History of MFL
"Over 30 years ago Sue and I became involved in marriage education & counselling - a new adventure. Recently I decided to document some our adventures and hope you enjoy the stories." -Michael
*images from our 1994 Shalom In Touch Magazine
Many years ago, Sue and I decided we needed some knowledge to help people we met who needed some counselling, so we enrolled in a correspondence course run by a group of Sydney Nuns. All I remember is the emphasis on what they called "non-directional counselling" and the consequent reservations on "giving advice". I also remember Susan getting higher marks than me for the few assignments we handed in! This had potential relationship problems as I developed petty jealousies, thought Sue was teacher’s pet, (and how would I handle it if she passed and I didn't ?!) Eventually we dropped out of the course and the household tension level dropped accordingly.
Lesson: Choose your education wisely.
Family groups and intergenerational learning:
We were both fascinated with the power of family therapy after reading Virginia Satir's book on the subject. Michael wanted to do some training with a therapist in Adelaide but our own family commitments got in the way. A story repeated in our life a few times!
We were also influenced by some workshops and articles of Dr Moira Eastman and Margaret Sawin about intergenerational learning. As was our habit we immediately put theory into practice. No formal training, no committees to answer to, no dealing with children checks in those days, just contacting families in the area to see if they were interested. We had the advantage of flexible time and the use of one of our cottages on Sunday evenings when guests had gone. The important thing was to make it fun and interesting for everyone. We had about five families turn up once a month for a meal and doing stuff which taught lessons about family dynamics. The age of participants was from three to seventy-three and we made a real attempt to treat everyone equally. Typical examples of what we did: stand a five-year-old on a chair and an adult kneeling in front of them to have a conversation so each got the idea of what it was like to be the others height. Play reverse roles in the kitchen, having the parents turn up demanding a meal whilst the teenagers take the role of parents coming home from work or cooking the evening meal. Getting all participants to write things on paper around their neck about what they are good at and what they are trying to improve, then asking others to write about them on a sheet attached to their back. There were many exercises which were both fun and thought provoking. Even teenagers would participate, and parents were wrapped.
We never did evaluation sheets over the years we ran our programme but it was the best example of enriching family life we have come across. At least Moira was appreciative when we told her about it. At that time, I don’t think anyone else had tried out her theories.
The gender imbalances of a counselling session:
We have touched on this subject in the article about transference but we think this subject can be so politically incorrect that the important dynamic is overlooked. The majority of counsellors we have come across are female and when a couple have a session with them it is a fact that in the room are two females and one male and the guy is very aware of that. From his perspective it means that subjects such as intimacy are spoken of in female terms and language, and basics of communication will be assumed both by the wife and the counsellor because of their common female experience. Much of this dynamic can be overcome by a skilled counsellor of either sex but awareness of the what is happening in the room is crucial. That is why Sue and I have found couple to couple counselling to have unique advantages. If Sue made a statement which was a typical "female" way of looking at things, I could counter with a blokey comment, instantly keeping the guy in the process and feeling accepted. For example, me suggesting there is a degree of intimacy in sitting next to your wife whilst watching the football. Enough said before I get into trouble with you great counsellors out there!
The movement away from modelling to adult education:
During the 1980's we first noticed a change in the way marriage education was framed, which had many parallels in other helping fields. The Marriage Educators Association of Australian Changed to become The Marriage and Relationship Educators Association of Australia or MAREAA for short. This was to recognise that as society changed many couples being dealt with, were not in fact married, and the material we used was just as applicable to de facto couples as to couples traditionally married. Attempts were made to standardise qualifications, register trainers, create standards, ethical rules of conduct and other disciplines which are associated with many other professions. Along with this came an educative movement away from didactic or "lecturing" methods toward more open and experiential learning which was said to be more effective in the field of adult education. There was also the mindset concerned with fear of being sued for negligence, so consequently insurance became an issue which in turn propelled the need for standardisation and "qualifications".
The problem that we saw in this was that marriage was a traditional value held dear by many people and that if this value was not upheld by the organisation then there was an absurdity as to how marriage was to be "taught". For example, in the criteria required to be a trainer or on the board of MAREAA, there were demands to be an experienced educator, tertiary qualified, and many other standards, but nowhere was there any requirement for anyone to be actually married! Furthermore, as the 1980's rolled on there a school of thought that modelling behaviour and values, was out of date. The educator was to be neutral in all things, without any agenda or fixed opinions on how a couple should conduct their relationship. How they happened to live their lives was irrelevant. We thought this naive because we believe clients pick up an enormous amount of information about the facilitator's values, body language, attitude and integrity, without them saying a word. Above all the client wants to be assured of the facilitator’s credibility so a degree of trust can begin and consequently real positive change initiated. This does not mean the facilitator imposes values or lifestyles on the couple, it just means admitting that who you are as a person and a couple has a major influence on credibility, trust and influence. In other words, being successfully married for an extended period was of itself an impressive qualification, which along with experience and knowledge, should be recognised for its true worth.
