Marriage counseling can identify and change patterns of interaction

Grand Forks HeraldMay 3, 2014 

  • Marriage counseling tips

    Bethany Sutton, licensed marriage and family therapist at The Village Family Service Center in Grand Forks, N.D., 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.

It’s the rare marriage that doesn’t go through rough patches now and then. Sometimes outside help from a professional therapist is needed to keep a shaky marriage from collapsing under the accumulated weight of unresolved problems.

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, N.D. “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 reminder that couples have difficult work to do.

“You hear a lot about premarital 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.”

Routine maintenance

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.”

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.”

Communicate, resolve

The biggest skills people want to improve are communication 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, 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.

“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.”

A circle of conflict

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.

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.”

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service