According to the CDC, nearly half of all marriages end in divorce. My marriage would likely be a part of this statistic if it weren’t for therapy.
In a recent article, I wrote about the value of therapy. Marriage therapy is no different. If you want to grow together, and have a healthy, successful marriage, seeking professional help can greatly benefit you and your relationship.
Marriage is a never ending process. A hard one at times. It is more than a 50/50 work-share. It is 60/40 or a similar, unequal ratio. One spouse will always need to give-in and concede to the other. When one is weak, the other needs to be strong.
I have and continue to, put A LOT of hard work into my marriage. Neither my husband nor I had a healthy relationship before meeting one another. Nor did we have a guide of what a healthy relationship should resemble. Thus, we were pretty clueless regarding relationship success. Both divorced, and scorned, we traveled a road that was not easy. But, largely in part due to therapy, it has been worth it.
My therapist suggested I transition to an as-needed basis several weeks ago. At first, I floundered. “How am I going to do this alone?” “I am not ready to be done with therapy!” etc. But I realized that she had equipped me with all the tools needed to live a healthy and full life. She has instilled confidence in me that enables me to fight battles – big or small – on my own.
According to the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT), over three-fourths of those receiving marital/couples or family therapy report relationship improvement. My marriage is one of these success stories. Therapy – individual and couples – saved our relationship. More importantly, it enabled us to become healthier individuals.
Here is what my husband and I learned:
- Never stop communicating
Merriam-Webster defines communication as “a process by which information is exchanged between individuals through a common system of symbols, signs, or behavior.” The breakdown of communication is often a large factor in divorce. In fact, many marriages could be quite successful if we just learn how to speak in a kind, civil, and encouraging way to our spouse. Therapy can help couples learn each other well enough to be able to communicate in a way that is helpful.
Prior to therapy, it was normal for my husband and I to scream, walk out, and say things that ended in regret – which are all very poor communication skills. Now, our disagreements very rarely turn into a fight, as we can come to a peaceful, resolution much quicker. Even though we have gotten better, we STILL need to communicate with each other. We still need to explain how the other is feeling, and what we desire from each other. Here is some advice on how to communicate well with your spouse.
2. Don’t project your past
Dr. Richard Swartz, a co-developer of Internal Family Systems, believes we all have individual parts within our core self that are activated by fear, threats, hurt, and other negative stimuli or experiences. These parts are considered to be sub-personalities that co-exist with each person’s self and come out when triggered by new feelings or experiences that consciously and unconsciously remind us of our past. Through therapy these parts can learn to take a backstage role, to allow the self to lead in order to heal and be healthy.
My husband and I have learned that we each have these “parts” of us that become activated during certain times. For example, when my husband would walk away from me, or not answer my text/phone calls, it would activate the part of me that is afraid of rejection, or afraid of not being loved. My reaction to the situation would be much more extreme due to my past experiences. Sometimes our spouse can say or do, something that activates old wounds from another relationship or experience. It is important to understand our parts, so we know when to separate them from our spouse, so we don’t take it out on them.
Suzanne White, a therapist in South Dakota, says we need to “look at and heal those extreme parts that get in the way of security.” Through therapy, and understanding each other’s parts, we can better understand why the other is reacting a certain way, and instead of shame or ridicule them, we can be more gentle and helpful. Thus, creating a securely attached relationship.
3. Vulnerability is powerful
Most people associate vulnerability with weakness. However, vulnerability is the opposite. Brene Brown, a research professor and author, says, “Vulnerability is the birth place for every positive emotion that we need in our lives: love, belonging, joy, empathy.”
It takes a strong person to be able to expose themselves to another person. Especially, one that has the ability to really hurt them. Watching my husband’s vulnerability in therapy, and learning more about him has given me such a great respect for him. It not only has created an intimate closeness between us but has allowed me to see experiences and life from his viewpoint.
Relationships need empathy, if you don’t have vulnerability you can’t have empathy. If you keep defensive walls up in a relationship you never experience the fullness of love, belonging, and joy. You never truly know someone when you are protecting yourself from getting hurt. To have a healthy marriage both partners need to be vulnerable.
4. Choose your battles
The socks on the floor really do NOT matter. In the grand scheme of life, little things need to have less value. There are bigger problems in life than fighting over misplaced laundry, house cleaning, and other nit-picky things. Your spouse doesn’t need to feel berated, belittled, or belabored over non-essential things. Choose to see your spouse for the person they are, and not the little annoyances they may or may not have.
Also, be thankful that you have someone’s dirty socks to pick up! One day, you may not.
5. Individual therapy helps
The success of a marriage greatly depends on each partner’s individual mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being. Both partners need to be ready, and willing to put forth the effort a successful marriage requires.
A therapist who used to only treat individuals once stated, “This is embarrassing to say, but as psychotherapists we contributed to hundreds of divorces, indirectly, by helping people grow in our offices and then they went home to a partner who had not been to couples therapy, so the gap between them was created,” (Ianzito, n.d.). Now, he realizes the importance of treating couples together because it takes both partners willing and ready to do the hard work that is done in therapy.
If we are not working hard at becoming, and maintaining, a healthy self, we will not be able to have a healthy relationship. Marriage is like a see-saw: if you have too much weight on one side it will hurt like hell when you hit the ground. Having a balance between each other is essential.
6. Healing from past relationship(s) hurts can only come through a healthy relationship
Most of us have had more than one marriage or at least more than one relationship. Within these relationships, we have been hurt. Some, very deeply. My husband and I both have had to help each other heal from past wounds. First, by understanding how we were wounded, and then learning how to piece that wound back together by showing each other love, grace, and forgiveness.
Dr. Stephen Greene, a therapist in South Dakota, believes that we can only heal relationship wounds in the context of a relationship because it is where the wounds were created. In order to trust after trust has been shattered, you need someone to show you that you can trust again. In order to learn you are worthy of love, you need to be shown that you are loved unconditionally.
7. Your relationship (or you) will never be perfect
Even when you think you have it all together, there will still be a disagreement, a bad moment, or even an ugly fight. The goal in a healthy marriage is not to be perfect, but to learn your partner well enough to be able to fight fair. And, as White says, “to have an acquired secure attachment.”
Also, you will mess up. The saying “it takes two to tango” applies in marriage. It is never only one person’s fault. You can always find fault in yourself, no matter how small. There is always room for personal, and relationship growth.
Each day, every disagreement, every fight, is a moment that we decide “are we going to fight fair,” “are we going to choose love or fear,” “are we going to work hard, or give up?” There will always be a struggle. The important lesson is to struggle well together.
Ianzito, C. (n.d.). How to Have a Happy Marriage with Couples Therapy. In AARP Home & Family.