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Marriage counseling can identify and change patterns of interaction that weaken couples’ relationships

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Bethany Sutton2 / 2

But how do couples know at what point those problems have become serious enough to call for intervention by a trained counselor?      

 “Relationships can be so hard,” said Bethany Sutton, licensed marriage and family therapist with The Village Family Service Center in Grand Forks. “The reality is that marriage is difficult; you’re always working on it.”

Conflict and disagreements are to be expected, she said. “They’re inevitable.” 

Every relationship is unique, she said. “What are normal levels of conflict for one couple are totally not normal for another.”   

A plaque on her desk reads: “The first 50 years of marriage are the hardest.” It’s a visual clue that couples have difficult work to do.   

Be proactive

“You hear a lot about pre-marital counseling and pre-divorce counseling,” Sutton said. “But there are so many years in between.” 

“What I find, a lot, is that people come (for counseling) too late,” she said. “For years and years, the problems have built up.”

She urges people to seek therapy to deal with issues that are “bugging” them and get help “to open up and have those conversations you and your partner haven’t wanted to have.

“The more proactive you can be the better.”

Marriage counseling is not so different from other measures people take to maintain health and keep their lives running smoothly, she said.   

“We go to the dentist to get our teeth cleaned. We take the car in for preventive care. Why would we not seek therapy that could prevent major problems later on? 

Taking that first step to get counseling is “scary, terrifying and anxiety-provoking,” she said. 

The root of the fear is that “you feel vulnerable — there’s still a stigma (attached) to seeking mental health services,” even though it has decreased, she said.

“People think (getting counseling) means that they’re ‘failing,’ that it reflects poorly on them as a wife, as a couple, as parents. But, for me, it’s not a weakness, it’s a strength.”

They may postpone taking action out of fear of what others will think, she said. “But if we as a society were more open about (counseling), we’d find that others are getting help, too.”

‘Moment of awareness’

Usually, there’s a “last straw” that prompts realization that the relationship is in trouble, she said.       

“Most couples do come in with a story: there’s been a recent incident, a significant fight or a moment of awareness, and both people are like ‘wow, this is pretty serious.’

“Many of them say, ‘we should have come years ago.’ Most say they could feel (the problem) building.” 

The “biggest issues” that people want to improve are communication skills and conflict resolution, Sutton said,

“Most know they have these issues,” but they haven’t really talked about their underlying feelings — feelings they may be afraid to share because of fear it will start a fight or the other person will “shut down,” she said.

“My job is to create a safe place to have trust,” she said, a place where people can describe what they feel.”

Instead of avoiding the conversations about feelings, Sutton encourages a deeper level of honesty — even if it brings about emotional pain.

“We’re going to move toward it before it’s going to get better,” she said.

Targeting system, not symptoms

“Emotionally focused couples therapy (is used) to track the cycle of interaction” that occurs between partners, she said. The approach targets the system, not the symptoms, of the interaction.

 “We’re looking at the function of the system, and how it has worked in the past.”

It is aimed at understanding how the dynamics in the relationship are perpetuating patterns that are driving them apart.

Oftentimes, “each partner comes in with a whole list of what the other person is doing wrong,” Sutton said. “I will listen … but I ask, ‘what is your role in this?’”

“The ‘blame game’ gets you nowhere.”

Couples sometimes fall into habits of interaction, she said.

“You’re doing this, and the other does that, and it becomes a circle,” she said. “We have each person pull out their role.”

A common pattern among couples is “pursue/withdraw,” she said, whereby “one person comes across as critical and the other withdraws to avoid conflict. “When the ‘withdrawer’ withdraws, the ‘pursuer’ gets more angry, and the withdrawer withdraws even more.”

But “if just one of you does something different, the pattern changes,” she said.

As Sutton facilitates conversations that a couple has avoided having, she “can see how they’re interacting and help them change it.” She tries to teach them “how to have these conversations differently than they have in the past,” she said.

Sutton said that wives don’t always interpret their husbands’ behavior accurately. 

“Even if we don’t think men are communicating or listening, they actually are,” she said. “We may not recognize it (because) it doesn’t match our particular vision or expectation, or how we think communication should work.

“I think men feel shut down, and that’s unfortunate.”  

Why so difficult?

Maintaining healthy relationships is a balancing act that requires “a level of flexibility and adaptability” and a willingness to compromise with and accommodate the other person, Sutton said.

“We come from different backgrounds. We bring our own values and beliefs” to the relationship, she said. “And all of a sudden, we’re trying to bridge these two together.”

The honeymoon phase “doesn’t last long, and you come back to lives that involve work stress, kid stress, extended family stress,” she said. “You see how complicated it gets.”  

Each partner has different experiences.

“You might be having a good day, but your partner is not.”

Sutton said she feels “lucky” to have grown up with a mother who “never painted fairy tales” about marriage or taught that there was such a thing as a picture-perfect marriage.

She learned that marriage “is not easy, it takes work,” she said.

As a result, “if my husband and I have an argument, I’m not going, ‘oh, my gosh, our marriage is ending.’”

Idealized images of marriage that the media and culture portray — or the idea that marriage is easy — “are so dangerous because a perfect marriage doesn’t exist,” she said.  

“There are days when you want to give up, and it’s OK to have those days. Marriage takes a lot of intentional effort, constantly.” 

Bethany Sutton, licensed marriage and family therapist at The Village Family Service Center, offers these tips for couples who are considering counseling:

  • Check with human resources at your workplace for information on services available to you through the Employee Assistance Program. 
  • Check with friends who have worked with a therapist; you can benefit from their experience.
  • Ask if the therapist has experiencing working with couples; both partners need to feel good and comfortable with the therapist. 
  • If after five or six sessions, if you’re not making progress, it’s OK to try different therapists, if each partner doesn’t feel a connection with the therapist. 
  • Couples counseling is offered on a sliding-fee scale at The Village Family Service Center in Grand Forks. For more information, call (701) 746-4584.

Helpful websites:

  • Lists more than 15,000 marriage and family therapists who are members of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy.
  • If you wish to see a therapist who prioritizes commitment as the first option, you can search a registry of therapists who have agreed to a values statement.
  • A leading relationship inventory and skill-building program. 
  • A University of Minnesota’s Couples on the Brink Project; search for “discernment counseling”.