How to Be Your Own Marriage Therapist

How to Be Your Own Marriage Therapist

How happy are you in your marriage? Your answer could be “very” or “not very” depending on when you are asked the question. All spouses go through times in their marriage when everything seems to be going right‑ they are in love and feel terrific about their relationship. But there are other times when they may feel emotionally distant from each other and home becomes a place of misery. Some begin to think of separation and divorce.

One spouse said during the first year of marriage:

I can’t tell you how good it feels to be married. I’ve always dreamed of being in love and being married. It’s finally happened. We do almost everything together and can’t seem to get enough of each other. It is total Nirvana.

Seven years later, this same spouse said:

We have grown apart and live in separate worlds. We have become absorbed by our jobs, don’t spend time together and when we do get together we seem to criticize each other constantly. I’ve gotten to the point that I don’t enjoy going home anymore.

All the studies on marital happiness say the same thing‑ the longer a couple is married, the less happy they are. The goal of this chapter is to try and stop the drift toward marital unhappiness and to examine ways in which spouses can accelerate their love, commitment, and enjoyment of each other.

Although about half of the over 2 million couples getting married annually will eventually get divorced, the other half will stay married. And not all of them will stay with each other because they are stuck with each other. Although we do not hear about them often enough, there are spouses who have been married for decades who thoroughly enjoy the life they share. 

what is marriage?

In its most basic form marriage is a love relationship in which the partners legally live together in an attempt to maximize their happiness with each other.

A Love Relationship

Love and the good feelings it engenders are at the heart of why an individual chooses to marry. Never mind that there is social pressure (all of one’s friends are married) or society (in the form of one’s parents) says that you must be married to someone; people get married because they say they are in love. And once this emotion takes hold, the person is drawn as though by magnetism down the aisle to the altar.

A Legal Live‑In Relationship

Some of the over 5 million couples who are living together view themselves as married.   They say that the real marriage is in the heart and that they have an emotional bond with each other. Although they may be sincere, our society does not view such relationships as marriage relationships. With the exception of some states which recognize common-law marriages, our society takes the position that a couple must meet the legal requirements for marriage (age, not already married, etc.) and pledge themselves to each other before a clergyman or justice of the peace in front of two witnesses. Only then are they allowed to inherit from each other and are their children given complete social approval. Life and health insurance companies pay off for spouses but not for live‑in companions. Marriage is a legal relationship, and just as the partners must check in with the state in which they reside to get married they must check out with the state if they decide to get divorced.

A Place for Happiness

Most spouses view the legal requirements for marriage as a nuisance and pay little attention to them. They are more concerned with enjoying each other and with building a loving and growing relationship. Happiness is the goal for most spouses. Just as they are in love and happy when they get married, they intend to continue their love and happiness. When these go, they ask themselves why they are staying married.

what is marriage therapy?

Marriage therapy involves a therapist working with spouses with the goal of helping them to be happier with each other. In some cases the spouses are not sure if they want to stay together, so the goal of working with the spouse or spouses is to help them decide what they want to do. This chapter assumes that you are committed to your partner and that your goal is to learn more about how to improve your relationship.  In this chapter, we focus on a behavioral approach to marriage counseling.

What is behavioral marriage therapy?

The behavioral marriage therapist believes that spouses are unhappy because each is engaging in behavior that upsets the other. The goal of therapy is to identify what each spouse wants the other to do, negotiate an exchange of those behaviors, and begin to engage in the new behaviors. For example, there is something that your partner does which upsets you and you would be happier if your partner stopped this behavior or, better still,  replaced it with a positive behavior. One wife said that her husband’s criticizing her made her upset and that she would be happier if he stopped saying bad things about her and started complimenting her.

Once the partner stops the negative behavior and starts the positive behavior, the spouse begins to feel happier.   “I don’t feel like I’m walking on eggs around him all the time now that I know he is going to have only good things to say about me,” she said.

Behavioral Marriage Therapy Is Scientific

Behavioral marriage therapy is scientific in that it is based on two assumptions. As just mentioned, the way you feel about your spouse is based on your spouse’s behavior toward you. When your spouse compliments you, is affectionate, and tells you that he or she loves you, you feel good and are happy to be married to your partner.  But when your partner criticizes you, doesn’t want to touch you, and tells you that he or she hates you, you feel bad and may wish you were not married to your partner.          

