Many times couples seek relational healing because their marriage is rocky. They may blame each other, or one partner is taking full ownership of all the problems. Since marriage is the first and foremost family relationship, the pain of its disintegrating closeness can be profound.
Unfortunately, in our culture the strength of the marriage covenant is denigrated when couples live together without long-term commitment. This in itself creates conflict and insecurity, and greatly impedes the healing that can come through dedication to the marital bond.
Some couples that request counseling are relative newlyweds struggling to understand how their high hopes for the future have turned to disillusionment. Others have been together for many years, but find themselves devastated by an empty marriage and personal lack of fulfillment. And there are those who coexist with “nothing in common” in a “marriage of convenience” for the “sake of the children”. Shattered dreams, nursed wounds, and ongoing anger in the relationship can cause great anguish, yet in truth marriage itself can be an exquisite crucible to heal deep lingering personal hurts.
When the inevitable lessening of romantic love seems to destroy the couple’s bond, this stems from a misunderstanding of how marriage works. Therefore, the first task of couples counseling is to instill hope by reframing relationship goals. We also introduce the idea that conflict itself can be the fuel that burns the marriage to a deeper level of intimacy.
As a child grows from infancy through childhood into young adulthood, he sustains many wounds from imperfect parents and other influential people in his life. Over time he may develop a socialized false self to hide the spontaneous relaxed joyfulness and freewheeling curiosity he felt when small. He is now one of the grown-up walking wounded, trying desperately to live life to the fullest, all the while unconsciously hoping somehow to restore the sense of blissful aliveness he remembers as a little child. He dreams of connection, of unconditional acceptance, of freedom to become all he was created to be.
When two people fall in love, they think they’ve found that innocent ecstasy again. Limitations that kept them locked up inside seem to melt away. They feel transformed: smarter, funnier, happier, and more attractive. In each others’ presence they feel whole. Finally they have safety and protection from life’s fears with another person who completes them.
Inevitably after marriage or cohabitation things just start to go wrong. The veil of illusion slips from their eyes and it seems their partner is really much different than they thought. Sometimes even the qualities originally considered to be attractive grate on them. They realize this person can’t fulfill their deepest expectations. As a result they feel shattered, more alone than ever. The power struggle has begun.
What’s Going On?
Every single person is born with a desire for union, oneness with another human being. The connection with Mother that we experienced in the womb comes closest to typifying the nature of our need for oneness. Marriage, too, is a type of that fulfillment (Isaiah 62: 5; Ephesians 5: 22-33). However, the shadow is not the same as the reality. The sexual and emotional intimacy of a deeply satisfying marriage awakens an even more profound need for joining together with the Creator himself. Expecting another person to fulfill an inborn need for God is doomed to failure and is, in fact, a form of idolatry.
Though no one can take the place of God for someone else, there remains great potential in marriage for healing childhood wounds. We can start to see this by examining our reasons for being attracted to our mate in the first place. Arranged marriages, complete with a bride price of cow or crops, may be a thing of the past in the USA; however, our “free will” choice of partner may have more to do with unconscious needs than we care to admit. The heart is always looking to repair earlier damage.
Each person’s checklist of desired qualities in a mate is in many ways determined by unresolved wounds. We tend to look for partners who can give us what our first caregivers failed to provide. Though on the surface we are seeking only positive traits, we also are attracted to negative traits we saw in our parents, so we can complete unfinished childhood business. The way we define our ideal mate is influenced by the collective impressions of unmet needs from our early environment.
“Opposites” attract because we strive to make up for our perceived lacks. If we are shy we seek someone outgoing. If we are impulsive and disorganized, we want someone cool and rational. We are inclined to look for a “perfect mate” to fulfill qualities we judge missing in ourselves.
For example, perhaps a person grew up in an abusive home where he was punished for expressing anger at injustice or violation; as a result he repressed his own rage at the maltreatment. Now he is drawn to an individual able to stand up for right and fight injustice, because he wants to reconnect with that in himself. Paradoxically, at the same time he might resent his partner for her ability to express his own rejected feelings.
Though all this may sound convoluted and confusing, one can start to sort it out by looking at couples one by one and encouraging them to see themselves as agents of change and healing for one another.
Agents of Change
For marriage renewal in depth counseling to be successful, the couple first needs a verbal commitment sincerely to go through the process of growth together. If the relationship is ready to end, at least both parties must contract to stay together long enough to practice newly learned communication techniques. Without this mutual agreement, counseling can be effective only for the individual, not the couple.
The agreement to try can be called a no-exit strategy, which means divorce is not to be mentioned or considered until they have worked the process. This is because childhood impasses are brought to resolution only when both partners are committed to stick it out together.
Conflict during this time is inevitable; it is a sign that the heart is reaching out for healing, finally admitting its deepest needs. Seen in this context, couples learn that strife is necessary in order to find deep connectedness in relationship. Within the safety of protective guidelines, disagreement is natural and desirable.
Divorcing to end the arguing or escape from uncomfortable feelings solves nothing. Though we may succeed in rejecting our partners, rejecting ourselves is not an option if we wish to grow. Therefore, though our mate is gone we will keep all our problems and the pains they cause. Another danger is that the fear of facing personal issues will easily drive us to the unfortunate temporary anesthesia of a rebound emotional affair.
