Thank You

Time and again we are inspired by the couples we work with.  The email Dr. Steve Brown received recently represents the best of what our mission and hope is for our Northern Virginia communities.  Good marriage counseling is more than just helping couples deal with an immediate problem.  It’s also about helping couples create relationships that take them into the future like the one highlighted in this email.  We hope and trust that it will encourage and inspire you too…

Dear Dr. Steve,

It’s been 2 weeks since you told us we didn’t need you anymore.  I wanted to fill you in on what has happened and to thank you once again for all of your help.

Two days after our last session, Jim and I went in for our 10 week ultrasound.  We quickly found out that the baby no longer had a heartbeat and had stopped developing at about 8 and a half weeks.  A year ago, news like this would have destroyed us.  I’m pretty sure there would have been a lot of fighting and blaming.

The first thing Jim did after hearing the news was to reach out for me.  There was no anger, only shared grief.  We went home and talked about how we felt and what we needed from each other.

I had to have surgery to remove the pregnancy and to collect tissue to send to a lab for analysis.  Jim has done nothing but love and care for me through the whole process.

Jim has been amazing.  Not once did he close himself off from me.  He was open and honest and emotional in a positive way.

I need to thank you.  Six months ago, I had a husband that didn’t want to be near me.  With your help, you taught us how to communicate and support each other through even the most devastating situations.  I’m eternally grateful to you.

We’ve had some time to grieve and are now looking forward to the next step in trying to conceive.  Until we do have a baby, we are happy to have each other and Rebecca.

Thank you!



Coming in Second

Written by Mary Baker, LPC

One of my recent couples, I will call them Jim and Diana, came to me with a very familiar struggle.  Diana had a difficult time accepting that Jim would work late.  When he did come home, he quickly turned on the computer or the TV.  Even though she would often suggest they have a date night or watch a show together, Jim would find reasons to isolate himself.  Diana’s resentment would build until she became irritable.  She noted how much she did for Jim (and the kids) and how underappreciated she felt.  Jim was frustrated.  In his mind he was doing all he could to provide for the family and simply wanted to relax when he was home.

No one likes to “come in second” to a spouse’s career, the kids, or extracurricular activities.  In the busy and competitive environment of Northern Virginia, marriage counselors see this struggle play out time and again with overworked and overstressed couples.  One person feels overlooked and begins to feels neglected.  The other becomes frustrated and resentful and begins to withdraw.  What can couples do when this dynamic takes root and threatens to harm their marriage?

When I work with a dynamic like this I’m often paying attention to your priorities and how you balance two key elements: the needs of your marriage and your own needs.  (If children are present, then your children’s welfare becomes the 3rd key element that needs balancing).  Let’s look at how this played out with Jim and Diana.

As Jim and Diana opened up about what they were experiencing I began to take note of how much energy and focus Diana was investing in taking care of her husband.  For Diana it was a gradual process and I’m not sure she even realized it was happening.  We take less and less care of ourselves as we take more and more care of someone else.   This left her feeling vulnerable and less confident.  She looked to Jim to validate her.  The less vocal and assertive he became, the more anxious Diana was about how he felt about the marriage and about her.  Diana didn’t have regular contact with healthy friends, outlets for herself where she could learn, play and/or connect.  This lack of healthy feedback, encouragement and connection left Diana feeling depleted and disempowered, especially as Jim began to pull away.  I used the analogy of how important good nutrition is for healthy bodies.  Healthy environments and friendships outside the marriage help nurture and feed us.

Jim began to work through his attempts to self-protect by emotionally turning away from Diana’s bids for affection.  He realized he felt overwhelmed by the pressure to meet all of her needs and eventually shut down and became resentful himself.  He wasn’t taking care of himself either.  When we withdraw and isolate, either through tv or the internet or some other vice, we’re not taking care of our marriage or ourselves.

Marriage counseling helped Diana see how out of balance she had become.  Jim started to share more of his feelings, frustrations and needs.  Ironically, Diana began to feel more connected to him as he shared these frustrations.  They started to find each other again.  They began to implement practical solutions that balanced the needs of both their marriage and themselves.

So if you are beginning to feel like you are coming in second or you are beginning to feel some resentment building inside you, it might be wise to look at how balanced the needs of your marriage and your own needs currently are.  Since we can take responsibility for our self-care more easily, that is often a good place to start.  By owning our needs and taking the initiative to make sure they are met, we feel more confident and grounded.  We are no longer focused outside of ourselves and thus feel less vulnerable, because whenever we wait, wish, nag or cajole, we are handing others our power.  Rather, we are more focused within, owning our needs, setting boundaries and then letting our partner freely choose to honor our needs, as well as their own.  This is the healthiest way to cultivate freedom in the marriage which in turn allows love to grow and prosper.

Communication Problems

Posted by Michael Fronce, LMFT

Jeff and Cindy came to their first marriage counseling session anxious to repair their 15 year relationship. The session started like most, me getting to know them and learning a bit more about their story. As we explored their marital strengths it was clear they deeply loved each other, but that love was now being questioned by each of them. They explained they had not been able to communicate about anything except logistics. Cindy swore Jeff did not have the ability to communicate at all. She complained about his avoidance of important issues. While she was voicing her frustration, he rolled his eyes and sighed. He said she was blowing things out of proportion and that he knows how to communicate. He was sick of how often she interrupted and didn’t listen. Jeff said he felt like he was never going to please his wife so he admitted to withdrawing from conversations. They both wanted me to get the other to communicate better.