Second, the behavior you engage in has been learned. If you are an affectionate person and find it easy to touch and show your affection, you most likely learned this by observing your parents being affectionate with each other. If they were not affectionate and you never saw them touch each other, chances are you may not be affectionate either.  This method of learning is called modeling. Having observed your parents= behavior, you tend to do what they did. Of course, there are things your parents did that you may avoid doing. For example, if one of them was a heavy drinker, you may have reverse modeled so that you do not drink at all because of the negative consequences you saw that alcohol had for them.

In addition to modeling, there are other principles of learning that help to explain why we do what we do in marriage. Two of these principles are reward and punishment. The reward principle says that spouses tend to do things they are rewarded for. If you call your spouse when you are going to be late and your spouse thanks you for doing so, you are more likely to call your spouse in the future when you will be late. The point for all of us as spouses is to make sure that we are reinforcing the behaviors we want our spouses to engage in.   

If we don’t take responsibility for rewarding (thank you, affection, etc.) the behaviors we want our partners to engage in, it is unrealistic for us to expect them to do things we like. One wife complained that her husband never asked her to go anywhere with him. But the husband said that he used to ask her to go with him when they were first married but since she always made an excuse not to go (translation‑ did not reinforce him for asking her), he stopped asking.

The punishment principle is just the opposite of the reward principle. If you ask your spouse, “How was your day?” and your spouse says, “Don’t ask me any questions about my day, I’m tired of talking,” and walks into another room, you will soon learn not to ask that question. We don’t continue to do things that we are punished for.

Behavioral Marriage Therapy Is Easy to Understand

These two principles of learning help to provide an explanation of why you and your spouse may do certain things and not others. If your spouse doesn’t do something that you like, perhaps it is because your spouse has not been rewarded for doing so or has been punished for doing so.

If you don’t do something your spouse wants you to do, perhaps it is because your spouse has not rewarded you for doing so or has punished you for doing so. There is nothing mystical about human behavior. In many cases it is simply a function of what has been rewarded or punished or, in other cases, learned through modeling.

And since behavior is learned, it can be changed. So if you and your partner have learned negative ways of relating to each other, you can replace these by learning more positive ways of relating.

Behavioral Marriage Therapy Is Easy to Apply

Later in this chapter we will discuss behavior contracts and how to use them in your relationship. Behavior contracts are useful ways of helping to ensure that you and your partner do what makes the other happy. The other recommendations made throughout the book are also practical and easy to apply. Too much has been made of the word “therapy” so that people have become afraid of it.   It is simply a word which suggests help and, in many cases, we can help ourselves.

what marriage therapists do (That You Can Do for Yourself)

The going rate for private marital therapy is between $60 and $100. But there is often an unnecessary mystique about what happens behind the closed doors of a therapy session in progress. Some of what happens you can do yourself.

Reaffirm Commitment to Your Relationship

One of the first items a therapist establishes is the goal of the couple seeking therapy. Although some are ambivalent about whether to remain in the marriage, most have already decided that they want to find a way through their current impasse. Commitment to the relationship is important if the relationship is to improve. If the couple does not want the relationship to improve, it won’t.

Confront Issues

After confirming that improving your relationship is the goal, the therapist asks, “What would you like to talk about? What are you concerned about today?” and encourages you to talk about what is troubling you and your partner. The goal during this stage of therapy is to identify the source of the bad feelings you are experiencing and to find out if you want to confront the issue.

For example, one woman was trembling with frustration, anger, and emotional pain as a result of having discovered that her husband had been having an affair. She had been married for nine years and had a 2-and-a-half-year-old son. She knew that she was upset about what she had discovered but didn’t know if she should look the other way and act as though she was unaware that he was seeing another woman. Although the therapist did not make up her mind for her, he pointed out the consequences of keeping her head in the sand. If she did not confront him, she was giving him the green light to continue. Not only would he be likely to escalate the relationship with the other woman, but he could easily establish a pattern of having other women in his life.  If she did not confront the issue now, she might have a larger issue later.

Not all marital problems involve affairs. Other problems include sex, work, money,  and a long list of other issues. In making your decision about whether to confront an issue, keep in mind that if you don’t resolve a problem, you keep it and that hoping that it will go away is usually just that‑ hope.

