Illustration by Victoria Borges
Ellen Glass was shocked when she and her husband sought counseling early in their marriage and she discovered she wasn’t the only one with frustrations. “I walked in with a mental list of all the things that my husband needed to change,” says Glass, a licensed clinical social worker at Jewish Family Services. She was floored when her husband came in with his own mental list as well. “I was also shocked when the therapist, instead of saying to me, ‘Oh you poor dear,’ gave as much credibility to his list as she did my list.”
Happily married for 42 years now, Glass spends much of her time counseling other couples dealing with marital issues. Many come to see her because they are disillusioned, a feeling that often stems from having unrealistic expectations of what a marriage truly is. “People often think that the initial excitement and euphoria that is often present in the first stage of a relationship is the real thing and that something is wrong when that intensity subsides,” she says, noting that all marriages become familiar and routine at some point.
People seek marriage counseling for reasons ranging from poor communication skills to infidelity. Most come to see a counselor when they are at a pivotal point in life. They may be new parents or fledgling empty nesters who have to relearn the nuances of being full-time partners instead of focusing on parenting.
“Some people come in when they are beginning to have discord and some when there is a crisis,” says Margaret Norman, licensed marriage and family therapist at Margaret Norman & Associates in Henrico County. “Generally I find when couples come into counseling, they want to save their marriage.”
A counselor has to understand exactly what the couple wants before the process can begin. “Sometimes they are coming in to see if there is any hope,” Norman says. “Sometimes they don’t know what they are looking for, but they know they are in pain. Sometimes it’s specific, like one partner had an affair.”
Norman first looks at each person’s strengths in the marriage. Why did they get married and what has held them together all these years? “What was their vision in marrying this person?” she says.
She studies different dynamics such as how the couple responds to each other. “Do they turn toward each other or turn away from each other?” she says. “Do they have fairly good communication skills? How good are their conflict management skills? How well do they emotionally engage with the other person and how do they support each other? Do they listen to each other? Do they allow their partner to have an opinion and do they reinforce their partner’s opinion?”
Margaret Sheehan, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Richmond, gathers details about the history of the couple’s marriage. “We talk a lot about the beginning of the relationship,” she says, noting that she often uses reframing techniques to get the couple to think differently. She may, for example, ask them to think about the fact that the things bothering them now are the same things they found attractive when they met their spouse.
Couples who are frustrated and questioning everything about their marriage are those who feel disengaged from their couple status, she says. “They inhabit different worlds — one spouse may travel a lot for work, for example — and it’s difficult to reconnect when they are together.” That may lead to a lack of intimacy. “They don’t feel like they are heard or considered or touched. That’s extremely prevalent,” she says. She suggests that couples try to connect with each other during the day even if it’s just to say, “I saw a beautiful sunset and thought about you.”
“Some people tell me that feels so fake, but I try to reprioritize it by saying, ‘Didn’t you used to think of them all the time?’ ” Sheehan says.
Marriage is one of the biggest investments anyone will make, Norman says. “It’s like a savings account. You have to ask yourself: How am I investing in my relationship?”
In order to do the work that is involved in marriage counseling, both partners have to make a commitment to “strive to be respectful at all times and strive to make their relationship and their home a safe place,” Glass says. “Both must be willing to change rather than waiting for their partner to change.”
It’s difficult to resolve conflict if someone is blaming, raging, shaming or putting someone down, she adds. “A lot of times in conflict, people get angry. I see anger more as a secondary emotion in a lot of cases. People get angry when they feel neglected or unloved, for example.”
Couples need to avoid exaggerations such as “never” or “always” as well as power statements such as “I can’t take this anymore.” “You have to focus on the problem without dredging up past hurts or problems,” Glass says.
Some couples come into Dr. Martin Buxton’s office expecting their relationship to make them happy. “A relationship can’t do that,” says Buxton, chief of psychiatry at Chippenham and Johnston-Willis Hospitals and medical director of Tucker Pavilion. “If they are not happy, they have to figure out why they are not happy. Their spouse can’t make them happy.” From a therapist’s view, sometimes staying together may not be the healthy choice, he adds. “The couple has to decide what to do. They have to come to a mature decision. There is no perfect situation. This is not a fix-all.”