This week, Chris and I are sharing about our experience with a marriage counselor over the past two months. While we were in counseling, we decided together not to share anything with anyone about it. Few people in our real lives even knew. But I continued to write about the experience as it was happening, both with the intention of sharing it later once the dust had settled and of helping myself work through it on my own. This is the post that I wrote after our last session with the counselor. Click here for the Phase One post on anger and here for the Phase Two post on acceptance.
Chris and I continued with counseling for two months and while those sessions were productive and helpful, the real work of counseling was done in our own home. We had come to two big conclusions about our marriage during our sessions.
- Neither of us were actively listening to the other anymore. I wasn’t listening because I was unhappy and that caused anger to, well, clog my ears, I guess. Chris wasn’t listening because he was so stressed that he felt any kind of discussion was an attack on him.
- Neither of us were getting what we needed from the other. Now, I don’t talk about the physical side of our relationship because it ain’t none of your business! But let me just tell you that the physical side of our marriage was not the problem. We were managing just fine with that, thankyouverymuch. What we weren’t getting from each other was support, encouragement, and kindness. Or, as our counselor put it, “It’s everything we learn in kindergarten but forget by the time we get into our grown up lives.”
For each of those two things, she gave us specific tasks we had to do every week. One of them was called “active listening” and it drove us insane. We had to each tell about our days and the other person had to repeat back everything they heard the person say, starting with the phrase, “What I heard you say was…” and then you had to restate everything in your own words.
It was the most obnoxious thing ever. And Chris and I cracked up every time we tried to do it. But it turns out that even if we weren’t taking it seriously, it left a serious impression on us. The speaker remembered what it was like to share about the nuances of our days – the little things that we had not really had time to share with each other lately. And the listener learned that if you really listen to someone without being preoccupied inside your own head, you can actually learn a lot about someone that you already know a lot about.
The miraculous part of this lesson I learned was that our church was simultaneously doing a sermon series on reaching out to others and our minister talked a lot about asking the follow up question when you are talking to someone. So many times the conversation goes, “Hi, how are you?” “Oh, I’m good. Thanks,” and then we move on. But our church challenged us to ask the next question in order to engage and form deeper relationships with people. I have been applying that inside my own marriage now, actually. Chris tells me about his day at work and as I’m listening, I’m actually TRYING to hear something I can ask a follow up question about. It focuses my listening on not just what Chris is saying, but what he means by what he says.
The other strategy she gave us that was super helpful was to not fight about specific details. Sounds counter-intuitive, right? But she said when you focus on details, you end up just debating facts instead of solving any issues. What she encouraged us to do when we were upset with the other was to explain our emotions instead of the details of the incident. So, instead of saying, “Why did you …” we should say, “It made me feel … when you…” When you are discussing your emotions, it’s a lot harder to pick a fight.
AND SHE’S RIGHT!
That works really, really well. It keeps us out of the weeds, so to speak. Even though I share so much of our lives here on my blog, I’m actually not very good at vocalizing how I feel about things. Turns out, just because you are pretty good at communicating one way doesn’t necessarily mean you’re great at communicating in other ways. And Chris isn’t great at expressing himself, either. We have always compensated because we just “knew what the other felt,” but this process of having to identify it for ourselves and then speak it to each other has been really challenging for both of us in the best way.
During our last session, she made us take the 5 Love Languages test to find out our love languages. Turns out, we were really different from each other. I’ll admit that we haven’t really gotten very good at this part yet. It’s the part when we are supposed to spend more time together, encourage each other, and build the other up. We’re trying to get there, but it’s tough. We’ve never really been gushy or mushy and so putting those feelings into words and actions is tough, especially because we both know it’s an effort. No one wants a forced act of love and that’s basically what we are having to do right now, so it feels kind of phony. But, like with that stupid active listening thing, I’m sure that it feels ridiculous right now but that it will make a big difference in our relationship soon.
So, that’s it. That’s what our marriage counseling sessions were like. It was basically us talking to someone about areas of our marriage where we weren’t happy and having her steer us towards better, healthier habits. One thing I noticed about her was that she never, ever placed blame. I really liked that and I’ve been trying to use that myself more often because if we can’t get past blaming each other for things, we’ll never get better. Another thing I really liked was that she only focused on one, small thing at a time. For example, during one sessions, she gave us a list of about 20 “angry” behaviors – like pouting, sarcasm, or yelling – and then she asked each of us to identify just ONE of those behaviors that the other sometimes exhibited (that particular session was about each of us understanding how we reacted to anger in our marriage – super helpful). And then we ONLY talked about that ONE behavior.
One last thing that I’ll say about counseling is this: there is no weakness in talking to someone. In fact, it is one of the bravest things I’ve ever done. Asking for help to get us back to center was not easy and neither was hearing some of the things that Chris had to say or having to say some hard things myself. Those are really difficult parts of marriage that you kind of want to hide away. But being bold enough to put those issues out on the table for a third person to help you understand better takes a strength that I didn’t know Chris and I had.
It also takes deep, true, for better or worse kind of love. It takes the kind of love that says, “You’re driving me crazy, but I absolutely cannot live without you, so let’s figure out how to make this better.” A marriage counselor didn’t change us or save us. She just brought out the best in our marriage. I have never felt more loved by Chris than when he sat next to me on a marriage counselor’s couch.
That’s the kind of love they write fairy tales and legends and epics around. Or maybe just really honest blog posts from a really ordinary couple.
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