Painful questions swirl around couples in distress. How can we engage root issues of our conflicts? How can be move past emotional storms? Is it possible to listen to each other—not just our words but our feelings? How can my partner and I be a team in the raising kids? How can I know and feel my partner has my back?
Different days bring the same old argument. Many couples seem to argue about different things, but intuitively know it is about one main thing. The arguments go nowhere and leave both exhausted and demoralized. Discovering and engaging root issues is urgently needed.
The arguments repeat the same cycle. A very common cycle of pursuing and withdrawing occurs when one person screams and criticizes, and the other sulks and isolates. It is called Pursuit-Withdraw but often ends in Attack-Attack or Withdraw-Withdraw, resulting in PAIN-PAIN! It is usually provoked by unmet emotional needs and accelerates when wounds or trauma of the past gets triggered.
Start by slowing, listen and have compassion. Couples need to slow down to listen, understand and have compassion for the emotional needs and wounds of their important partner and respond with love. There are other versions of this cycle, but all are similarly rooted.
Healing needs to come from the heart. Many couples tell me other counselors have given them worksheets with steps to communicate. While there is nothing wrong with these techniques, they tend to feel mechanical when communicating from the head.
Heart listening is learned in therapy. Listening is an act of the ears and heart. It needs to start with good faith. It proceeds with setting aside one’s agenda and being totally attuned to the words and feelings of the other. Paper exercises often fail to engage the heart-change needed so heart-listening needs to be practiced in therapy.
Heart listening creates space for compassion. When big changes happen, such as new babies, new careers, moving, or serious health issues, then partners can drift apart and feel isolated and alone. It takes a lot of love and compromise to bridge this gap AND a lot of compassion and empathy to acknowledge the losses in the change. The result is a more natural feeling of teamwork.
But this requires emotional risk-taking. Couples face scary challenges—none scarier than being emotionally honest and vulnerable. But all relationship healing depends on it. Partners need to know the other has their back so they can take emotional risks and fail and won’t be judged or condemned. Partners need to trust they will be loved and nourished.
The big picture includes Structure, Solutions and Emotional Work. My approach to couples counseling and marriage counseling uses a structural framework for a map, a solutions-focused approach to keep the work positive, and intense emotionally-focused work for engaging wounds at a deeper level.
Structurally, healing works in four places. The four places of healing are: Calming from the Storm, Listening with Empathy, Recommitting to the Other and Problem-Solving. Couples immediately see themselves in one or more place. I emphasize the work is not linear and we often visit multiple places in one session. The framework helps couples to think about their goals, understand the big-picture context of the work and keep track of progress.
Solutions work involves hunting for positive solutions that already exist. A Solutions-Focused approach hunts for the strengths and solutions a couple already has—but may have forgotten. This is common when couples move to a different stage of family life, for example, the arrival of babies, engaging careers, experiencing conflict with teens or filling the emptiness of the empty nest. How have similar problems been solved in the past? What is the timeless nature of your love and affection that can be applied today? What strengths do you have in other contexts? These are a few of the questions that guide this work.
Deep emotional work is a must. In the process of structural or solutions work, partners often suddenly feel emotional insecurity, intense loneliness, abandonment or chaos. Usually these reveal deep wounds requiring more than couples counseling or marriage counseling at the surface can accomplish. The hurting partner needs a new experience of the self and other, requiring vulnerability, compassion and being known. The wounds might come from insecurities in the relationship; or from abuse or trauma from long ago. It is not uncommon that the pain which a woman or man feels in the moment is the unbearable hurt of a little girl or boy screaming inside.
Time-tested interventions help couples. In the course of this work, couples re-enact problems and practice new solutions based on their strengths. I prompt couples to scale problems and solutions so they can brainstorm attainable solutions. I model and teach empathic listening. I model compassion in moments of deep emotional vulnerability and help couples to connect likewise. We explore family histories to root out old patterns of dysfunctional relationships that may be repeating. Over the course of time, I sometimes reflect on a couple and write heart-felt and positive letters to them for guidance and encouragement.
