Denial can be a good thing. Who wants to come home from work at the end of a wearying day at the office and have to talk about every little problem we have faced during the day? Or, face every possible difficulty that percolates below the surface of the family? Not me, that’s for sure. I’d rather just whistle and pretend the problems aren’t there.

There is, however, a time when denial is not good. There is a time when denial and avoidance are like listening to distant elephants, believing them to be far away, of no immediate threat, when in reality they are actually parading through your living room making a very stinky mess.

What do distant elephants have to do with me and my marriage, you may wonder? It is this: distant elephants are the thorny issues every couple has in their marriage that they put off talking about.

Gene and Shirley seemed like a nice couple, coming to their initial appointment holding hands and smiling warmly. He was a robust man who wore cowboy boots, a bright silver buckle, and a long-sleeve Western shirt. The only thing missing from his ensemble was the hat. His handshake and greeting were generous. His demeanor carried none of the reluctance most men bring to their first counseling session.

Shirley was equally warm and friendly. She was modestly built, with blond hair down to her shoulders and a short skirt. Her red lipstick matched her fingernails.

Gene and Shirley were both on their second marriage. Their intake sheet noted they were having "a few small problems" they wanted to work on. Their first marriages had been lengthy, ending when their spouses left for someone else. Filled with bitterness and distrust, both remained single for many years until meeting at their church’s singles group where it was "love at first sight."

Now in their late forties, Gene and Shirley obviously cared about one another. They approached this session as if nothing was seriously wrong, and I began with that point of view as well — though my opinion soon changed.

"So tell me what has brought you here," I said.

"Well," Shirley began tentatively, smiling at Gene. "We have a wonderful relationship. But I think Gene may have a problem."

"Not as far as I’m concerned," Gene replied, smiling back at her. "I don’t think it’s anything we can’t solve, but Shirley insisted we come here for a session or two. I’ll see a shrink if my sweetheart wants me too."

I sat quietly, waiting for them to pursue the real issue for which they had sought counseling. Both appeared reluctant to share anything. Finally, I broke the silence.

"So, what is this problem that needs our attention?"

"Gene likes to play blackjack at the casino," Shirley blurted. "I think it’s a problem. He doesn’t."

"Once a week or so I like to stop by The Lucky Eagle and play cards," Gene offered firmly. "I keep my spending under control. It’s been a bit more lately but I can cut it back."

"Is that all of it?" Shirley asked.

"It is for me," Gene said tersely. "I told you it is no big deal and I can cut back any time I want. And I will."

"Remember three weeks ago when I called you on your cell at eleven o’clock, and you were still playing cards?"

Gene bristled.

"When was the last time I spent my paycheck at the tables? Like I said, this is nothing we can’t work out ourselves."

Shirley looked at me and winced. "Does it sound like we might have a problem to you?"