Choosing to see a marriage counselor can be an unnerving proposition. We want our relationship to improve, but then it always begins with our having to be vulnerable with a stranger. The good news is that most counselors are used to this discomfort and skilled at helping new clients through the process. Having said that, we do not have to go in to marriage counseling unprepared.
6 Marriage Counseling Questions to Ask Yourself
Below are 6 marriage counseling questions you can answer for yourself as you begin this process to allay some of the mystery.
1. What do I want?
This may seem like a silly question at first. If we have gotten to the point of wanting to see a counselor, there are serious issues that are likely pretty obvious. It will help, however, if we can express what we want without generalities. We can decrease our discomfort with the transition into counseling by having specific, realistic expectations about what is possible and how long it will take. Recovery takes time and we have to be willing to be in it for the long haul.
Here are a few more and less useful examples of answers to this question:
“I want my spouse to stop treating me like the enemy.”
This is a great short-term, specific, and realistic goal. Now, can you state it in the positive? How do you want your spouse to treat you? Once you have a specific goal, you can take steps together to work out ways to change the wounding behavior, and begin identifying emotional triggers.
“I want my spouse to stop being so anxious.”
This is a great desire, but now you’ve crossed over the boundary between your emotional world and theirs. As painful as it is to see your spouse struggling, and dealing with the friction it brings into the relationship, they have to decide they want to work on it. The important step is for you to care for yourself, regardless.
You are not responsible for your spouse’s emotional state. You do not have to carry their emotional weight. In fact, you will not be able to sustain it long-term. To truly come alongside our loved ones when they are struggling, we have to realize how little control we have, and peel our white knuckles away from our desperate desire to help. Only when we release can we calmly come alongside them when they are hurting, without paying a painful emotional price.
“I want my spouse to be more engaged and present.”
This is a very common goal in marriage counseling, and meets all the criteria for specific and realistic goals. What we don’t often admit to ourselves is that along with this good desire is resentment for the way we have been treated up to now. The mistreatment is almost never one-sided, and the initial challenge is to acknowledge that both of you, both of you are complex, emotionally damaged (on some level) individuals, and you brought that damage into the marriage. Resolving the issues around that trauma is up to the individual. Managing the effects of it in relationship is what you do together in counseling.
2) What are my preconceptions about counseling?
People often come into counseling hoping for a quick fix. This makes perfect sense. They’ve been suffering, often for years, in a painful relationship. Think about it. It finally got so bad they were willing to meet with a complete stranger to try and talk it through. Of course they want a fast resolution. Who wouldn’t? But the counseling process does not happen quickly. The issues that have to be unraveled have been formed over decades, so it should come as no surprise that unpacking these things can be the work of years.
Another preconception around counseling is associated with stigma and shame. We can feel like we’ve failed, that it reflects badly on us, or we may have negative tapes playing thoughts like, “Therapy is for losers,” or “If you need therapy, there’s something wrong with you.” The truth is, you want help, and asking for it does not make you any of those things.
One more preconception is that the counselor is some sort of unimpeachable authority on your emotional world. A counselor is a guide, noticing points of interest and offering possibilities. If you disagree with something a counselor says, you get to say that. Never forget, you are driving the bus. You get to set the pace, and when something makes you uncomfortable, you get to announce that.
3. What are my fears about counseling?
Because of the implicit authority of the therapist in a counseling situation, it may seem daunting to even come in for counseling. Rather than miss an opportunity to get help, I would encourage you to revisit the paragraph above and give it a try. Remember, you are driving the bus. You get to set the pace. And ultimately, you are the expert on your story and feelings. The therapist is only a guide.
Another possible fear is that marriage counseling may lead to exploring darker portions of your story, and that exploring the darker portions of your story may unlock something you won’t be able to control. When we’ve been stuffing our anger or sorrow for decades, we may feel like there’s a great reservoir of untapped sorrow or rage and if we actually tap into it, it will all come out at once and overwhelm us, that we will start crying or screaming and never stop. This is not the case.
We can only cry, wail, or scream for so long and our body has to stop. Even if we hyperventilate and pass out, our body resets and calms itself. It is frightening, courageous work moving into our darker, more painful stories, which is why we need the comfort and guidance of a compassionate therapist to do this work. If you have a hard, traumatic narrative in your past, you may need to set your marriage counseling on hold and meet with a therapist who specializes in trauma.
