Traditional psychology has believed since time began that problems exist within individuals. This DSM descriptions of mental problems is built on this theory.
However, with the rise of the « Systems » movement which began in the early 50’s., problems are more popularly seen as existing BETWEEN people or in relationships rather than within individuals.
The original researchers from Palo Alto identified that the more unclearly people spoke to each other, the more unhealthy the relationship.
Thus, the more unhealthy the relationship, the more people in those relationships experienced anxiety. As it is anxiety that makes us sick, people existing in relationships with double messages and unspoken messages became very anxious and developed symptoms.
Marriage counseling done correctly is designed to teach individuals to say what they mean and to mean what they say.
Sometimes couples come in in open conflict. They use anger to try to get what they want as anger blocks the ability to hear the message, the fighting doesn’t get resolved. These are the people who fight to be right rather than fighting to find out what they are doing wrong.
So, Marriage Counseling seeks to teach couples how to disagree AND resolve issues which is often a new concept for people.
Other times couples come who avoid conflict. They can’t resolve problems either because they don’t talk about anything for fear of upsetting the other. Marriage counseling is able to teach them how to disagree by explaining negative emotion rather than acting it out.
It was Paul Watzlavik who said, “life is just one problem after another. It is important not to make it the same problem!”
Knowing how to say things in a manner that other people can hear and relate to is an art. Well trained marriage therapists teach these skills.
Another issue in helping people talk cleanly is teaching them to talk to each other as equals. Sometimes one person in a couple addresses the other authoritatively. This makes the recipient resentful. I teach couples to speak collaboratively so that they negotiate rather than fight. People who make declarative statements and assume what they believe is « right » learn to ask more questions so they can have conversations not contests about
I think of marriage counseling as a series of classes in marriage relationships. If the experience of marriage counseling is for the purpose of teaching improved methods of talking together, then the « therapy » part is about removing the barriers that keep partners from doing what is sensible.
People who have to win have generally learned early that they are supposed to be « right ». These are often men but not always.. Part of their gender training is to be in charge and to make sure things go well.
The problem is that it is impossible to be right and be married. One makes one’s partner angry. I often say to my husband, let’s do it wrong. Let’s do it my way » then we all laugh!
Sometimes people learn that conflict causes someone to leave. These people will avoid conflict at all costs.
People who are afraid of each other either emotionally or physically can’t be in relationships where equal communication exists. One acts as the victim, and gets power indirectly thus unbalancing the relationship . The other acts as the bully or just goes about doing as he or she pleases because the other of the two doesn’t speak up.
Marriage counseling removes barriers by teaching better skills. John and Julie Gottman, two marital researchers from Washington state, talk about the four horsemen of the apocalypse — stonewalling, criticizing, fighting to be right, and condemning, as direct paths to the divorce court. Marital work done correctly, teaches people how to respectfully negotiate their differences and helps them disconnect from habits that don’t serve them well.
I think it should be said here that hitting unbalances a relationship terribly. When one person hits the other or conflict goes to hitting, healthy conflict resolve is impossible. Physical abuse or emotional abuse should never be tolerated.
Alcohol and drugs also make healthy styles of talking impossible. Alcohol removes our ability to set limits or act reasonably. Drugs do the same. People who use generally don’t control emotion well. The fighting gets out of control. In the Family Therapy Court Referral Program that I designed with the Municipal Court of Atlanta, 100% of our cases involving family violence were all situations where alcohol was involved and or drugs.
There is no shame in getting help if things aren’t going well. In fact, people who conquer difficulty generally know that getting help for what they can’t solve is the path to success. Getting the right help from a well-trained marriage therapist generalizes to improved skills in all the relationships in which a person is involved!