On the other hand, it would be foolish to assume that every problem must be confronted. Indeed there are times to ride out the storm. For example, one husband was upset because his wife’s invalid mother had moved in with them. He felt that their home had become a nursing home and that his wife was always tied up with the care of her mother. But rather than confront his wife and force her to make choices between him and her mother, he said nothing. And within a year, the mother died. Although his wife’s difficulty in adjusting to her mother’s death was another problem, in retrospect, he was glad he hadn=t made an issue over her invalid mother=s being in the home with them.

In deciding to confront an issue, you might ask yourself these questions:

1. How much does this problem upset me?  Is this a major issue or is this something I can adjust to?

2. How long is this problem likely to go on? When is too long?

3. If I don’t confront this problem, how will I feel? 

 4. How will my partner react if I bring this issue up?

5. What will be the outcome if I do bring this problem up? Will we work it out so that we both feel better about it or will discussing this push us farther apart?           

6. Am I willing to get divorced over this issue if I bring it up and my partner won’t help resolve it?

7. What behaviors should I, and my partner, change?

Assuming that you decide to confront an issue, think of what you want to happen as a result of the discussion. And to focus your thinking even more, begin to ask yourself exactly what you want your partner to do differently to help resolve the problem. For example, if an affair is the problem, you would want your partner to stop seeing the other person and have no more contact. If your partner is too absorbed in her work, you might want her to cut back on the time she spends at the office and spend some evenings and week ends with you. Rather than having in mind some vague outcome of your discussion, identify exactly what behaviors you would like your partner to engage in.

Being your own marriage therapist means not only identifying what’s wrong in your relationship, but what you want to be different. And this is true for both you and your partner. Just as you have your own list of what your partner does that upsets you and what you want him or her to do differently, your partner will also have a list (ask and you’ll see). There are things that you do which upset him or her and which he or she would like you to change.

Exchange Behaviors

It is helpful to think of marriage as a relationship in which you exchange behaviors with your partner. You do what your partner wants and vice versa. But two things are important in making the exchange. The first is that the behavior you give is exactly the one that your partner wants, not what you think your partner wants. For example, one husband said that he was a good provider because he took the family on a vacation to the Bahamas. But his wife said that her husband spent the vacation fishing and didn’t spend any time with her or their children. “I want him to spend time with me and with us as a family,” she said. Second, the frequency with which you do the things that your partner wants is also important. Only to spend a few minutes once a week when your partner wants time every day is too great a gap between the expectation and the reality. Or to go on a nice vacation together but to do so once in ten years when your partner wants it annually is not enough. So not only is it important that you and your partner do things for each other but that you do them as frequently as each of you want..

Some people say that to speak of a good marriage in terms of specific behaviors and frequency of occurrence is to miss the point. They feel that good relationships should come naturally and spontaneously and that to discuss exchanging behaviors is artificial and contrived. “If I have to go through all that, it’s not worth it,” said one spouse. And for some spouses, it is too much work to talk about what behaviors each needs to change for the other. They feel it is just easier to get divorced and to find someone else with whom the communication seems to flow. 

But before deciding that specifying behaviors to trade is too stilted, let’s look at the alternative.  Suppose we don’t talk about what we want and what our partner wants changed in the relationship?  And suppose we don’t begin to relate to each other differently in terms of doing what our partner wants in exchange for our partner=s doing what we want? The answer is that things will stay the same‑ we will continue to do things (or avoid doing things) that our partner wants us to do and our partner will do the same. And if these behaviors or their frequency is unsatisfactory, our feelings won’t have a chance to improve. The most important function of a marriage therapist is to find out what each partner wants the other to do and get them to trade behaviors. You can be your own marriage therapist by doing just that.

Partners are sometimes anxious about actually talking with the partner about making a behavioral exchange. “How do I bring it up?” they ask. You might consider saying something like the following to your partner.

You know that I love you and care about you. And we both know that lately neither of us has been as happy as we have been in the past.   I’ve been reading a book about how we can improve things  ourselves and would like to suggest that we simply tell each other what we want each other to do and begin doing those things for each other. Sometimes you get upset with me and wish I wouldn’t do certain things. Please tell me what you would like me to do so that I can begin to engage in these behaviors and you can avoid these negative feelings about me.  And, of course, there are things that you do that upset me. I’ll suggest things that I would like for you to do so that I can avoid getting upset. We can each begin to do what the other has asked and that should help us to avoid some of these unpleasant feelings we have been having. Okay?