Dealing with the rational person who blamed the partner and felt so self-righteous:
The triangulation we mentioned in another section was often attempted by someone who made an art form of being reasonable and logical. They had read all the right books about relationships, kept a quiet, steady voice, and always gave the message that their need to change or look inward to their own stuff was far less than the "ignorance" of their partner. Things would only get better if the other changed. A subtler version of this was when this seemingly clever person would actually take on greater responsibility for the relationship than was necessary. They "should have seen this coming" and they "really love their partner". They just did not “feel in love any more". This would fool us into thinking the relationship was better than it actually was because it appeared this educated, rational person, could handle all situations arising in the relationship. They could even be the counsellor too if they wanted! (This was a real problem when your client was a psychologist!)
We found these relationships lacked passion and free expressions of the heart. You could be sure the sex life was pretty ordinary or non-existent, and deep-down needs were not being met.
Sometimes both partners were like this in which case we had to resort to the basic questions like "What brought you here? What do you wish to achieve? What would the relationship look like if you achieved this? What are you willing to do to reach this goal?"
The pursuer and the pursued:
In most relationships we found that one partner wanted more intimacy and connection than the other. This could apply to sex, conversation, time together or the overall standard of the relationship. Inevitably the partner who was pursued the most for this connection had the greater power as they alone could decide whether to accede to the request or not. It seemed the more the pursuer pursued the more their partner felt smothered or demanded upon and consequently moved further away in a metaphorical sense and sometimes in a physical sense.
The only recourse for the pursuer is to back off, be patient, and accept with love that not all their needs will be met by their partner. The challenge of "self-containment " is theirs.
The pursued must try to understand the desires of their partner, but not in a patronising "giving in" way. Instead they need to look at the bigger picture of preserving their relationship and honouring, with as little compromise as possible, the person they love and decided to marry. It is surprising how the “pursued” attitude can change if all of a sudden, they find themselves no longer pursued!
The Messiah Trap:
Sue and I loved working with people in the caring professions. Many have a need for the nurturing they so freely give to others. Once we facilitated a workshop in Canberra titled The Messiah Trap” and we followed this up many times when dealing with stressed people in the helping industry.
The workshop was based on a book of that title written by Carmen Berry, subtitled When Helping you is Hurting Me.
Basically, it is all about two "lies" which continuously circulate in the heads of people drawn to helping professions, which if not examined, very easily lead to stress, resentments and burnout.
These assumptions are:
1. My needs come last
2. If I don't do this job, no one else will. (I am both responsible and irreplaceable).
In a workshop situation we found most people identified with these thoughts, and by bringing them to the light, individuals were empowered to make better decisions in the workplace and in other aspects of their lives. The participants in the Canberra workshop were all female and a mix of teachers, social worker, psychologists and nurses. I remember asking them "When you were in primary school, how many of you were considered 'good girls’?" All raised their hands!
Couple modelling and demonstrating to clients, giving your personal story:
When couples come to see us, they are focused primarily on themselves and on the issues that brought them to us. But they are also assessing us at an almost unconscious level.
Our eye movement, body language, voice, accent, and how Sue and I relate to each other provide fundamental information to them about whether they can trust us and whether we are likely to be useful to them. These signals are impossible to fake. We have to be authentic. Along with these impressions we also convey our story when appropriate. How it was for us. How we handled a given situation. What results we achieved. These anecdotes are not suggesting the couple are just like us, or even to model our behaviour. What we try to do is normalise their situation, demonstrate they are not alone, and give them hope for change.
Good counselling and relationship education require vulnerability of the counsellor. Somehow a " connection" has to be made so the couple can travel with you on the journey to a better relationship. This is one of the big strengths of counselling as a couple. It is not that your storytelling is the same as theirs. You may be in a completely different socioeconomic group from the client and your history may be vastly different, but you are still a couple talking to another couple who want positive change and are looking to you for some guidance. This is why the counsellor’s own story and anecdotes, along with knowledge, can be so important to share. We have a rule not to share any unresolved issue in our relationship during a session.
Marriage Education activities:
For a few years we ran marriage preparation courses for couples, mainly referred to us by the local church. This consisted of day session for about seven or eight couples which we considered the ideal group size. During these courses we used various exercises learnt at conferences and workshops we so keenly attended. The aim was to get couples thinking about issues relevant to their lives and to start talking to each other about these issues. They were all interesting, fun, and participants were enthusiastic in an adult educational setting.
Examples: We took the couples out to our clothes line and asked volunteers to hang an item of clothing on the line. Often each partner had an entirely different way of hanging out the washing which they had learnt from their parents; some upside down, others right way up, and others folded over the line. It didn't matter. What mattered was the influence of family of origin and the respect needed by each partner for the way the other did things.
