Wednesday, October 19, 2011


So, what goes on in marital therapy? you may be wondering. Or maybe you're already in marriage therapy so you kind of know, but let me start from the beginning. When I first meet a couple, I am doing a quick evaluation of numerous things all at the same time.

Here are the things that I am evaluating:

1.) What stage is this couple in the life cycle? Needless to say, a couple coming in for pre-marital counseling is dealing with different issues then a couple with a new baby or a couple with adolescent kids. Way different.

2.) What are the inter-personal patterns going on between these two people? There are some predictable patterns that couples sometimes fall into - the distancer/pursuer, over-responsible/ under-responsible sometimes known as over-adequate/under-adequate and a fascinating pattern with slightly quaint, out-dated diagnostic labels called the obsessive-compulsive/ hysteric marriage. When I was teaching Northwestern medical students, I remember a student missed their El stop because they were reading an article on this subject and were so fascinated with the concept.

3.)What are the cultural, faith issues that impact this family? I always understand a couple or family within their faith and cultural context. What are the values and strengths in their world view that I can draw on to strengthen the marriage? What is the lens through which they see the world? Is there an interface between each individuals cultural background or world view that is causing problems?

4.) Probably most importantly, what are the issues from each persons family of origin from their own childhood or family of origin that are interfering with the marriage? This is probably the most profound area and one that needs to be interwoven throughout the course of therapy.

5.) I am scanning the couple's recent past for any external crisis. The crisis of infidelity is a marriage crusher. Infidelity requires immediate and intensive attention in the marital therapy process. Surprisingly a marriage can often survive this nightmare. Other terrible crises impacting a marriage might be the death of a family member, terminal illness or unexpected job loss. Marital therapy can help couples process and work through these heart breaking situations together.

I promised you a peek inside the brain of a marriage therapist. There you have it. These are some of the things I am evaluating when I first meet a couple. I will elaborate on these issues in later posts. I promise to make the next post one you can apply to your marriage,

Tuesday, October 18, 2011


What is the single most important thing that I can learn from marital therapy? What's the key that will unlock the door to a happier marriage? Is there any one thing that I can do to reduce the stress and strain in my marriage? Are you ready for the answer?

It sounds incredibly simple but is,in fact, profound. Seriously profound

If you take away anything from my online marriage wisdom it would be the following. You can not control your spouse. Yup. You heard me correctly. That's it. You can not control your spouse. You can influence your spouse. You can express your preferences to your spouse. You can strongly express your preferences to your spouse but you can not control the outcome.

Most couples enter marriage therapy like this couple above - pointing the finger at the other guy. Couples begin therapy with the fantasy that the other spouse is the one that needs changing and they, the righteous spouse, which would be each of them, are going to get the other spouse, the offending spouse, which is always the other guy, to change. With my help of course.

When each person in the couple with the help of my cajoling learns that not only can they not change the other person, the only person they can change is themselves then marriage therapy is ready to begin. Instead of pointing the finger at their spouse, they learn to turn their finger around and point it at themselves - not in an accusatory kind of way, just focusing on what they can control which is to change themselves.

The process of learning that we, I am speaking globally now, not only cannot control the universe much less our spouses is a profound lesson that actually takes a lifetime to learn. It is something that we learn daily and over the course of a lifetime. When couples begin to get this concept and instead of pointing the finger at the other guy, turn it around and point it at themselves, that is the beginning of the transformation of a marriage and a huge paradox begins to take place. Stay tuned for tomorrow's post and I will talk about the paradox and how focusing on yourself just may help you get more of what you want. Go figure.

Monday, October 17, 2011

WISDOM 101:CONTROL ISSUES - Welcome to Married Life

Control issues are predictable over the life cycle but especially during the early years of marriage. During the first years of marriage control issues can be at a peak as you figure out who does what around the house, negotiate your relationships with in-laws, which way to hang the toilet paper, load the dishwasher, squeeze the toothpaste and the myriad other things that couples duke it out over early on. Then after you have children, negotiating different parenting styles. If you have control struggles, not to worry, it is normal. The beauty of marriage over the life cycle is how it is like sand paper on the rough edges of our soul, teaches us how to surrender and let go, and in the deepest sense of the word, to share. If marriage is about morphing into mature adulthood control struggles, and learning how to navigate them can be our greatest teacher.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

WISDOM 101: The Paradox of Letting Go

In my first post on control, I promised to give you the secret to resolving control issues. I saw the cute picture of the two chicks fighting over the worm which made me think of the early stages of marriage and I digressed a bit.

Here's the secret to resolving control issues and hopeless power struggles. Let go. State your preference. State it clearly and, if you can, in a gentle voice. And then let it go. To borrow from the wisdom of the 12 Step Programs, Don't Try to Force a Solution. It never works.

Take the couple on the left, Harriet and George. Let's say that Harriet has been gnashing her teeth and tearing out her hair, distraught that George is a clicker hog. She has begged, threatened and cajoled him to share the clicker with her. The more she begs and cajoles, the more he becomes silent and withdrawn. His knuckles grow white clenching the clicker.

If I were Harriet's marriage therapist, I would suggest that she make an I-statement and express to George how she feels. I would suggest she do it in a gentle voice and not in the heat of battle. I always remind my clients that John Gottman, the well known marriage researcher and guru to marriage therapists, has learned through thousands of hours of observing couples that a marital exchange with a harsh start up is doomed to a downward spiral. It will go nowhere.

If Harriet were to start her conversation with George by saying, Dude, you're a stubborn mule. Hand over the clicker, that would not be a great opener. Gottman and I would agree on that.

On the other hand if Harriet starts out, Honey, I know how much it means to you to hold the clicker, but from my point of view it's not fair. I feel kind of helpless and annoyed and it's not much fun for me to watch TV with you George is more likely to hand over the clicker with the I statement request then with the stubborn mule request. But, I would predict he won't hand it over right away. George is a titch oppositional and it is entirely understandable that he needs to hand it over on his terms.

As Harriet's marriage therapist, I would suggest that she chill a day or so and see what happens. I understand that chilling in a marriage context is not easy.

If several days have passed and George has still not handed over the clicker, I would suggest a final move to Harriet. I would suggest that Harriet up the ante a bit. She could try something like Honey, I know how much holding the clicker means to you. I told you the other day, it's not fun for me when I never get to hold the clicker, now comes the or else part, if you don't let me hold the clicker I will go upstairs and watch TV by myself where I can hold the clicker. I'd rather watch it with you.

Wait and see what happens. State your preference, then let it go. If that does not work, set a non-aggressive consequence something along the lines that I mentioned above. I'm betting George comes around and the couple enjoys a bit of intimacy in front of the TV.