SYR Podcast # 9 Session Notes
(Scroll down to end of notes for podcast audio)
Do you have a healthy marriage?
Couples who come to marriage or couples counseling typically know something is wrong with their relationship. One or both partners are in emotional pain. Often, they are caught in the grip of conflict that leaves them frustrated and hurt. The pain of loneliness may have already set in, or even worse, an apathy that is built on hopelessness may have taken over.
Excessive/repetitive relationship conflict is one indicator that your marriage or relationship may need some attention. But conflict isn’t the only indicator. In fact, some couples argue pretty regularly and actually do quite well as a couple. We need more to help us answer the question about the overall health of our relationship. The fighting/no fighting dichotomy isn’t a reliable enough barometer of the overall health of a relationship.
In working with couples, sometimes the underlying issues that need addressing make themselves clear right away. But there are times when the relationship or marital issues aren’t that apparent. One or both spouses/partners may present a very convincing argument that things are totally hopeless between them, or they may forcefully complain that their marriage is devoid of any redeeming qualities (“We never got along; even when we were dating, all we did was argue!”).
The Couple Who Couldn’t See Their Relationship Strengths
It can be overwhelming to hear couples describe their union as one big cancerous mass that is probably treatment-resistant. This is how Carmen talked about her marriage with Trevor. They were married about six years, and by the time they came to see me, they’d already tried couples counseling, that, according to Carmen, “didn’t help in the least!”
“We’re the world’s worst communicators. And we fight all the time and about the stupidest things!” Trevor nodded in agreement as Carmen described their inability to talk to one another. “We disagree on what temperature to keep the house, where to eat, what sports the kids should be involved in, where to spend the holidays, money—you name it, we fight about it.”
To be honest, it was easy to wonder to myself why Trevor and Carmen stayed together for as long as they had. Life seemed miserable for them. They felt beat up by their arguments, and whenever I asked about the strengths of their relationship, it was like a magnetic force pulled Carmen right back to repeating why their marriage was broken.
Could it be so bad? Or was Carmen’s pain amplifying the negative and obscuring any positives that may have existed?
What was clear after our first meeting was that both Carmen and Trevor felt overwhelmed and they knew they needed help.
What I noticed in the second meeting had a profound impact on the course of our work together. As Carmen told me about several arguments that happened during the week, Trevor leaned over to her and whispered, “Don’t forget to tell him about you-know-what.” And when she looked at him, Trevor made a face that made Carmen laugh so hard I thought she was going to break a rib. She then playfully smacked him before going back to telling me about the weekly arguments.
Relationship Problems Can Obscure Relationship Strengths
I gently interrupted Carmen and asked her about what just happened between them. It turns out that Trevor “always” makes Carmen laugh in this way. “It’s like he’s one of the kids…he’s always doing silly stuff.”
I discovered that Trevor loved to make Carmen laugh. Yes, they fought and they fought often. But it turns out, they laughed even more than they argued. And the thing that Trevor wanted Carmen to mention to me was that they had an amazing sex life. For the last six years, they’ve been having sex at least three times a week. They desired one another. There was passion between them, despite the passage of time and raising two young children. Sex was a powerful pathway to greater emotional connection for Trevor and Carmen.
Over the next five sessions, I had Carmen and Trevor break down their relationship into discrete categories. They were doing so naturally as they spoke about their marriage, but they weren’t aware of it. They gave themselves a failing grade in the category of communication and conflict resolution; high grades in playfulness/fun and sexual intimacy; and a solid grade in emotional connection (which was being fed by sexual intimacy and playfulness/fun).
As we turned the whole of their relationship into discrete categories to examine, their relationship started to feel more manageable to them (and to me!). And they began to realize that certain strengths existed despite their communication struggles.
Relationship Checkup: Examining Your Relationship Via Manageable Parts
One way to assess the health of your marriage/relationship is to examine the different areas that make up your relationship and then rate how you and your partner do in that particular area. Here’s a partial list of the dimensions of your relationship:
How can you and your partner use the above categories?
As you can see, the communication category is broken down further into the subcategories of speaker and listener. One way to assess your capabilities as a speaker and/or listener is to rate yourself on a scale from 1-10 (1 = totally ineffective; 5 = moderately effective; 10 = totally effective). Of course, you need to do your best to be as objective as possible (which is pretty difficult for any of us).
Some of the questions you might consider:
Overall as a speaker, do you focus on your needs and communicate your message in a clear and kind way?
How would you rate yourself as a listener? Are you a patient listener? Are you able to be open to your partner’s perspective, even when it differs from your own? Are you able to hear the longing for love and connection that may exist behind his/her complaints?
How do you think you rate when it comes to compromising? Do you always have to have your way, or do you allow your partner’s needs/wants to take center stage from time to time?
How compatible are you and your partner when it comes to the expectations and values that you each hold? Does your partner’s behavior match up with what you expect from him/her? (For instance, you might expect him/her to be kind, respectful and committed to the marriage.)
In the area of emotional intimacy, in general how emotionally connected do you feel to your partner? (Remember: 10 would mean you feel very close to him/her; 5 = moderately close; a score of 1 or 2 would indicate you feel pretty disconnected.)
How would you rate your sex life together? Is it fulfilling? Does it make you feel closer emotionally? Again, use the scaling technique to assess this area of your relationship.
How well do you and your partner play together? Do you share recreational activities or vacation well together? Is laughter/fun a part of your interactions?
Each score you give for a particular category of your relationship or marriage is an average (for instance, if you give emotional intimacy a score of 8, this number takes into consideration the times when you feel emotional intimacy is a 5 and also a 10).
Comparing Scores and Working Collaboratively
The couples I work with find it powerful to separately evaluate/score the areas of the relationship and then come together and compare scores. This can be helpful to see where you and your partner are consistent in your perceptions (you both give communication a 4) and inconsistent (you give sexual intimacy a 3 while your partner gave this area a 7).
Ideally, you will work as a team to address the low scores. “OK, we both gave fun/play a 2. Let’s brainstorm ways to bump up this number even a little. I have some suggestions, and I’d love to hear your ideas.”
And in assessing your scores, it’s important to take note of the highest scores and build on these strengths. Celebrate them. Feel good about them. Don’t allow the problem areas to cover up these relationship strengths.
Uncovering these strengths is what allowed Carmen and Trevor to shift their view that their marriage had already capsized and they should go their separate ways. It slowly allowed them to raise their awareness to what worked for them despite their differences. And as they made the choice to more fully embrace these strengths and talk about them, the problem areas started to move from center stage into the background.
If you’d like more information about how to give your marriage or relationship a more comprehensive relationship checkup, I’ve created an easy to use tool for couples to “chunk” their relationship into categories and assess each area. For more information, click Relationship Checkup.
Wishing you and your partner a healthy marriage (or relationship)!
Dr. Rich Nicastro
(Top featured image courtesy of Number1411 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)