We would give everyone a list of alternative ways to spend money such as concert tickets, a dinner out, health insurance, a surfboard, an evening gown. We then asked them to order the expenditure according to their priorities. This was done individually and then partners compared their lists. This exercise exposes how values, sometimes unexamined, dictate spending and our allocation of time. Differing values seems to be a major cause of long-term conflict between couples.
When an exercise was completed it was important for the couples to reflect on what they had learnt and whether any adjustments to how they handled differences was needed.
Influence of Gottman:
I think it is fair to say that the helping professions are a mixture of science and art and the field of Psychology has long struggled to be considered a scientific discipline. This may be why John Gottman is respected so highly in the Marriage Education field.
Instead of relying on a heap of clinical and anecdotal evidence regarding how successful couples operate this researcher decided to wire volunteers up in a love lab to measure things like heartbeat, blood pressure, sugar and hormone levels, eye movements and anything else that could be quantified. He then observed volunteer couples resolve differences, argue unsuccessfully, and just be together in typical domestic scenes. (I think the lab was made to look a bit like a lounge room and apparently the couples got used to being wired up as they acted out their normal day).
He claimed that the data received allowed him to predict the success of the relationship in the future and also the major stumbling blocks to successful relationships. He also recognised what most successful couples did right. He famously named four warning signs indicating potential trouble in a relationship which he called The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. These are Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness and Stonewalling. He did not think poor communication was necessarily a problem in marriages, most people knew how to do that. It was lack of strategy and dealing with the emotions that problems produce, rather than the problem itself, that needed most attention. He and his wife have written some excellent books for both counsellors and couples which we highly recommend and are readily available.
Importance of spirituality to the relationship:
We noticed that most couples spend little time discussing personal spiritual beliefs, or think that it is not very relevant to their relationship. They either completely dismiss the subject or skip over it lightly in the belief it will just go away. Perhaps they feel too awkward with such a discussion or do not have the necessary language to adequately express their beliefs. Our impression is that certain words like "religion" "spirituality" "God" "Prayer" and Church" trigger thoughts and emotions which can impede fruitful dialogue. This may be because of past experiences, ignorance or simply individuals who seem to have little need to reflect on the bigger picture. What we do know is that if spirituality is important to one partner it has to be made important to the other if the relationship is to flourish. Strong differences in this area can be very problematic. Everyone we know seeks some kind of meaning in their lives. These days less people in Australia adhere to mainstream religious institutions but that does not mean the desire for the transcendent, or meaning beyond this world, is not there. Everyone faces a limited life, tries to come to grips with the meaning of pain and loss, and eventually confronts questions that are bigger than themselves. We do well as counsellors to acknowledge this fact about the couples we help.
We live in an era when data about couples can be easily stored, collated and fed back to counsellors.
Sue and I decided to do the training to become Prepare Enrich facilitators as their data base was huge and the information they could provide about a couple we were dealing with was very helpful, making counselling and education much more efficient.
The couple would fill out a questionnaire (these days online) about their present relationship and the summary, compared to the data base, was then fed back to the facilitator with a briefer copy sent to the couple. Thus, prior to the session with the couple, we had a reasonable idea of the couple’s strength and "growth areas" as well as personal information such as history of abuse, family of origin dynamics, former marriages, children etc.,
We found men really liked this approach as it gave them something concrete to do and, even couples who had been together for many years, had the opportunity to raise issues that they had overlooked or not prioritised for discussion. Occasionally it could cast some doubts about an existing relationship and if a commitment had not yet been made, this was not such a bad idea.
Bringing something to the light is better than pretending it doesn't exist and Prepare Enrich is a great way to shed that light.
Couples and their sex lives:
The sexual life of a couple is always relevant to how they are getting on. The relationship between their sex life and the rest of their lives seems to be mutual. One feeds off the other. In really high-quality relationships, it seemed than sex was never considered a problem whilst with couples in difficulty you could assume that sex was an issue, even if it was not the cause of their relationship difficulties. We tried to cover unpopular subjects like PMT, initiation, tiredness, effects of having small children, expectations and performance syndromes. It was surprising how focused people were on achieving orgasms every time and how they had not learnt to laugh about themselves. Often men had no idea about the seductive power of doing the dishes, cooking a meal or vacuuming the house. Couples also needed reminding that their appearance was probably a ‘big deal’ to their partner. The aim for both partners was to keep the excitement and sexual tension throughout their married life as they had managed so easily before they lived together. Boredom is always a passion killer and that applies whether you are one year married or fifty years married. It seems necessary that couples keep a balance between separation and togetherness. Without togetherness there are not the warm feelings of intimacy and security. Without separation there isn’t the opportunity for freedom and interdependent growth. Perhaps the most common problem we struck was when sex was used in some type of power play, particularly in regard to the pursuer and the pursued. We found teaching couples to emphasise touch, holding hands, and particularly massage, was an excellent way to smooth sexual barriers and expand sexual intimacy beyond intercourse.
