This past fall, James and I decided to see a marriage counselor. Having the twins had put some tension and strain on our marriage that wasn’t there before, and combined with work-related stress and some postpartum challenges I was having, we were having a lot of trouble communicating effectively and just weren’t getting along as well as we had in the past. There had been a noticeable change in our marriage, and neither of us were very happy. But we knew we wanted to do whatever it took to make things work, and we owed to ourselves to try our hardest and fight for what we had built. So we found a local marriage counselor and started seeing her once a week. It changed everything between us. Our marriage is better than ever. We are even closer as friends and work more seamlessly as parents. Our home is so joyful.
I wish we had gone sooner. The skills and exercises we learned from our marriage counselor are so beneficial and effective, that I wish we had learned them before we had the twins and everything changed – when we were still carefree and joyous and had no idea the storm that was coming. We could have coped a lot better if we had gone to marriage counseling while everything was “fine.” And if we’re being honest – in a marriage, is there every really a moment where everything is fine? Is there really never those one or two nagging things that you ignore or place in the back of your mind? If we had gone to counseling way back when, we never would have let those little things fester for as long as they did, and we would have been way better prepared when our world was turned upside down by two newborn babies.
Going into marriage counseling, my idea of it was what I’d seen on TV – couples going at it with wiffle bats or using the opportunity to scream their grievances at each other. I thought it would be a dark, negative experience. Imagine my surprise when our very first session, the counselor gave us the assignment to write each other a love letter. I was so relieved. We used to write each other love letters all the time when we were long distance dating in college, but since we lived together, the tradition had all but died. Having to write a new one felt great and set the tone for what ended up being a great experience.
Here are the things we got out of counseling and the reasons why I think EVERY couple should go to counseling:
1. We got an unbiased, completely neutral third party to weigh in on our issues.
Nobody in our life is truly unbiased. Whether it’s a friend or family member, when you talk about your marital problems, they’re gonna lean one way or another. Plus, do you really want someone you know personally knowing every sordid detail of your marriage? I’ve always strayed away from talking about my marital problems with others, just because judging from the outside, nobody is every going to truly understand what your relationship is really like. They’re listening with their judgments and pre-conceived notions. Plus, have you ever gotten in a huge fight with a partner and told a friend, then forgave them, but the person you told held a grudge? Yeah, that sucks. A marriage counselor has no bias. They don’t lean to one side, they listen to both sides and come to a rational and balanced conclusion. Also, they provide a neutral mediator to help talk through any disagreements or disputes.
2. We learned new ways to say “I love you.”
We know how to hug, we know how to kiss, we know how to say “I love you.” But our marriage counselor taught us several different strategies to express our love in different ways and to rediscover romance. For example, she had us do a nightly activity where before bed, we had to express nine positive things about our relationships. Each night, we had to choose three topics, i.e. “favorite memories together” or “favorite qualities in the other.” Then, we each had to name three things in each category in varying stages of intimacy: one with our eyes closed, one with our eyes open and knees touching, and one with our eyes open, holding hands, and knees touching. We did it so many times that we had to start getting creative with the things we named, like “favorite item of clothing you wear.” It might sound strange, but it became such a beautiful part of our day and we looked forward to it every night. It was an easy way to end the day on a positive note and go to bed feeling loved and appreciated.
3. We learned how to best support each other.
Lots of people know their love language. We didn’t going into it, but we’d certainly heard of it because it’s such a popular concept. If you don’t know, your love language is the ways in which your partner can express their love for you in the most meaningful way. For me, it was “acts of service.” The best way to show me you love me is to help me, especially without me having to ask for your help. James didn’t know this. How could he, when I didn’t even know it? But our counselor assigned for us to find out what they were. Then, when we came back to her with it, she gave us a step-by-step breakdown of what each one means, what it looks like, and what it doesn’t look like. She gave us real-world scenarios in which we could apply it and make each other feel the most loved and supported. And, love languages aside, she gave us an open forum to express our needs in the most gentle, unemotional way. I was able to say “I need help with the twins,” and he was able to say “I need support with my doctoral work.” Being able to express those things directly to each other without it being in the midst of an argument made a world of difference and made it transparent how we could best support each other. We’ve made the changes we needed to make since then and the difference is unbelievable.
4. We learned how to communicate most effectively.
We officially no longer let things fester. Like, at all, ever. If something bothers us, we say it right then and there. If we need a few minutes (or hours) to calm down first, that’s okay, but we never just let it go unaddressed. And when we do address it, we’ve learned how to do it in the healthiest way possible. Our counselor gave us specific instructions to begin any expressions of feelings or needs with “I.” For example, instead of “You weren’t listening to me,” we say “I felt that I wasn’t being heard.” We also have learned to be over the top expressing thanks and appreciation, saying “Thank you” and “I appreciate it” so often for the smallest things that it actually felt silly at first. Now, it’s so natural and has made our interactions so much more positive and we front-load requests with appreciation. “I’d really appreciate it if you washed the dishes,” or “It would help me a lot if you got the boys ready for bed.” Sounds simple, I know, but the simple things are often the first things to fall by the wayside and have been such a critical part in us finding joy again.
5. We were able to say the hard things in a safe, controlled environment.
The fact is that there were some things that had been left unsaid for whatever reason. Maybe to avoid a fight or hurting feelings or because keeping them to ourselves just felt easier than getting it out in the open. But in the counseling sessions, we felt free to say at all because we knew we were in a place where it wouldn’t turn into a huge conflict. We knew our counselor would help us get through whatever it was in the most positive way possible and that she’d pull out of us whatever it was that we didn’t know how to pull out ourselves. And she did, every time – she was amazing at her job.
Now, since we’ve been to counseling, our marriage is totally transformed. Things that would have been a huge fight (like me losing our car keys in a Walmart and having to get the car towed home and pay $250 for a replacement) are now met with compassion and kindness. Yes, we still get mad from time to time, but we’re able to work through it so effectively that we’re laughing again before the night is through. It’s so refreshing and has changed the quality of our lives and how well we work together as parents.
Have you ever sought marriage counseling? Tell me about your experience in the comments!