I assume that both people are good at heart
This is an important assumption because it allows for each person to feel loved and valued. No one wants to be the problem, and it does no good to anyone if one person is singled out. Even in cases where all signs appear to point to just one person, marriage is never that simple, and many problems only appear to weigh more than others, when in reality, they don’t. There is simply no way to accurately keep score in this way, nor would it do any good for the marriage. It is much better to assume that each person is good at heart and wants the best for the other and for the marriage. This assumption makes people feel good, and it lays the foundation for an environment of growth.
I distinguish between what can and cannot change
There is nothing more disheartening than to be rejected for who we are deep inside, and there is nothing more satisfying than to be truly accepted and loved for who we really are. For this reason, I assess for personality type early on in counseling.
We need to know which parts of our spouse we should accept and embrace and which parts we can expect to change over time. Until we see our spouse for who they are deep down, it is a near impossible task to distinguish between the two.
I cannot count the number of powerful and life changing sessions that have come from assessing personality type, sessions in which two people look at each other for the first time with wonder and understanding, the kind of understanding that brings both forgiveness and hope. The forgiveness because of the realization that so much heartache over the years has simply come from not truly understanding each other, the hope because of being on new terrain where wonderful growth and intimacy are now possible.
I educate people about the other gender
Yes, men and women are actually different. What men and women need in a relationship is also different. In fact, the most important needs of one gender are almost never the same for the other.
When we assume that what we need is the same as what our spouse needs, we often focus on giving the wrong things, and we can become disillusioned when those things don’t seem to invoke much emotion. We then often begin to assume that something is wrong with our spouse and our marriage, when what is needed is to learn spouse’s needs and fulfill those needs, which are almost always completely different from our own.
Since we do not receive an instruction manual when we say, “I do,” this is something we simply need to learn. I also have each person give an honest assessment of how the other is meeting their needs. This is very important because we need that information to make the needed changes.
I look for signs of trauma
Recognizing trauma when it is present in a marriage is vital. Even the most experienced marriage counselors struggle to help couples in distress when there is trauma present. Many counselors fail to identify trauma, and very few take steps to see that it is treated.
The essential feature of trauma is a system (body and mind) that is in a continuous state of arousal, prepared to defend against any threat. This is very effective for keeping one safe, but it also makes it very difficult to be in healthy, intimate relationships.
Many incidents that occur in every day married life can be incorrectly identified by the traumatized system as potential threats. When this occurs regularly, the marriage is in continual chaos. Whenever I recognize that trauma is present, I explain what I see and make appropriate treatment recommendations. As the trauma begins to heal, the marriage improves in ways that would never be possible without the trauma treatment.
I get to the root of the issues
Most couples new to counseling first report their main problem being lack of communication. This is a reasonable way to conceptualize the issues because most couples don’t understand the root of their own complaints, much less the root of their partner’s. For this reason, it just feels like a lack of communication.
I move couples quickly beyond seeing the issues as simply communication issues and help them to see them for what they are. This is a tremendous help to couples because they gain the correct language to discuss the real issues and the ability to change what is truly ailing them.
I foster an environment of intimacy
I am not cupid. I cannot create love. I can only foster an environment where love can grow. The majority of couples that come into my office already have deep love that has developed, even if it is buried under a mountain of hurt and anger.
For love to develop, or for forgotten love to return, there must be intimacy. For intimacy, there must be vulnerability. For vulnerability, there must be trust. When trust has been broken, I help couples regain it. Where trust has never fully been achieved, I help them achieve it. Once trust is felt, couples begin to relax; vulnerability begins to set in, and in time, intimacy is gained. This must be done delicately, and this is one reason marriage counseling is so important.
I trust my gut and my skill
It is a true statement that nearly anyone can DO marriage counseling. That is to say that nearly anyone can learn the techniques and perform them. In the same way, nearly anyone can learn to shoot a basketball, give a massage, or design an office space. This doesn’t mean they have the talent to play professional basketball, the special touch to give healing massages, or the creative eye to design an office space with character.
In the same way, marriage counseling requires true talent and instinct. I know that I have it, and I rely on it. I can’t begin to plan for every possible scenario in marriage counseling, nor would I try to. Because of that, I often find myself in situations where I have no plan and nothing in my notes or research articles telling me what to do. I don’t worry when this happens; I trust my gut and my skill. This is when the true magic in counseling happens, when I have no idea what I’m about to do or say, and then after a long and very successful session, I look back on it and I think, Did I really just do that?
I’m sure other professionals often feel the same way, the basketball player who marvels at how they just made an incredible shot, the massage therapist who just sensed what was ailing their client and sent them away dramatically better than how they came in, the interior designer who just designed an office space that magically transformed the office space into a haven of peace and productivity, none of these professionals having seen the outcome ahead of time, all of them amazed at what they somehow just accomplished. The talent and instinct of the marriage counselor is paramount. There are libraries of books filled with great marriage advice; it takes a great marriage counselor to transform a marriage in need.