We also found that seemingly small things of the past, if not brought to light, can greatly hinder present sexual communication. For example, there was a couple who admitted having difficulty in this area and it wasn’t only because they had small children. After we spent some time with them the husband finally disclosed to his wife a “secret”. He remembered when he was a young boy his older brother climbing into bed with him and fondling his genitals for a short period. It was a one-off occurrence. On hearing this for the first time, his wife gave the best “Is that all?” kind of response we have heard. The relief of disclosure, acceptance, and “normalising” of this long past event, let the floodgates of tears loose. It was a wonderful moment, and began a great change in the couple’s relationship. They are still together and he later became a psychologist helping people in all kinds of ways.
Philosophy in the Counselling Room
Sue and I have some conservative values which we admit we took to counselling sessions. We are white Caucasian, middle- class Christians with traditional ideas about marriage, family, moral codes, and a generally Western idea about how people best operate in the world. We have heard counsellors claim they don't impose their values, that they "leave them at the door" of their therapy room. We doubt this actually happens.
Some counsellors seem to have the philosophy, in contrast to us, that everyone’s values and morals are as good as everyone else; that there are no absolutes or Truths by which we can judge a person’s actions.
Whilst we can accept their different opinion on this matter, we find it disappointing they do not admit their opinion is also a philosophy, and something they are highly likely to include in their counselling, or even impose.
Stress Management par excellence?
We lived for 12 years in a farming community and were delighted to hear about a Stress Management for Farmers course being held at the local hall. Adult education in the country can be difficult and is rarely available, particularly about subjects other than how to improve a crop. The hall was typical of the ones you see in paddocks scattered around Victoria; weatherboard in need of paint, toilets out the back, mainly used for meetings and the occasional country dance; but stress management for farmers? What an advance forward!
Turns out we couldn't go to the event but we did hear from the wives the next day about the men who diligently turned up for the "workshop"....and stayed the whole evening.
The main act was in fact a stripper, hired to entertain the men for an evening. Stress management indeed! All patrons had a lot of explaining to do when they got home.
The only lesson learned was from the men who didn't disclose the details of the evening to their wives. They found out dishonesty didn't pay in the long or short term and we thought the opportunities for marriage education were immense.
Sue and I created a way, or model, to tell people the difference between how Sue operated as a counsellor and how I approached it. It also showed the difference in our personalities which makes us such a great team. (I’m never modest when talking about Sue and I as a team)
Imagine you are fishing and after a while for some reason your line gets all tangled up in a great complicated ball. There seems no way you can untangle the mess.
Sue would carefully find one end of the line and patiently trace in through all the knots in a logical sequence bit by bit until the thread would unravel. Each pathway would be carefully weaved back to its source, with progress being long but steady. Always there would be a positive and careful direction in untangling the line.
And what would Michael do? He would fluff out the line, loosen all the knots, expand the tight ball in a random manner so the ends could be easily seen and the problem become less formidable………. then he would ask Susan to help. (but only for the end bit!)
I attended an intense Family Wellness training several years ago and became certified to run an evidence-based programme created by George Doub. George, who was my trainer, died tragically the year after my training when a neighbour’s tree fell on him in his back yard. I found it difficult to comprehend that a man so clever, so well-motivated, so inspiring, should die in such silly, domestic circumstances. It just didn’t seem right. It did teach me a lot about how little we have control of our lives and how tenuous that control can be.
The Wellness programme was very powerful in helping families but it did require a major commitment from families and organisations so all members could attend on a regular basis.
An example of how Sue and I used the methods:
We would listen to a typical complaint from a teenager about how he wanted to stay out later than his parents allowed. As he spoke, we would gather enough detail about how the scenario would typically play out in that family; at least from the teenager’s point of view. I then acted out the part of the teenager’s father whilst Susan guided him in how to ask for what he wanted (not want he didn’t want). Having heard his request I then made responses which were as harsh, or preferably harsher than the actual Dad. Sue then fed him better ways to speak and negotiate with me, (and therefore his Dad), in order to achieve a better outcome. Of course, the parents, and sometimes the siblings were looking on whilst this little drama played out in front of them so the whole family learnt better ways to deal with conflict and above all the teenager felt heard. We thought Family Wellness had enormous potential and tried to get it going in local schools, churches, and even the local army barracks, but without success. Sometimes Sue and I were really good at failing, err…. not succeeding.
The Awareness Wheel:
In the early days Margaret Newman and David Jansen had a strong influence on us. They were founders of the Jansen Institute in Sydney and wrote a classic book entitled Really Relating.
Margaret introduced us to the Awareness Wheel, a communication and conflict resolution tool created by the University of Minnesota.
Many couples found it difficult to know exactly what was going on when they tried to resolve an issue which had multiple aspects to it. The Wheel was a diagram divided into various sections like a pie chart with the issue written in the middle. Often it took a whole session with a couple to decide what the key issue was!
