For many people, counseling is a bad word because it means that something is wrong. Possible but not always true. Marriage counseling is an opportunity for couples to talk openly and honestly about their challenges to find a solution that will make their marriage stronger. Starting or even continuing marriage counseling can be difficult if a couple is not communicating effectively. Working on communication specifically can empower the couple to discuss any issues they may be facing. However counseling doesn't have to be used as a reactionary tactic.
Starting marriage counseling at the beginning of a marriage can be a proactive way of getting ahead of issues that could come up later in the marriage. One of the most common issues that married couples face is their inability to communicate. Communication involves two components: speaking and listening. Couples may talk everyday, but when asked to relay what their partner said in a conversation, it is difficult for them because they're not fully listening. Mirroring is an activity that not only forces the partner to listen to what their partner is saying but to also reinterpret and communicate it back to them. The listening partner is not allowed to speak while the speaking partner is talking to them and vice versa. To develop the practice, the listening partner should start their response with "I hear you saying that..." For example, if Jane says "I was absolutely appalled when I got home from work at 6:30 pm to find you watching television in the living room when no laundry had been done, dinner hadn't been started and the kids hadn't even started their homework." For this activity, Jane's husband, John, could say "I hear you saying that I did not fulfill my responsibilities as your husband and partner by not managing the household while you were working late." It takes practice, and some couples will grasp the concept quicker than others, so it is up to the counselor or therapist to determine how long and how often to use this activity during the session. Either way, couples should be encouraged to practice mirroring at home.
Marriage is a partnership where both partners take on different responsibilities yet work together to manage their household. Perceptions about what one's partner does can be skewed sometimes when he or she begins to feel that he is doing more than his fair share. Get it all out in the open with role perception. Role perception consists of asking one partner to describe what they think a typical day is like for his or her partner. He or she should describe a full day (at least 8 hours). After each partner describes his or her partner's day, each one will critique (in a constructive way) the parts of the description that are accurate and the parts that are not representative of their day. For example, if John views Jane's day as easy where all her tasks are completed by noon. It would be eye-opening for him to learn that it takes at least two hours to complete a load of laundry while going between floors to clean their home and making calls to handle business matters for the family. Going to the grocery store by herself requires getting all of the groceries, loading and unloading them and putting them away. By 3 or 4 pm, Jane is still cleaning while the kids are now arriving from school and need snacks before starting homework. Role perception is a clarifying activity that often brings about better understanding, communication and empathy.
Cause and Effect
It is easy for a toddler to communicate what is happening to them---"I'm hungry", "I'm sleepy" or "It hurts". As we get older, it becomes difficult to tell those we love what we need. Cause and effect is an activity that promotes communication and reconnects each partner with their emotional vocabulary. To provide an easier start, ask each partner to use a "When I Feel. . .I Need" statement. For example, John may say "When I have to work longer hours at work I feel that I am letting my family down and I am missing out on valuable time with the kids. I need help ensuring that I am spending quality time with you and the kids during more normal times and that the kids know that I still care about them and am thinking of them when I can't be home at a reasonable time." The counselor or therapist would process with John what it was like to communicate in that way and with Jane about what it was like to hear it and how she can provide support to John based on his feelings.
At the beginning of marriage counseling, a counselor will usually inquire about the reasons a couple is attending counseling. Because some couples aren't used to communicating openly about major issues or themes in their marriage, the counselor may have to make some suggestions on content to discuss. Reiterate that counseling is a free time and space and that they are free to discuss any existing or potential stressors such as money, sex, housework, childcare or extended family relationships.