One more potential fear of entering into counseling is that we will say something that will drive our spouse even further from us. This is always a risk, but as painful as it is, better to air out the truth and begin working through it together, than to live a half-life of deceptions and emotional disconnection. A wound has to be cleaned out before it can be bandaged and allowed to heal, and so it is with relationship.
4. What if I’m Too Much of a Mess?
We don’t know how much progress is possible until we try. We are incredibly complex beings, formed over time by the impact of our experiences and our reaction to them, both good and bad. It takes time, much patience, and some effort. Be curious. Wonder about the motivations behind your emotional triggers. Notice when your anxiety or anger ramps up, and rather than lashing outward, look inward and say, “Wow. My anxiety just ramped up. I wonder what that’s about.”
In addition to being curious, be kind. Put the mallet down and stop beating yourself up. You are wired like you are because no one gets a manual. When a six-year-old is hit by their father, there is no one there to say, “This isn’t your fault.” Often, when our emotions get the better of us and we are angry and yell or say unkind things, we feel ashamed. Shame is intolerable, so we often make things worse by blaming the other person, or escalating the situation.
Nothing is gained by bashing yourself. With your traumatic narrative, of course your emotional world operates this way. By calming the sting of shame, you can get in touch with your sorrow for saying hurtful things to your loved one, and genuinely apologize. Relationship is not about doing it perfectly; it’s about rupture and repair.
5. What if it doesn’t work?
There are no guarantees in marriage counseling. Both spouses have to be committed to the process, to staying in it, even when it is difficult. Vulnerability is closely linked to our shame, and as I said before, shame is intolerable. This is where all the kindness and compassion you can muster, toward both you and your spouse, will make all the difference.
There’s a reason the wedding vows include the words, “‘til death do us part.” Staying in the relationship and working on it when it might be much easier just to give up, takes courage and determination. Remember that when we have been traumatized by experience, in some ways we are victims of our emotional structure. It doesn’t mean we are not responsible for our actions, but it means that we can use that understanding to begin to forgive ourselves and our spouse for the emotional pain inflicted.
6. What can I expect from marriage counseling?
Every counselor is somewhat different in his or her approach. Some will use surveys to help identify trouble spots more quickly. Mostly, the therapist will listen while you talk about the issues that have brought you to counseling, and offer insight and guidance for steps you can take to improve your situation.
You may discover you are codependently enmeshed with unhealthy boundaries. This might look like one spouse often pursuing the other for an answer or response and not taking no for an answer, or one spouse not knowing how they are feeling until they can see the other spouse’s face. You may discover that your spouse has been hiding an addiction, or some kind of inappropriate relationship.
It will likely be awkward and uncomfortable, and there will be times when you dread coming to session because you feel ambushed when your spouse reports your latest run of “bad” behavior. Remember, you are in this together. Try not to speak in anger and choose your words with some care if you can. This is hard for both of you, but if you are both committed to working on the relationship, then your ultimate goal is the same and you can work toward it together.
You always have that unified position to return to, even if shame, anxiety, or anger push you off of it. Dare to hope that you will heal, and your relationship will grow into the connected, mutual, loving relationship you always wanted it to be.
A Word About Anger and Anxiety
We are fearfully and wonderfully made, as the Scripture says. As complex as our brains are, they are essentially made up of three parts, the “reptilian” brain (bottom) which controls the autonomic nervous system (breathing, etc.), the mid-brain or limbic brain (middle), where emotions are processed, and the neocortex where reasoning happens (top).
When our fight/flight impulses are triggered, this happens in the reptilian brain. Imagine walking into a room and seeing a rope on the floor, which looks like a snake. Your sympathetic nervous system kicks into high gear and you take a sudden, deep breath. In those moments, stress hormones flood your system as your body is trying to determine whether you are going to stomp on the snake (fight) or scream and run (flight).
Anger (fight) and anxiety (flight) manifest almost identically in the body. Now imagine in the next moment you realize the snake is actually a rope. What’s the first thing you do? You take a deep breath and blow it out. This signals your parasympathetic nervous system that it’s okay to stand down, calm down, and return to normal.
When anger or anxiety are high, the reptilian brain overwhelms the limbic brain and neocortex; we literally lose our capacity to bond and think. This is why it is important to learn the art of pausing in a conversation that triggers you and identifying that you are angry or anxious, and taking a few deep breaths to calm yourself before continuing a conversation.
In session, your therapist will help you manage this. The challenge will be learning to use these skills at home. As we get better at managing our own side of the street in this way, our capacity for mutual, meaningful conversation will improve, and we will be well on our way toward growth and health.