Having written the issue in the middle of the circle each partner then wrote down their thoughts regarding the issue followed by feelings, followed by much more physical detail such as what they saw, felt, even smelt in regard to the issue. For example, a husband might have an issue with how often his wife speaks to her mother on the phone. He would detail the turnings in his stomach when the phone rang, the sound of the phone, the sight of his wife sitting down to talk. (this was before mobiles!).
Then there was a section on what had happened in the past, what was happening now and what action he wanted in the future.
By bringing all this into the open each partner gained a much greater understanding of what the other partner was experiencing and consequently was able to communicate with more compassion to help reach a mutually satisfying agreement.
We found this tool invaluable when a couple was "stuck" because the way they handled conflict was getting in the way of them truly understanding each other, and the Awareness Wheel provided a practical solution.
The Busy Tree:
We once ran a workshop for professional people called the Busy Tree. We asked participants to draw a large tree on a piece of butcher paper (do they still have that now, or do they call it by another name?) The tree was to have large limbs coming from the trunk then branches, then smaller ones, eventually leading to leaves. On the bigger limbs they wrote the major aspects of their life and values and how they spent their time. This might include, parenting, looking after parents, work, domestic chores, charity work etc. On the branches they wrote details about how they fulfilled those items. This might include transporting, reading, mowing, studying, or more detail about their work etc.
As the branches became thinner still more detail was written. For example, gardening may include getting fuel for mower, going to the shop for fertiliser, weeding. Or looking after parent may include travelling to a nursing home, cooking a meal. As participants worked their way to the leaves of the tree even finer detail was written, like selecting a book to read at night for children, boiling a kettle for a cup of tea.
As you can imagine the tree became huge and written on and participants became well aware of the many tasks they tackled every day and why they had the sense of being too busy.
Then came the hard part. We gave everyone a pair of scissors or contrasting marker and challenged them to start "pruning " their tree. This gave everyone a reality check and a beginning of making their life more manageable and less "busy."
Prevention better than cure:
Something we were always aiming at was to make marriage enrichment a natural thing for a couple to do regularly, like physical exercise. We saw how gym membership became much more common over the years as did the spread of dietary advice. We wanted to depart from the idea that once you got married that was it; no more growth, no more challenges, nothing more to learn about the relationship. It frustrated us witnessing various government bodies expressing concerns over family breakups and its detrimental effect on our society, yet pouring most funding into reparation rather than prevention. Political pressures assured the promotion of better court systems for divorce, family resolution centres, counselling and caring for children of divorce. To us this was very much like placing an ambulance at the bottom of a cliff rather than a fence at the top. Prevention is always a more difficult idea to sell however. Society organises and reacts much better for crisis. In contrast Sue and I would prefer funding to stop people exposing themselves to sunrays to be at least as important as funding to remove melanomas; the broad acceptance and popularity of relationship education to be at least as important as dealing with the crisis of divorce.
The Lonely Professional:
Perhaps because we ran luxury accommodation for many years, we had the privilege of speaking to many professional people over the years. There were doctors, lawyers, surgeons, specialists, judges, psychiatrists, psychologists, engineers, company directors, accountants, business managers and many clergy. Something they had in common was the sense that no one bothered to listen to them and their personal story. It was as if they were supposed to be successful people with their act together, devoted to helping others, and with incomes and lifestyle such that no one else need care about them and their families. Often it was only a few friends, sometimes none of their peers, who bothered to ask how they were travelling. Of course, some managed to disguise their vulnerabilities with greater workloads, promotions, exotic cars, houses or holidays. Yet we saw them as human as everyone else, and with many unmet needs. This could often surface in their marital relationships and we strived to at least create a comfortable space and down time for them to sort out some of their issues privately. We like to think we gave them permission to be themselves.
For 12 years we lived in a country area where we ran holiday cottages. At one stage we took an interest in people who were defined as "mad “, had "nervous breakdowns " or schizophrenic episodes. Call it curiosity, or just coincidence, but we managed to learn much of their stories and it certainly helped to redefine exactly what we mean by "mental " illness.
Daniel had an "episode” ‘at age nineteen whilst picking fruit in northern Victoria. He started hearing voices in his head and before long was seeing psychiatrists and taking drugs to avoid further psychotic episodes. We employed him on a casual basis and he proved invaluable at certain tasks. His attention to detail was amazing. For example, I asked him to split some firewood and put it in the shed. Hours later not only was the wood split into almost identical sizes, but it was carefully stacked so that no pieces poked out of the stack and it was even all round the stack. It looked amazing. Unnecessary, but amazing. Daniel found it difficult to find permanent employment as an adult yet I concluded he would be fabulous at performing certain, intricate tasks, which few other people could manage.
