Editor's Note: Do you need sound, Biblically-based advice on an issue in your marriage or family? Dr. David Hawkins, director of the Marriage Recovery Center, will address questions from Crosswalk readers in his weekly column. Submit your question to TheRelationshipDoctor@gmail.com.
"I'm just so afraid that everything we've accomplished here is for nothing. I love the work we've done, but I'm so afraid it will just disappear once we get back into our normal lives back home." I was somewhat surprised to hear Sandy, a forty year-old woman voice her concern after we'd done so much work during the Marriage Intensive weekend.
Both Sandy and her husband, Brad had worked extremely hard to eliminate destructive patterns of communicating they'd developed over their ten year, second marriage. We'd worked hard to replace old habits with healthy patterns of dealing with conflict. They had learned and practiced how to share their emotions, speak from their most vulnerable self, and stop judgments. In spite of their near-miraculous accomplishments, Sandy was still anxious about flying back to their home in Texas.
Brad looked startled at his wife's comment. "You don't think we can continue what we've learned here?" he said defensively.
"I have my doubts," she said firmly. "We've been working on our marriage for years without much success. We've gone to three or four counselors before coming here." Sandy looked over at me. "What do you think?" she asked.
I looked at both Brad and Sandy. I'd heard this concern many, many times before. Couples come to me feeling very discouraged about their relationship, having often sought counseling services before.
"Let me ask you folks a couple of questions," I said. "When you went to counseling before, did you stick with it?"
Both shook their head ‘no.'
"Did you really invest yourself in the counseling process?"
"Not really," Sandy said. Brad was silent.
"What do you think, Brad?"
"I think we've learned a lot and we're going to be fine when we get home. I feel great about the work we've done. I know I feel good about it."
"Does that help?" I asked, looking to Sandy, sensing her trepidation.
"No," she said soundly. "I want to know how we can continue the growth we've started here. We've come too far to let it slip away."
Sandy's concerns echoed a recent email I received from a man obviously concerned about his marriage:
Dear Dr. David. I'm really discouraged in my marriage. It seems like my wife and I can make progress for a while, and then we slip back into old, destructive ways of doing things. We go to a marriage conference, get excited and then in a month or two we are back to our old ways of doing things.
We read a good book and practice what the author teaches, and then some time later we're right back to our old habits. What can we do to keep our progress going?
What I shared with this man, as well as Brad and Sandy, is something we must all consider and take seriously.
First, you must determine the severity of the problem. Like a medical condition, you must accurately assess the severity of your marriage problems. Without an accurate diagnosis, you're in danger of under-diagnosing the severity of your issues and subsequently aren't likely to take appropriate action. Being honest with yourself about the severity of the problem is one of the major mistakes made by couples. Most under-estimate the extent of their troubling patterns and subsequently under-estimate the work necessary to rid themselves of troubling patterns.
Second, obtain professional help in evaluating your marriage. Because we are not objective, and don't really want to hear bad news about our patterns of relating, we don't seek or listen to professional advice. But kidding yourself about the magnitude of your problems only brings greater problems later.
Third, prepare for change. While no one wants to hear bad news, you must hear and face the truth. No one wants to place themselves or their marriage under a professional microscope. But you need to hear the news, no matter how bad it is. This news can lead you into a change process.
Ready yourselves for doing more work than you might have imagined. Scripture offers valuable instruction: "Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Will he not first sit down and estimate the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it?" (Luke 14:28) This Scripture goes on to suggest that we are fools not to plan ahead for the true cost of finishing a project. Certainly changing life-long patterns of destructive relating is worth depth counseling to change those patterns.
Finally, partner with someone (a professional) to anchor the gains made in counseling. "Perfect practice makes perfect." Find someone who you trust and then stick with the process. Much like ongoing piano lessons (which I'm taking,) you must work with someone who helps you reinforce gains made and correct new problems as they rise to the surface.
Having a healthy marriage does not come naturally to anyone. It is work to learn healthy communication, effective conflict-management and develop new patterns of intimacy. Don't underestimate how challenging learning these skills can be. But with "perfect practice," you can create a dynamic, healthy marriage.
Please share your thoughts on this topic of doing the ongoing work.
March 2, 2010
Dr. David Hawkins is the director of the Marriage Recover Center where he counsels couples in distress. He is the author of over 30 books, including Dealing With the CrazyMakers in Your Life, 90 Days to a Fantastic Marriage, and Saying It So He'll Listen. Dr. Hawkins grew up in the beautiful Pacific Northwest and lives with his wife on the South Puget Sound where he enjoys sailing, biking, and skiing. He has active practices in two Washington cities.