Romantic love is temporary. It bonds two very different people together for the time it takes to form a lasting attachment, but it was never meant to endure forever. Hopefully by the time the bloom of initial attraction fades the married couple has found enough common ground to commit to the process of healing together. Fixation on romantic love—“falling in love with love”—never works in the long term.
Marriage relationships are kind of like children: they grow and develop through stages of maturity. After the romance ends and the couple individuates from one another, the power struggle begins. Like a child separating from parents and seeking his own identity, the marriage progresses from fantasy toward finding its own bonded identity, comprised of two strong, emotionally healthy individuals. The fun begins when both partners decide to help each other heal.
Many couples give up before the power struggle is over. They may physically separate, or settle for a form of relationship without passion, vision, or deep connectedness. They do not understand that the wonderful joy of true intimacy based on mutual acceptance and respect lies on the other side of the conflict stage. Through depth counseling together both individuals have an opportunity to practice using techniques and insights to work through the inevitable strife of this period.
Coming out of hiding and facing reality as individuals and as a couple has to be the chief goal, if the relationship is to be redesigned to complete the unfinished business of childhood. To this end it is often very helpful for both partners to go through the process of heart healing together. While old wounds are excised, each one sees the other person with more compassion. At the same time, needs are exposed and the other partner is coached as to how he can meet them. Instead of enemies, both are encouraged to be each others’ advocate. Partners are given practice in the sessions talking about their deep hurts and revealing what makes them feel affirmed and loved.
After verbal sharing comes doing. This is when both mates can discover that the process of giving the other person what they themselves really need may produce great anxiety. If giving causes stress, the affected partner must be personally committed to examining his own roots of discomfort and defenses. Inevitably, by making the conscious choice to extend to the mate what one wants to be given, each partner is stretched beyond his comfort zone and forced to grow.
Openness to Change
Marriage is a great venue for lifelong change, but we must be willing sometimes to let go our demands in order to create a safe place for one another. In couples counseling we observe certain guidelines and practice several specific techniques when working with spouses to heal their marriage.
We ask that blame and criticism be avoided in dialogues. Instead, “I messages” are insisted upon. Criticism is like whining; it is unproductive and does not promote positive action. We help the couple learn new methods to verbalize frustrations, and we teach them to ask for what they want instead of reacting to what they assume the other person should know. Indeed the word “should” itself is taken out of conflict resolution, because “should” is too often used to manipulate and control.
We encourage each mate to start practicing simple acts of loving-kindness for the other. A good tool for promoting this is Gary Chapman’s book The Five Love Languages, which evaluates a person’s preferred ways of receiving affirmation based on certain criteria. The book’s categories for love languages are: physical touch and closeness, quality time, gift giving, words of encouragement, and acts of service.
Truly most couples’ problems can be traced to failures in communication. It is extremely frustrating to be stuck in a never-ending argument with a spouse. No matter how hard you try, it seems the underlying issue is neither identified nor addressed, so there is no resolution. Professional counselors are trained to search for hidden roots of incompatibility, provided both marriage partners are willing to own their part in the disagreement.
Here is a sample incompatibility scenario: A boy’s father left home when he was five years old. He watched the car drive away, thinking Dad would return soon, but he never did. As a result, the child developed a dread of rejection and abandonment. These fears went underground to manifest today as jealousy and control.
His wife experienced loss as a child, too. Her mother was diagnosed with clinical depression and attempted suicide when she was ten. The daughter’s defensive reaction to these circumstances was exaggerated independence. As an adult, she still pushes anyone away who appears needy and vulnerable.
Likely this couple will stay locked in irresolvable conflict until their souls can find a safe place to rest and tools to heal. Together in the protected and controlled environment of the counseling room they come to know each others’ history through individual heart healing and empathic dialogue with one another. Through this process, destructive patterns are replaced by understanding, sympathy, and commitment to reach out at the points of the other’s insecurity and brokenness.
Emotional healing is always difficult because it is appropriated by processing pain. Likewise an honest open marriage is a gift acquired only through hard work and inevitable hurts. We regain our true selves while facilitating healing in each other, but it does require courage. As long as one holds on to “fig leaves” and false selves because he has rejected parts of who he really is, he will never believe his partner can truly love and accept him. Thus he and the marriage will remain trapped in lies, as he projects to his mate disowned parts of himself. When couples learn to salvage and take responsibility for their rejected parts, they usually find their partners more than willing to accept them.
Self-hatred keeps us from loving another (Matthew 22: 39). Gradually, as a person is able to accept self, she gains compassion to reach out to her partner and willingly offer the words and actions her mate needs in order to grow. This “giving what we need to receive” requires facing our own fear of change and going beyond our natural comfort zones (Matthew 25: 40). When we can see and respect our mate as he is, not as an extension of self and personal needs, we are ready to listen and to alter our behavior for his sake.
A marriage disentangled from the unhealed issues of childhood may be re-designed with vision and purpose. The couple that defines a dream for their marriage and family around stated values and goals imagines the structure they would like to have. Writing this down and revising it periodically reminds them what they are striving toward. Even while adjusting their unique vision to changing life circumstances, they can still keep the big picture in mind through the inevitable crises and minutiae of life.
Children, reared in an atmosphere where parents have a sense of purpose and are committed to healing one anothers brokenness, experience grace and sensitivity at home. Such a family creates an atmosphere of restoration, both for them and for those outside the nuclear structure.