Change happens. So long as both couples remain committed, improvement will come. It may come slowly at first and then in spurts as partners “get it.” But change does come. When couples wonder aloud if they are hopeless, I point to my own story as a triumph of love and perseverance. I cannot ethically use former clients as testimony, but the best endorsement occurs when one couple refers another. And that has happened in my practice.
Solutions are evidence-based. These solutions are not unique to me. They are evidence-based, which means they have been tested in actual clinical settings and validated in peer-reviewed journals. You can learn more by entering “structural marriage counseling,” “solutions-focused brief therapy” and “emotionally-focused therapy” into your browser’s search engine.
Solutions are integrated with my life history and experience. However, the integration of these methods is unique to me. I have been married 35 years. I know the underlying value of hope and unconditional love. I feel this way about all my clients, even in their darkest periods. I provide a therapeutic experience that is clinically based in best practices, grounded in real-life experience and sustained by hope and support.
How do I know you care? I avoid any cookie cutter approach. Your relationship and your problems are unique. I approach each couple with an open heart, an open mind and flexibility to design treatment especially for you.
Our conflict is pretty intense. How do you manage high conflict? In high conflict, partners are usually screaming for three answers: Do you hear me? Do you feel my feelings? Am I known? As a counselor in the midst of this storm, I am experienced in helping partners get answers to these questions from a place of calm and empathy.
We are extremely busy with jobs and kids. Can you work around our schedule? You will find my scheduling practices to be very responsive and flexible. I see couples in the evenings and sometimes Saturdays. Last minute cancellations are usually OK. Scheduling and rescheduling, even same day, are easy for me.
Do you integrate faith? My clinical training has prepared me to work with people of any faith or no faith. I view faith as a strength and a compass. If this is important to you, I can help you and your partner rely on the tenants and practices of your faith that you find meaningful.
We’ve had counseling before that failed. What makes this different? A lot of marriage counseling is based on worksheets and behavioral changes. That is all good, but not enough. I put a lot of effort in creating a place of safety and vulnerability that you can try out with me. Then, when you are ready, try with your partner. Those moments of deep connection, when they become a new way of being, make the difference.
I deeply feel your hurt. I fully appreciate the value of time and money you invest in the effort. I respect your commitment--in return I pledge to give you an experience of value that will help to heal your relationship. Working with me is not solely attending to surface problems and complaints. I believe I can help you because I deeply feel your hurt. As a chaplain I sat at the bedsides of dying patients and connected with them and their spouses at the deepest levels of loss and grief.
I help you feel your partner's hurt and your partner to feel your hurt. I can bring that attunement to this work with you and your partner. Beyond feeling your loss and longing, I model compassion, empathy and reflective listening to you and your partner. With gentleness I let you try. When my clients take the big risk and reach out and experience renewed emotional connection, they often say, “I have been waiting years for this,” or “Where has this part of you been all my life?” Then you walk out of the office with a new experience, a heartfelt memory and a new possibility—not another worksheet.
Letters flow from my life experience. On a bookshelf at home lies four binders of letters my wife and I wrote to each other while I flew missions overseas in my Air Force C-130 days—hundreds of them, not emails or texts. I learned how to write from my heart with humor and connection.
I put letter writing to work for my clients. That writing skill lives on with my clients. Letters to my clients encourage, guide and affirm progress. Clients appreciate them for they are reminders of their strengths and affirm hope with a touch of humor. Here is one example of a recent letter:
An appointment can be one call away. If you are ready to engage the work to end the painful, repetitive cycles, you can take the first step with a simple call.
Or, send a message. Instead of calling, you might prefer to send a message. Simple. Easy.
Or, get answers for your questions. I offer a free 30 minute consultation for your questions
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Free resources to browse. Want to noodle around some more? Browse through these resources. Then give me a call. Together, let’s get started on healing and reconnecting.