Some of our sayings:
Toward the start of our group sessions for young couples I had a favourite warning which was slightly sexist and a generalisation but always seemed to hit the mark. Firstly, I said "Husbands, from this day on I want all of you to invest more into your relationship with your wife. The wives would all nod their head in a "yes, someone has at last said this" manner. Then I would turn to the wives and say " Wives, you need to stop trying to change your husband." The men literally sighed with agreement. I was on to something!
One of the favourite sayings which Sue offered couples was “If what you are doing isn't working you must change something and do it differently”
or "It is no use keeping doing the same things and expecting different results"
We once ran a weekend Retreat for a conservative church consisting of seven married couples. I remember running a session on conflict resolution and as a demonstration, asking the youngest couple to nominate an issue in their relationship that remained unresolved. We were mildly surprised when they said they had no issues. We thought that they were young, attractive, and seemed to have their act together so we moved on to another couple (who had not resolved what to do with their unfertilised embryonic eggs they had in storage). By the end of the weekend, after at least 12 hours of face to face time, we were very tired but well satisfied we had given them a lot of input and reflection time. Feedback sheets were very positive. We were particularly impressed with the enthusiastic participation in the exercises.
That self-satisfaction lost its glow a little when we found out 6 weeks later that the husband of the young couple with " no issues" had an affair with one of the other participants! Perhaps we should have had a session about fidelity, but we did learn that external appearances do not tell you what is really going on in a relationship; particularly in a group setting.
Pre-marriage education versus education after first child:
We held many sessions for couples about to be married usually using Prepare/Enrich. These were fun and had a positive energy about them because we were dealing with couples who were very focused on each other and determined to make the relationship work. We gained much positive feedback and couples were filled with hope and some extra knowledge. We were however very aware of the "rose tinted glasses" these couples were wearing, and how focussed they were on the details of their imminent wedding. Their partners could do no wrong and love would conquer all. Most of these couples were already living together but the wedding plans had created a much bigger future and our workshops were part of the process they either wanted or had to go through. We always thought follow up sessions would be far more useful, particularly after the birth of the first child. (Of course, some couples we were dealing with were second marriages or in other ways children were already involved) it is after the first baby that pressures on the relationship greatly increase and disillusionment can set in. It is then a couple needs the tools that can get them through this time. Statistics show this is a prime time for divorce. It was difficult to reach these couples as they were so busy and child minding/babysitting became an issue, yet we think it is so important to reach them as they can feel so alone when their marriage is under stress.
The power of how things were:
As counsellors it was easy to get bogged down and pessimistic about a couple when they disclosed all the things that were going wrong in their relationship and their situation could seem hopeless. One way we found useful in this situation was to ask the couple what attracted them to each other in the first place, how they met, what life was like then, and any other detail which took them down memory lane. Often these were fond memories they would like to relive and looking back would bring smiles to their faces. We then followed by asking about their perceptions of how things had changed which was useful as long as we stuck to the word "perception"
With other couples, who were seriously contemplating separation, we found that they coloured the stories of their past to justify their present situation or mindset. Twenty years on she might say "I realise I never really loved him" or he might say "our honeymoon was a disaster ". Our attempts at justification and defensiveness have no limits! We tend to look back at the past to explain the present but looking back always contains bias to meet our present needs.
One of my favourite ways of portraying someone who gets their first negative "niggle” concerning their marriage relationship is picturing them waking up one morning and having two pictures in their head. The first picture is the dream they had when first married; of a perfect partner, meant for them, of how and where they would be living, their children, their day to day activities, their adventures, their travel and all the exciting things they would do together in limitless healthy freedom.
The second picture is of how they perceive things are now; of boredom, tiredness, routine, being taken for granted, lacking passion, and losing direction.
When someone becomes aware of this difference, disillusionment can set in. They think the emotions are uncomfortable and unacceptable; that something needs to be done. It can be quite unsettling, if not frightening. They still love their partner but the existential angst keeps gnawing away leading to the thought that perhaps another relationship can take them from this feeling.
What did we do?
We have always liked to convert a problem into some kind of action. Listening to the history of a couple has its place, particularly in having a greater understanding and empathy with the two people sitting before you, but unless there is a plan for the future, what is the point of you being there? And this plan has to be their plan. They must own it. Some of our favourite questions to get thing heading in the right direction were “What would life look like if certain changes were made? What would you be doing differently? How would you be reacting? What exactly would your partner be saying/ doing/ which is different from what is happening now? There was always the temptation for the client to answer in a vague manner such as "be more loving" to which we would say "and exactly what would they be doing to demonstrate this to your satisfaction, please be precise." Often their partner would listen with amazement to the simplicity of the answer, particularly if they thought the answer do-able.
