I’ve been a marriage and family counselor for more than 40 years. During that time I’ve learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t work. I’ve counseled a lot of people who were in one of these categories:
- We have a good marriage, but I want more. Is it possible to have a truly passionate, loving, and connected marriage that lasts through time?
- We have a bad marriage. The love we once had seems to be dying. There’s a lot of irritation and anger or icy silences. We really live in two separate worlds. I wonder if it’s worth staying.
- Our marriage is on-the-rocks. We’ve really lost that loving feeling and we’re “this close” to ending it. I really don’t want it to end, but my partner says “it’s over and I want out.”
- I’ve been divorced and I know I would enjoy life much more if I had someone to share it with. I long for a loving partner, but I’ve been burned before and I’m scared to try again. How do I keep from making a bad choice?
Can you identify? Have you been in one of these four categories? Are you in one of them now?
I can honestly say, “I’ve been there, done that.” Although my wife, Carlin, and I have been married now for 35 years, our relationship has had its ups and downs and there were times we weren’t sure we were going to make it. But we had both been married twice before, and we were determined to apply what we had learned to be sure that “third-time is the charm.”
Here are some things we’ve learned through our own experiences and counseling thousands of couples over the last forty-plus years. They are from my upcoming book, The Michelangelo Marriage Manual.
Most marriage counseling starts with a focus on problems rather than on want we want.
When I went for marriage counseling when my first wife and I were having difficult times, we focused on our problems: Our unhappiness, our anger, our difficulties with communicating, etc. It seemed the more we focused on our problems the more problems we found. I’ve learned to change from asking people about problems to asking them what they’d like instead. This gets us focused on the positive. The more we focus on what we want, the more we get what we want.
Our brains are Velcro for the negative, but Teflon for the positive.
It’s not easy to focus on the positive. Our brains evolved to focus on the negative. That’s how we stayed alive in the wild. It was a lot better to focus 100 times on fearful possibilities of a lion in the bushes that turned out not to be there, than to miss the one time that the lion was in fact in the bushes. Focus on the positive, might make us happy, but focusing on the negative kept us alive longer. But even though we don’t face this kind of danger now, it’s easy for our brain to get caught in “negative loops” about all that is wrong with our partner or our relationship.
What we focus our attention on increases.
I’m convinced that what we focus our attention on increases. If we focus on what is wrong in our marriage, we find more that is wrong. When we focus on what is right, we find more good things. Since we can’t predict the future, isn’t it better to focus on what we would like to have than about all the negative things we’re afraid we’ll have?
Trying to get our partner to change never works.
Most of us don’t think we’re coercing our partner. I thought I was just telling my wife how I felt about her behavior. But really I was giving her messages through my tone of voice, my body posture, my eyes, that said, “You’re doing a lousy job being a wife. You should shape up or ship out.” Likewise she was giving me messages that told me I should do things differently. Each of us used what we had been brought up to use to get the other person to do what we wanted.
I would use my anger to get her to stop doing things I didn’t like and irritation and judgement to get her to do things I wanted her to do. She would close down emotionally and withdraw her kindness. We were hurting ourselves and each other, but didn’t know how to change it.
Most counseling focuses on what our conscious mind wants, but most of our fears are triggered by the subconscious.
When we went to a counselor, we took a rational look at what was bothering us and were given rational practices to change our consciousness and our behavior. We kept notes in a journal. Filled out questionnaires about what we could do to improve our communication. Some worked, but we would fall back into old patterns.
We finally realized it was important to focus on what was going on in the subconscious mind. This meant that we had to look at the ways some of our early childhood experiences were still influencing our conscious choices. When we did that, I realized a lot of my anger was generated from childhood fears of abandonment. My wife found a lot of her coldness and withdrawal came from the ways she had learned to survive in a family where her father was angry and violent, and her mother only gave love to the children that were sick. The only way my wife could stay healthy was to withdraw from both her mother and her father.
When we learned to take into account some of the ways in which our subconscious mind influenced our present behavior, we could more effectively understand and change the ways we triggered each other. This enabled both of us to stress less.
Doing relationships the way Michelangelo did his art.
I think a good marriage is one of the most beautiful and creative art works the world has ever seen. I still remember the first time I saw sculptures by Michelangelo such as the Pieta and the David.
Michelangelo is quoted as saying,
“In every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me, shaped and perfect in attitude and action. I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to the other eyes as mine see it.”
I think of healing our relationships in the same way. If we can get a very clear picture of what we want, what’s the best, most creative, most beautiful relationship we can imagine, we have taken the first step in creation. Then we cut away all the subconscious wounding we received from childhood. What’s left is a beautiful art work that we can then spend the rest of our lives admiring, appreciating, and thanking whatever god, goddess, or spirit we believe in for the great gift of having this divine partner to share our lives with.
What do you think? I’d enjoy hearing from you. You can contact me at www.MenAlive.com. Would you like to read a book that brought these ideas to life?
You may also be interested in reading The Three Pathways of Passion: Lust, Love, and Life.
Photo: Michelangelo Buonarroti, Tondo Doni, via Wikimedia Commons