Marriage counseling. What do those words bring to mind? Impending divorce? A last-ditch effort? Couples often do seek marital therapy when the relationship doesn’t seem like it can possibly continue. But marriage counseling can also serve to strengthen healthy relationships that have simply gotten off-track somewhere along the way. Every marriage is different, and many different relationship dynamics create tension or outright conflict between spouses. But couples fall into lots of common traps that, with some understanding, don’t necessarily have to mean the end of the road for the marriage.
Different marriage templates
Think about the kind of relationship dynamics you witnessed between your parents. Were they outwardly affectionate with each other? Did they argue in a healthy way? Did they nurture their marriage with date nights or getaways without the kids? The kinds of patterns you observed as a child all contributed to your understanding of what marriage looks like. Healthy or not, their relationship became your template for marriage. After all, how many others did you observe so closely for so many years?
When couples marry with very different examples of what a marriage is, they bring with them assumptions about what the role of “spouse” entails. And often, those assumptions don’t mesh. For example, let’s say one spouse came from a family where the parents spoke several times by phone during the day. And let’s say the other spouse had a parent who traveled for work and only called home once during those week-long trips. If expectations about frequency of communication are not discussed, misunderstandings and hurt feelings can result. This is just one way that different marriage templates can create conflict. But understanding them can open up a couple’s discussion and negotiation about what they want from each other and the marriage.
Differences in problem-solving styles
Problem-solving is another area in marriages where interpersonal differences often go unnoticed. Think about what you need the most when you have a problem. Some of us get a lot out of simply being heard and having our feelings validated. But others only feel better after they’ve arrived at a solution. Understandably, a spouse who just needs to “vent” about a problem may feel frustrated by their partner’s suggestions about how to “fix” it. But if each had known the other’s needs up front, that frustration could have been avoided.
But what about when the problem is between the spouses? Differences in conflict-resolution styles can make problem-solving even harder. For example, one spouse might discuss problems calmly and rationally, whereas the other might bring heated emotions into the mix. Or one might prefer to address only the current concern, with the other bringing up similar concerns from the past. Identifying a couple’s differences in problem-solving styles can keep conflict from escalating into something beyond the original issue.
Difficulty adjusting the marriage to the season of life
Another trap that healthy marriages often fall into is failing to keep up with life-cycle transitions. This is a very common concern, and is often what brings couples into therapy. Dating and marriage take place during one snapshot of a couple’s life. And when their individual or joint life circumstances change, they often forget to reassess how the marriage will also shift. These transitions are often related to children, careers, or finances. Change any of these things, and most likely there will need to be adjustments to the day-to-day workings of the marriage. We’ve all heard of empty-nesters who wake up one day and realize that they devoted so many years to raising a family that they scarcely know one another anymore. But think about other life-cycle transitions. Previously-childless couples who now have an infant must reevaluate how to maintain relationship-nurturing habits like date nights and sexual intimacy. Or a new job that requires lots of travel will probably mean a renegotiation of household and childcare duties. The constantly-changing nature of life demands marriages to keep up, and when this doesn’t happen, there can be bumps in the road.
The good news is that all of these concerns can be worked through with the help of a trusted professional. Sometimes it just takes an unbiased third party to facilitate discussion and negotiation, and to enhance communication skills. Contact us to find out more about how the therapists at Brentwood Counseling Associates can assist in getting your marriage back on track. A bump in the road doesn’t have to mean the end of it.