Jeff and Cindy had made a good decision to reach out for help. These things fester. Communication problems are one of the most common concerns that bring couples to Well Marriage Center for marriage counseling. When we’re able to catch these communication blocks early, we’re often able to help the couple avoid the more toxic and deeper level problems that come years down the road if left unchecked. The good news is our counselors have the experience and training to be helpful. While there are often underlying issues that play a part in some communication breakdowns (which would be an entirely different blog post), I often find myself starting by helping couples practice the skills of effective communication. It’s helpful to see where they are and what they already know. This is what I did with Jeff and Cindy.

Now the movies and TV comedies give practicing communication skills a bad rap. I get it, no one wants to simply be told to say a lot of “I statements” and repeat back what the other person is saying. You’re right, that doesn’t fix communication problems. However, I’m often surprised by how a simple intervention or solution can indeed become the impetus for change.

I was looking for just that type of impetus for change when I gave Jeff and Cindy a task early in our communication work. They shared about how one of their rituals is to go to a certain fast food establishment for dinner. So I invited them to dinner. Well, I should say that I invited them to pay attention in a different way next time they went for dinner. Their task was to observe how the person at the counter took their order. When they came back to the next session, they were excited to talk with me about what they saw.

The server greeted Jeff and Cindy warmly, asked how he could serve them and then listened to their order. He busily punched the order into the system and then did something a little strange. They noticed that the server repeated back their order to make sure that he had it correct. He then asked if there was anything else that they would like. He then proceeded to check their order again before moving on and telling them the cost. After the order was confirmed and the payment was made, the server thanked the couple. So simple, yet for them it made an impression. They appreciated the way that the server listened to them, took the time to get their order right, and did not move on until he was sure that he had heard it correctly and that it was what the couple wanted.

That’s what they each desired from the other. They missed being truly heard and respected. Here’s the important breakthrough part: they both began looking at what they, individually, had been doing to keep them from communicating effectively. They each began talking about ways they would like to focus on each other, listen to each other, and truly hear each other. That led them into Jeff’s withdrawing (Cindy felt abandoned and got anxious). Cindy would then over pursue Jeff to calm her anxiety (which then had Jeff withdrawing again). So we explored this cycle and ways to interrupt it. Effective communication helped! They began making such incredible positive progress about the deeper level issues that were affecting their relationship. The good news – Jeff and Cindy both began to find each other again, connect with each other again, and experience a closeness they hadn’t felt in years.

Happy Couples Blog Post

We wanted to pass along a popular blog post in case you haven’t read it.  Maybe it will get the creative juices flowing in your unique relationship.  In 2009 Dr. Mark Goulston authored one of the most-read couples related blog posts on the widely popular “Psychology Today” website.  He titled it, “10 Habits of Happy Couples.”  It’s gone viral and continues to pop up around the web even 5 years later…

Click here to read 10 Habits of Happy Couples

So many couples hunger for happiness together.  We want that for you!  While marriage counseling is often thought of as just “fixing a problem,” couples specialists understand that it’s more about helping couples discover strengths and cultivate sustained happiness together.

Some of these “10” may seem cliche while others may seem impractical.  That’s ok.  Not all of them are going to fit for you.  However, we invite you to share them with each other and commit together to cultivating a few of these habits.  Or better yet, think up one or two of your own and enjoy the happiness it brings you!

Long Winter of Marriage

The wind is blowing here at the Well Marriage Center office again and Mary Baker tells me the high tomorrow is not expected to even hit 30 degrees.  I caught myself referring to this season as “Old Man Winter,” the personification my own father used to use when winter stayed too long.  It has been too long.  We all feel it.

Couples feel it.

Marriages feel it.

“Winter” has become a theme and analogy for some of the demanding work many couples are investing in right now.  I thought I would share a quick story and analogy…

Tim and Cindy are a couple I’ve been guiding for a few months now.  They’re experiencing their own “marital winter” – years of hurts and disillusionment have brought them to this difficult season.  They said marriage counseling was their last hope.

They had a choice: stay together and do the difficult work or split apart.  We spent time processing that decision, a decision only they could make.  I was reminded of an analogy from Dr. William Doherty, a prominent name in the marriage counseling field.  He’s from Minnesota and he talks about long-term marriage using his Minnesota winters for context.  He points out that we all move into marriage in the springtime of hope, but eventually get to winter with its chill and darkness.  Many couples are tempted to move south at this point and give up.  The problem with giving up, he points out, is that your next marriage will eventually hit its own winter at some point.  So do we just give up, or do we make our stand with this person, in this season?

Cindy and Tim decided that they wanted to stand together, but they were both scared and unsure.  Like Dr. Doherty, I recognized my role as being a guide to help them “cling together as a couple, warming each other against the cold of their winter and seeking out whatever sunlight was still available while they wrestled with their pain and disillusionment.”  It’s a powerful privilege…the role we marriage counselors provide.

The good news is that winter does break and spring does come.  Often marriages can experience this same hope.  We experienced marriage counselors know how incredible and magnificent that spring can be for couples who have done the demanding work winter requires.

Tim and Cindy are on their way…and that’s my message of hope for couples during this, Old Man Winter’s, one last gasp.