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Wednesday, June 13, 2018

What we’ll discuss at your first marriage counselling session

Photo by Kari Shea on Unsplash

The very first marriage counselling session is vital for setting the stage for the journey that ought to be the marriage repair that the couple require. Some are tune-ups, and some are overhauls, and some, I’m afraid to say, are salvage for the scrapyard. But there ought always to be hope for some form of reconciliation for peace, whatever the state of any relationship, together or separated.
Naturally, the couple will be keen to dive right into the present issues, particularly to deal with dysfunction around communication and conflict resolution. But, believe it or not, there’s something more primary.
Surely, we will discuss much more than the following dozen points of an unexhaustive list, but we must have some structure to be guided by God by; structure gives purpose and hope; it sets direction; it gives us something to trust as we seek God for the help only the Lord can provide.
I’ve learned the need for structure the hard way; when I trusted a process of guiding couples without structure and did them and I and God a great disservice. So, structure is necessary. It is the guiding light of God’s holy wisdom.
Here are some of the general points that need to be part of the first session, in no particular order:
1.             What work have you done on your marriage previously? Have you done a Prepare-Enrich inventory or similar? What do you already know about yourselves from previous marriage counsellors and mentors. What tools are you already equipped with? We need wisdom to quantify where the issues reside, and what to work on first.
2.             Teaching will be provided. It goes without saying that a lot of time can be needlessly consumed and wasted on red herrings that end up making matters worse. Getting torn up on present conflicts that only retraumatise, for instance. Marriage counselling is a place not only to hash things out, it’s a place to learn and discover. The counselling relationship is intended to model safety. It needs structure. Teaching the tools to equip the couple is an inherent part of good structure. I teach PeaceWise, Transactional Analysis, boundaries in marriage, languages of apology, among a host of other tools depending on what’s required.
3.             If you’re committed Christians, what is your theology for marriage? The hope is there is agreement on whether an egalitarian or complementarian approach is best. My bent is toward an egalitarian approach, but if the couple in the room with me are both won to complementarianism then that’s fine with me. There must be a shared vision for marriage. Most of all, what is most fundamental about marriage is that it is about loving the other to such a degree that we are consumed less by our desires and more by what we can give them, this gift that God has placed into our hands for companionship and safekeeping.
4.             Talking about vision, and this is pertinent especially for those in second marriages and blended families, I like to know what vision the marriage partners have for cohesive family in the broader context of the word ‘family’ i.e. with ex-partners and families. My preference is for a vision where the broader family can get along and do so without faking it. Though sometimes we do need to fake it until we make it. A cohesive broader family context is such a gift to the children. It is a vision for the best kind of reconciliation possible in a broken circumstance. How will celebrations of our children’s eighteenth and twenty-first’s possibly be joyous occasions where parents and step-parents get along as friends, or at least be friendly? It has to be a vision we work toward.
5.             What gauge do you have for your own baggage? What self-awareness is there? And is that perception of good self-awareness shared by your partner? Most of us think we’re further along the growth path than we actually are. Does your partner think you are self-aware, and of equal importance, able to manage your emotionality? We all have more work to do; we never truly ‘arrive’. Our perceptions of our own humility and character, in the context of marriage, are often bloated beyond reality. And that is okay. That is pretty normal. It’s time to be brutally honest. Honesty will never kill us, but pride can end marriages or at least kill them of the kind of life they ought to have. We need also to recognise that growth is dependent on a change of mind at a heart level; only a change of mind at a heart level (Christians call it repentance) creates sustained changed behaviour.
6.             For those in second marriages, what baggage are you reading into your present partner from previous partner/s? It’s common to see in a present partner what we struggled with and ultimately rejected in our former partner. It is often a default, because our vision is now piqued or skewed a particular way. Could it be true that we might have a bend toward a certain kind of perception? What stories are we unconsciously saying to ourselves? Is a skewed perception preventing you from seeing what is virtuous and acceptable about your present partner? Baggage will always prevent contentment in marriage.
7.             A warning needs to be issued: please expect matters in your marriage to get worse before they get better. Too many times we see that marriage counselling as the silver bullet when in all reality most people leave counselling far too late when significant damage has already been done. Undoing the damage takes time. A fair expectation for change is 1-2 years. Why should we be in a hurry? What’s most important is the willingness to begin the work, and the commitment to follow it through. All I’m saying is it is challenging work. Counselling is necessary, but most of the work is done by the couples applying the principles spoken about. It all takes time.
8.             Two questions for me as the helper in the session are, 1) ‘Lord, make me aware of what I need to be aware of in this situation, Amen’; and 2) ‘Lord, am I seeking to serve this couple or to exert power?’ I am a helper and I am responsible. I recognise I have power, and that power is influence. It’s a precious thing I must take seriously. I want you to know that I want you to challenge me if ever you feel it necessary. I am aware of the power I have and need to help you. But, relationally we are equals here. That said, I want you to be aware that your perceptions are yours alone, and they need to be tested with others to see if they are shared, otherwise they are only your truth and not the truth.
9.             As dynamics develop in the session itself, the above questions need to be at the forefront of my mind and thinking, even to the extent of discerning whether each partner in the couple is seeking to serve the other or to exert power. We are always aiming to serve the other and die to self. Wherever we cannot model that there will be a gentle bringing to account.
10.        Where does the Third Entity feature in your marriage? Is God central in the Presence of your marriage? Do you take things to the Lord, individually about yourselves and together as a couple? Does God convict you of your sin? Does God help you get the log out of your own eye? Does that then lead to confession, apology, forgiveness and restoration? Again, I teach PeaceWise.
11.        I want you to leave your first session, and do this in subsequent sessions too, prepared not to react angrily with your partner for what they said or did not say or for anything they did. Take it to the Lord for a day or three. Raise it only in a productive way. Value and exemplify the safety we will model in this counselling process.
12.        Finally, I am going to ask you to trust me. This may be a strange request given that you are already trusting me. But what I am asking is that you would continue to trust my guidance, especially when it is one of you only who wants to rescind that trust. If one still trusts, the other ought to trust me enough to share with me how I’ve hurt you or missed you. Challenge me. If you both are of one accord to remove your trust I will respect your decision. By all means, test what I say with others. If it isn’t from God, it needs to die.

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