Why the first suggestions from your marriage counselor sound dumb

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The idea for this post came from a conversation with a couple as they were graduating therapy. (See our post about why we love it when our clients graduate therapy here.) We were discussing how far they’d come and what they had done to make all these dramatic changes in their relationship. As we looked together at the list of changes they’d made, each one seemed small in itself but together they added up to a big difference.

I asked them, “If I’d told you at the beginning of couples counseling that having regular date nights, talking every day, making sure you understand before you react, asking for help, and taking time outs would bring about these kind of changes, how would you have reacted?” “Oh! We would have thought you were crazy,” they responded emphatically.

And yet, those are exactly the things that made huge changes for this couple.

A big, messy knot

Humans are complicated beings. And human relationships are messy. It’s just how things are. We’re not simple, logical, and linear. Our relationships are an intricate net of intertwined threads. Usually by the time a couple comes to marriage counseling, their intertwined threads are less of a beautiful tapestry and more of a big, messy knot. Think of a pile of fishing line or the tangle of necklaces and laces at the bottom of your kid’s dress-up bin.

When you’ve got a big, messy knot of problems to work through, you can’t just grab at one thread a pull. This inevitably makes the whole situation worse. What you’ve got to do is gently loosen one portion, then move over to another area and loosen there, then move back to the first part and work on that again. You may get some clarity as one of the threads comes out. Eventually, with enough unwinding and gentle tugging in a variety of areas, the whole mess gives way and you can start to make sense of it. You really feel like you’re getting somewhere.

The “dumb” suggestions

Okay, so your marriage counselor isn’t giving you dumb suggestions, maybe just things that seem overly simplistic or inadequate. It’s pretty normal for you to be skeptical at the beginning of therapy. Your therapist might talk to you about date nights, self-care, your interaction patterns, your family history and you might be thinking “this is so simplistic! There’s no way this one thing is going to help! What about all these other problems?”

If you’ve read some of the other articles in our blog or talked briefly with a therapist before, you might have thought the same things, and you’re right. Any one of those suggestions isn’t going to solve everything. All the little tools, the questions we ask are how we start untangling that messy knot.

Be patient with the process

When we try to talk about all the problems in the relationship at once, we don’t make progress on any one issue, and you end up frustrated, feeling like you’re spinning your wheels. It can seem artificial and simplistic, but we’ve got to pick a place to start, one area to work on first. When you start to see change in that area, we can work on another or look at how that area impacts the other challenges you face.

Part of our job as your marriage counselor is to help you prioritize issues and stay focused. We use our education and professional experience to help you understand how all those messy threads interact. We can help you sort it out. We can help you see how you keep creating the same knots and give you the skills you need to untangle them.

As we get near the end of couples counseling, we’ll be talking about maintenance skills. What do you need to do on an ongoing basis to prevent these giant knots from forming in the first place? It takes a while to get there, and we ask you to be patient with the process. But once you get to that magical place where your threads aren’t a mess anymore and you can start weaving a tapestry, you’ll feel excited and empowered. Your happiness and your relationship are worth it!

Not sure where to start?

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