Although most partners are willing to talk about their relationship with each other, some will not.  Some are defensive (deny that there is a problem or blame you for it) or are completely noncommunicative (shut you out, won’t talk).  If this is the case in your relationship, there are several options. One is to drop the issue and hope that your partner will feel different about discussing the issue in a few days. All spouses go through different moods and sometimes we just don’t want to deal with an issue. But at other times we are more open. Sometimes it is best to just give the partner some time.           

Another alternative is to change your behavior even though your partner is unwilling to discuss changing his or hers. One wife said that even though her husband spent four week nights at the office each week and wouldn’t discuss changing his schedule, she was going to stop nagging him about it. Not surprisingly, after she stopped nagging him, he began to spend more nights at home.

What marriage therapists do (That You Can’t Do for Yourself)

Although identifying and trading behaviors is something that you can do as your own marriage therapist, there are some aspects of the marriage relationship which you should not try to treat yourself.   These include severe depression, suicide thoughts, and alcoholism.

Don=t Try to Treat Severe Depression Yourself

Severe depression (not just a headache and going to bed early) is characterized by withdrawal, loss of appetite, and difficulty in sleeping. Although we all have periods in which we do not want to interact with others, or aren’t hungry, or can’t sleep, when these three occur together and over a long period of time (month), depression has set in. And a loving spouse doesn’t seem to lift the depression.  Part of being your own marriage therapist is to know when you need to refer yourself or your partner to outside help. And this is one of those times.

Don=t Try to Treat Suicide Thoughts Yourself

Related to severe depression are suicide thoughts. The severely depressed person will sometimes want to die as a way of escaping the sad feelings she or he is experiencing. Should you have suicide thoughts or your partner speak of them-” I just want to die”-call your local mental health center immediately.  While for some people, suicide thoughts are usually temporary and the person counters such thoughts with “I couldn’t do that” or “Who would take care of my children?” or “I’ll get over these feelings,” as one therapist said, “When you’re dead, you’re dead a long time.” So see a therapist and work on these thoughts together. You and your partner will be able to handle many of your concerns yourself. But suicide is an issue which requires professional help. A psychiatrist is the professional of choice because he or she can prescribe medication if necessary.

Don=t Try to Treat Alcoholism by Yourself

Alcohol and its negative impact on spouses and their family is an issue we address in the next chapter.  For now, get professional help if alcohol is a problem for either spouse and don=t try to treat this one yourself.

Don=t Try to Treat Spouse Abuse Yourself

Spouse abuse is another concern that is beyond the scope of this book and requires professional help. In a recent study, one third of the spouses reported violence in their relationship. This was defined as pushing, grabbing, shoving, hitting the partner with something, throwing something at the partner, slapping, or beating the partner up. 

Although the husband usually is violent toward the wife, and usually after he has been drinking, the wife may also be violent and alcohol may not be involved.  Typical issues over which violence erupts are sex, money, and kids. And sometimes the issues are trivial. One wife described the following incident:

He had come home from work and had been drinking. He was late and I’d started cooking his meal, but I put it aside, you know, when he didn’t come in. Then when he came in I started heating it because the meal wasn’t ready. I was standing at the sink, and he just came up and gave me a punch in the stomach.    I just sort of stood there and I couldn’t get my breath, and that was the first time I remember that he ever hit me.   It was only because his tea wasn’t ready on the table for him.

The wife in this situation may choose to ignore the abuse, call the police, go to a shelter for battered women, go to her mother or to a friend, or hit back. Although all of these responses seem to work sometimes, the best possible response is to wait until another time and suggest that the two of them see a therapist. Abuse of this nature is likely to escalate unless there is outside intervention to explore the causes of the conflict and set up a plan to eliminate it.

Marital rape is another expression of spouse abuse.  Fifteen percent of 644 married women in one study reported that they had been sexually assaulted by their husbands. Seeking outside help is imperative in that the interaction patterns which lead to one rape are likely to continue and result in subsequent rapes. Call a therapist. Don’t try to treat this yourself. And if your partner won’t go to therapy, go alone.

Let=s summarize this section.  You know that the way you feel about your partner (and the way your partner feels about you) is based on your partner’s behavior toward you. By identifying the behaviors that each of you wants the other to engage in and exchanging these behaviors, you can set the context of an improved relationship.

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