Scott Stanley is an American researcher for whom we have great respect. Out of his research he reached a conclusion which we liked to tell couples who, so easily cohabitated without enough thought to its repercussions. Basically, he said that a man may move in with his partner quite casually but think little about the possibility of marriage. In fact, marriage is a really significant and quite different step for him. In contrast moving in together is a much bigger deal for a woman but she assumes that getting married is not such a big leap for the guy. This can have significant impact on the relationship, and we think it would be great if couples attended relationship education prior to their decision to cohabitate. This would avoid what Stanley calls "commitment creep" in reference to people drifting into marriage without making a lifetime decision/ commitment.
Running workshops for couples has its limitations. It is difficult to get people into the mindset of prevention and enrichment. They may attend counselling when trouble strikes but often this is too late and the effectiveness of marital counselling has long been questioned. The other thing is that, like parenting courses, the couples that attend such courses are the couples least likely to need it. It was with this in mind that we turned our attention to mentoring. We reasoned that couples are influenced every day by other couples and the standards they set for their marriage. If everyone in your street is divorced or unhappily married it is difficult to spend time and energy in cultivating your own relationship. A bit like trying to run health and exercise classes inside a KFC.
This is where we thought mentoring could come in. If we could train one couple to mentor another couple in their neighbourhood this was a powerful tool to boost marriages. Couples would not feel alone in their marriage and mentors could normalise the day to day happenings in another couple's relationship thus helping them through the hard bits and enhancing their own marriage along the way. We tried to build a growth type structure into our organisation so couples who were mentored could in turn mentor others. A bit like those infamous pyramid sellers do.
We trained about 20 mentors and invested considerable time and money trying to make it work, but it didn't take off. Perhaps you could call it a failure. Sort of like Edison and his attempts but never quite getting to the light bulb. But of course, we learnt many lessons from this experience.
Firstly, we found that mentors have two mental blocks to being effective. They are
1. The mindset in Australian society that marital issues are private issues not to be shared with others. In other words, you stand back whilst your friends’ marriage tears apart. And of course, you don't disclose your own troubles because it's all meant to be squeaky good.
2. The idea amongst those we trained that since their marriage was far less than perfect how could they be of use to others.
Thus, motivation was limited, and there were certainly no financial incentives. This all happened before social media took a grip so we wonder whether the same ideas could now be translated to the digital age. Mmmm…… We still can't see a replacement for face to face contact with someone who cares.
Attempting to introduce Marriage Education into schools:
When our younger daughter started secondary school, we thought it an opportunity as a parent, and even an obligation, to try and get relationship education into the ethos of the school.
After all, this was a good Catholic school that believed in the values of marriage and family. Our idea was to train teachers in some basic skills, to effect selection of reading material, curriculum and discussion, and for topics such a dating, mate selection, sexuality and intimate communication to be taken seriously. The training would be at our facilities on weekends and there would be no charge to the school. We contacted the headmaster who seemed very enthusiastic that a parent should show such interest and soon we were invited to speak at a staff meeting. It took little time to work out what we were up against. Not only were we threatening the perception of the teacher’s limited classroom time, we were also triggering all kinds of issues in the personal lives of the individual teachers. They obviously felt ill equipped to take on what we were suggesting. The solution? We were patronised for our great ideas and efforts and told they would "Think about it”. For the next 6 years we kept knocking on the door but never got a satisfactory response. Once we were offered a combined year 9 class to teach some assertiveness. There we were on a warm afternoon, with 90 tired students, trying to get them interested in family dynamics and being able to ask for what they want. I remember feeling so sorry for some students that approached us after the class, clearly distressed over their family issues, and not having the time or the skills to properly deal with it.
We felt frustrated that a clear need was not being met. At least we tried. We think the most important decision a young person can make in their life (ahead of studies, career and where they live), is who they will spend most of their life with. And yet we spend so little effort and resources in preparing our youth to make such a big decision.
Cancellation of therapy after 9/11 and the fact that most couples can heal themselves if given time:
It was not only on the ride home that couples healed themselves.
I found the research surrounding the 9/11 bombing fascinating.
Directly after this disaster many appointments for couple therapy were cancelled due to the situation. Presumably alternative appointments were then made for later weeks. What was interesting was many of those second appointments were then cancelled because the couples were no longer in need of therapy. Apparently, the terrorist attacks had given these couples a new perspective on what was important in life. In addition, the extra time meant more opportunities for some couples to sort themselves out. No need for therapists to feel redundant about this story, but it does demand thought on what really brings about healing. and change.
Marriage Encounter affected us deeply when were only a few years married and had one small child. It is a Christian organisation which conducts enrichment weekends for married couples. The structure is quite different from adult education models as there are no skills taught and no opportunity for group discussion or opportunity to question the leaders.
The leaders are in fact other married couples who share letters written to each other on various relationship topics in the form of a question. Listening to their letters had a wonderful way of normalising what goes on in most relationships over fights, sex, chores, money, in-laws and countless other topics. Guidelines are given to the participants as to how to write letters to each other, and how to share such letters, which couples then do in the privacy of their room. Emphasis is placed on the expression of feelings, and certain mantras such as "feelings are neither right nor wrong" and "love is a choice". We found the methodologies an excellent pathway to intimacy and communication of issues which were otherwise difficult to convey. Letter writing may not be as popular these days but we think it is a marvellous method for couples wanting to make their good marriage even better.
