cities separated and ready to call it quits. The lawyers were hired, the papers were filled out and awaiting signatures. One reached out and posed the question, “Are we sure?” They decided before they would make this big of a step, their marriage deserved being able to say they had done as much as they could to save it. In came me... halfway between each of their locations and offering a marriage counseling intensive. They came ready and willing. They left hopeful, understanding one another in a different way, establishing empathy and compassion towards one another, listening in new kinds of ways, establishing a common language to use during conflicts, and dreaming again of their future.
They were one of the many fortunate ones. There are attributes of these couples that contribute to their overall success in working in this setting. I will be discussing these in a future blog. (Hint: the ready and willing will be expanded). However, before we get there, there are contraindicators of couples being ready and willing or successful in marriage counseling. These indicators, in fact, can be harmful to the process of marriage counseling if counseling is attempted before these other indicators are not addressed prior to the marriage counseling setting. If you are attempting to seek a marriage counselor or enter into marriage counseling, please make sure your counselor does an effective screening of the possibility of one or more of these four relationship challenges that would make marital counseling not safe or successful.
1. Unrepentant Infidelity
Obviously, this is a no-brainer. However, it has to be mentioned. The question has to be asked. This is the most commonly accepted justification for choosing divorce in the secular and Christian communities. For some Christian communities, it is the only permissible reason for divorce. If one of the partners is currently in an affair (emotional, romantic, or just sexual), asking the other person in the marriage to make themselves vulnerable, emotionally available, and potentially physically present again would be inappropriate. If a partner is divided in their affections, attention, or loyalties while also hesitant on their commitment to working on the relationship, marriage counseling will not work. There has to be enough assurance and evidence that the extra-marital relationship has been totally cut off and having no communication. Discussing how the other partner can be sure of this can be discussed with your marriage counselor at the intake assessment. Notice the word “unrepentant.” The partner in the affair has to acknowledge the “wrongness” of this relationship, the pain it has caused to the marital partner, the willingness to be forthcoming/truthful about it (cautioned with a seasoned marital counselor of what is appropriate and what isn’t), and willingness to increase accountability to gain trust again in the relationship. This HAS to be the first step in the marital counseling before working on the issues of the marriage. Whereas, both partners are equally responsible for the temperature of the marriage, the partner choosing infidelity as a way of coping is 100% responsible for the destructive choice.
Equally important regarding this word “unrepentant,” is that if you have repentance, you do now have choices in the marriage. Just because there has been infidelity in the relationship doesn’t require that you seek divorce. In fact, the presence of repentance allows the other partner to decide if the marriage is worth repairing. I’ll discuss what the attributes of repentance look like in the next blog. Without it, however, the ability to repair the marriage is next to impossible.
2. Domestic Violence
Creating the presence of a safe haven where couples turn toward their partners for a soft place to fall, as well as, a secure base in which we can go out into the world knowing someone has our back is the goal of marriage counseling. The presence of domestic violence does the antithesis of this. They cannot coexist in a healthy relationship. Please know, there is a huge difference between those that are domestically violent and those that have anger management challenges. They are not one and the same. In fact, if you are seeking a marriage counselor and setting, please make sure that the counselor knows the difference and assesses for this. For those that struggle with domestic violence, the person does not take responsibility for their behavior. They blame-shift... “Well, if you wouldn’t have _____, then I wouldn’t have had to ______.” They minimize the magnitude of their behavior.... “You are so dramatic and too sensitive.” Power in the relationship is how they yield their way. In healthy relationships, the power is egalitarian. Both parties have to have the ability to “show up and be heard” without fear of repercussions. In anger management, the person has a coping/emotional problem, not a cognitive/heart problem. They tend to show remorse, take responsibility by acknowledging their behavior is inappropriate, and are willing to receive help. In this scenario, the counselor can help couples navigate solutions where one partner can help their struggling partner in these tense scenarios.
If there is the presence of domestic violence, a specialized treatment program specifically designed to address this issue would be recommended prior to the initiation of any work in a couples counseling setting. Other more subtle forms of abuse such as verbal, emotional violence and manipulation would also be included in this as well. The offended partner would need to work individually in counseling to help establish a safety plan and ability to create healthy boundaries while the violence can be apprehended.
3. Unaddressed Pattern of Substance Abuse
Mood altering chemicals such as alcohol, marijuana, etc. that are used habitually, as opposed to recreationally, can replace a person’s natural personality, motivation, and willingness to reach for their partner. When you use these “mood-altering” chemicals, the pre-frontal cortex is temporarily disengaged, numbed, and off-line. When you are not in your front-brain, you no longer have the ability to access your reasoning skills, your conflict-management, your problem-solving skills, or your ability to make choices consistent to your spiritual/moral/ethical belief sets. These chemically influence “back-brain” responses such as self-protection seen as fight, flight, or freeze. The use of substances, in many circumstances, can be traced consistently in the couples disconnect cycle of arguments. Rigid patterns of negative interactions begin to be developed. Fight is the escalation of self-protection in the face of a potential threat, flight becomes the unwillingness to stay present to work through potential difficulties, and freeze becomes the inability in the moment to move through discussions of threat. Overcoming this pattern would require a time of sobriety of the use of the chemicals.
Many times couples in this scenario demonstrate, typically, that one person is doing the majority of the work in the relationship emotionally, cognitively, and physically. There is a distinct disproportionate amount of work and responsibility in the marriage. Again, this negatively impacts the ability to create the safe and secure bond in the marriage. Please hear this, without the arrest of this negative coping pattern over a long period of time, marriage counseling will not work. A seasoned marriage counselor has to have the ability to assess and address a preliminary plan for a couple prior to marriage counseling in order to achieve success. Both parties begin learning different approaches individually in the relationship. Codependency behaviors in the un-abusing partner would need to be addressed. Many times the work starts first with the un-abusing partner.
4. Illegal Behavior
This challenge can co-exist with a couple of others. For example, domestic violence is enforceable by law. The use of recreational substances such as marijuana or other illicit drugs is prohibited. But to capture the other things as well, it is necessary to mention. Asking a partner to engage in the relationship and stay while knowing of the illegal behavior, makes this person an accomplice and opening themselves up to potential consequences. If there are also dependents in the home, there may be a responsibility to the protection of these dependents prior to working on the marriage relationship. Depending on the offense, a couples counselor would have to create enough separation to create individual and corporate safety of the un-offending party and their dependents while the offending individual takes step to eradicate the behavior.
The good news in all this, however, is that if these areas of challenge are addressed.... and they all can be... marriage counseling can work, be successful, and establish the safe, secure bond within a romantic partnership again. In fact, having worked with couples with all these preliminary issues, seeing the work and the miracles is all the more fulfilling. In fact, many couples find a level of connection greater than what they ever experienced prior for having gone through the difficult path back to each other through them. Restoration takes two partners willing to put in the hard work, a seasoned counselor aware of what the path needs to be, and an almighty God!
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