Marriage Qualification Testing?
We have always found it a little weird that anyone can get married without any compulsory training. Couples simply contact the local celebrant, the wedding is planned and, bingo! The biggest decision in a person’s life is formalised and the marriage licence handed over. Yet if you want a driver’s licence, a gun licence, a boat licence, or a liquor licence, you must study and pass a test. You even need a licence to cook sausages for the local golf club members. If you lose one of these licences it is an inconvenience and expense, but if you get divorced your world falls apart, the costs are horrendous, children suffer and society suffers. We seriously need to rethink this. It is too important for future generations.
One of our saddest and most frustrating experiences has been the husband whose wife has decided to leave him. For some reason we had less to do with women whose men had left them or separations connected with domestic violence. The stories from the guys were often similar. They were caught by surprise “Didn’t see it coming”, angry with the other man “wish I had caught him”, wanting details ‘which room did they use, when, how often, when was the first time”
and always asking themselves questions like “what did I do wrong, how could I have prevented this, am I a failure, was I naïve or stupid?” One husband told us “It seemed that no matter what I did it was never good enough. It seemed she just kept raising the bar.” This came from someone particularly close to us, so I wrote a song to try and explain a very common male dilemma, particularly when they are in their thirties or forties. I called it “The Bloke’s Song.” These are the lyrics:
Welcome to the world of a modern-day man
The kind of living that a lot of women don’t understand
You see I’m working to live instead of being alive
Like I was burning down a candlestick from nine to five
It keeps burning down, I want to turn around
I’m getting pushed in the middle of a passing parade
And feeling lost like a fiddle that has never been played
I’m thinking who I am is never, ever enough
I’ve got to try a little when the going gets tough
And I reckon its rough, Its just too damned tough
All I’m wanting is a little bit of compromise
The acceptance of a man with a tear in his eye
It’s a cry from the soul “Have I done all I could?”
It’s a pleading from the heart to be understood
And it can feel so good, to be understood.
I am married to a woman who’s a wonderful wife
She’s a mother and a lover and the love of my life
She says she’s willing to love me but she wants me to change
I think conditional love is such a callous exchange
And it cannot go on, oh it seems so wrong
Oh, how I crave her appreciation of my deeds
As I strive to deliver everything that she needs
But if what I can do isn’t who I am
Then I’ll never get a measure of me as a man
So it’s very hard. Oh, it seems so hard
In a wild spurt of enthusiasm, I once decided to book a stall at Geelong Wedding Expo. I figured going to the market place was a good way to sell the idea of marriage education, and what better place than where prospective brides would show up. To assist me I managed to recruit a young woman who had attended one of our workshops as I thought her youth and positivity could be catching. We set up a table with brochures and a few books and waited for the crowds to come. And come they did; engaged young women, often with their mothers; looking at everything from reception centres, limousine hire, wedding dresses and cake decorators. I had made a big sign to hang over our stall reading “Weddings are for a day. Marriage is for a lifetime.” (What a marketing guru I was) I felt like a protester in front of Parliament House as nearly every passer by did exactly that; pass us by in a wide circle, wondering perhaps how we could possibly be relevant. After lunch, having not engaged meaningfully with one person I got desperate. Sue and I ran holiday accommodation for couples so I put together a competition to win a weekend away at our establishment. All someone had to do was write in 25 words the reason they were marrying their partner. This got everyone coming to our stall in droves. The winner was someone who gave lots of reasons but wrote “because I love him” the least number of times. End result of the day? No one enrolled in our courses, some brochures taken, and my friend and I talking to a lot of people. The cost? Giving away a weekend’s accommodation, the cost of the stall, and being very tired at the end. Another lesson learnt!
Feedback is a wonderful thing in principle. It gives you guidance and ideas about how people are reacting to your workshops so you can modify and hopefully improve your performance; at least that is the idea. It is always difficult to read negative comments and they seem so much more impactful than the positive comments. Our egos sometimes took a battering. We found it difficult when comments were in opposition to each other so we were not clear how to react. For example, “I thought you dwelt too long on some points and I felt bored for some of the time” compared to a different participant at same workshop saying “You skipped over some of the topics a bit too quickly and I didn’t have time to digest all the information”. Then there were different personalities in the same workshop. Some who said “thought you emphasised feelings a little too much” versus “you made relationships sound logical whereas they clearly are not”
We also received feedback regarding assumptions we had made. For example, “I think your statement that men and women are created equal is an assumption of your western upbringing” or “you referred to primitive man in a way which suggested you believe in evolution theory ahead of creationist theory”
So, we found feedback is tough, sometimes confusing, unsettling, but always necessary and useful.