Culturally Diverse Marriage

Jorge and Kim* came to see me a short while ago here in our Herndon office for marriage counseling.  Jorge was from Colombia and Kim was also from Columbia:  the one in South Carolina.  Although they joked about being “from the same place”, it became clear that their backgrounds needed to come to the foreground.  Kim, an Anglo-American, was embarrassed about her family’s open racism.  She tried to balance it by pretending not to notice ways that Jorge was different.  Jorge, whose cultural upbringing demanded family loyalty above all, tried to ingratiate himself to her family, but secretly worried that Kim was herself racist.  He began to see her strong personality as an indication that she felt superior to him.  Kim began to fear Jorge’s silence as sullen withdrawal from the marriage.  So they fought about superiority and withdrawal.  Neither knew how to get beyond their anger.

One of the great benefits of doing marriage counseling here in Northern VA (NOVA) is all the wonderful and diverse couples I have the opportunity to work with.  I have over 30 years of experience as a marriage counselor and yet I still find I am incredibly grateful for ongoing courses and trainings on Cultural Sensitivity.  I’ve learned to be curious about what people believe about themselves and their world, as well as how they present who they are as unique representatives of their backgrounds.  It is my goal to look beyond my preconceived notions so I can encounter you and your partner in whatever crisis you are trying to manage within your marriage.

In working with couples I have also come to the realization that mistrust, prejudice and war don’t just happen between cultures.  Two people who love and support each other can also end up warring with one another because of differences.  Research shows what we already know is true:  We humans tend to trust those who are most like us, and distrust all others.  Because no two people are truly, exactly alike, we have to develop ways to balance what we trust about others with what we distrust and what we do not yet know.  In working with couples I try to help you maximize what you know about each other and to do it in a way that you are curious and welcoming of the differences you find.  Because research also shows that humans have a competing tendency to be fair, and even kind, to others.  Your diverse marriage can promote a tendency to be fair to each other, to be kind to each other, and to find and cultivate an extraordinary love for each other, which is what Jorge and Kim were able to do.

Jorge and Kim first had to learn how to disclose their fears without making accusations.  This is where an experienced marriage counselor can be a very helpful guide.  They then were able to admit their hidden worries about the other.  This is the deeper…and important work.  Kim took the risk of looking at some lingering preconceptions about Colombians and was fascinated to find out that Jorge’s family had prejudices as well, based on Colombia’s old “Casta” system of dividing people based on racial mixture.  Her eagerness to learn and appreciate this aspect of his background helped Jorge see that Kim did not look down on his culture.  Jorge’s willingness to share his own embarrassment over his family’s prejudices helped Kim see that he did not want to withdraw from her and actually gave them a commonality in family background that neither had seen previously.  As this process unfolded they began to truly trust each other for the first time.

Written by Thomas Overton, LPC:

*Jorge and Kim are made up names to protect identities


Surviving an Affair

The most common question we get at Well Marriage Center is some form of: “Can my marriage really survive an affair?”  The answer is Yes.  More and more, we see couples making the choice to try and save their marriages instead of hitting the auto-pilot for divorce.  All of our counselors are very skilled at helping couples navigate the emotional roller coaster ride that an affair throws them onto.  We asked one of our marriage counselors to write her thoughts about how she helps couples work through an affair.

“Getting off the Roller Coaster”

In our first session with couples we ask them to describe their strengths, admirations of the relationship, and memories that stand out as good.  I love this part of our assessment as it gives me an idea of how the couple perceives their relationship.  Brian and Joan came to me after Joan discovered Brian was in the midst of a year-long affair.  The impact was devastating…for both Joan and Brian.  Joan had an intense reaction during the assessment portion of their strengths.  She was confused, sad, and angry.  A common impact of discovering an affair is that memories of the relationship become contaminated by this new information.  Joan had begun to question their history in a way that hindered her from seeing any strengths or good in their relationship.  She said “How can we have any strengths if an affair was going on?  I don’t admire anything about this marriage!”

Joan is not alone.  The aftermath of an affair is very painful and confusing.  Most couples will describe this experience as an “emotional rollercoaster”, where the victim has intense emotional ups and downs, a preoccupation with the violation, blaming, self-doubt, fear, and loss of rationality.  Problems that existed in the relationship prior to the discovery may become more intensified.  You may start to look at your life from a very different set of eyes, eyes that are more suspicious and less likely to trust without evidence.  No one likes to feel out of control or as if they can’t trust their own mind and instincts.  I empathize with the level of discomfort that comes with mistrust and encourage couples to process that emotion rather than creating methods that foster false trust (checking emails, texts, phone records, etc.).  A false trust method is anything that finishes the message “I trust you if…”  At that point trust is only intact if there is a way to measure it.  Joan felt these attempts gave her more safety in the marriage but instead it created an element of control in the marriage that Brian eventually resented.

Most couples may entertain the idea of separation at this stage in order to cope with the roller coaster.  However, it is important to avoid turning a disruption into a tragedy by making permanent decisions about your marriage during the roller coaster stage.  When emotions are this high it is difficult to make a decision you’ll find peace with for the rest of your life.

When I see a couple experiencing this type of disruption I take great care in validating the victim and educating the offender about the roller coaster phase.  Rather than diving into the easier but more destructive ways of establishing trust, I teach couples how to adopt appropriate levels of transparency.  What a couple really wants at this stage is to feel understood.  The victim in particular is looking for accountability and validation.  Convincing the victim they are loved can often make things worse because words have lost their power.  In Joan and Brian’s case, when Joan was feeling triggered or having a rough day with the preoccupation of her thoughts, Brian attempted to sooth her by trying to convince her not worry because he loved her so much.  Joan became angry and felt that he did not understand her pain.

Through supportive marriage counseling, Joan learned to verbalize what she was feeling and why she was feeling it.  She learned to communicate to Brian what she needed.  It is the victim’s goal to help the offender understand their pain.  Joan and Brian were instructed to make this a regular practice in order for Joan to heal.  Several times a week they carved out time for Joan to verbalize what she felt, while Brian listened, validated, took responsibility, and apologized.  Joan’s emotional reactivity was less intense when she felt Brian was authentic in his understanding of her pain.  She believed that if he really understood her pain, he would be less likely to violate trust again.  And she’s right.

Joan and Brian worked extremely hard over the course of about 9 months and learned to listen, support, and communicate with each other in a rich and authentic way.  They have both been able to step off the emotional roller coaster and have both, separately, decided that they want to stay together and strengthen their marriage.

If you and your spouse are recovering from an affair there is reason for hope.  Rebuilding trust is a process but it’s possible with tenderness of the heart and forgiveness.  Yes, your marriage can survive an affair.

(Read more about our approach with Affairs here)


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.

Hopeful Spouse Counseling

Karen called me last week with a familiar refrain: “Glen, we’re sinking…our marriage is falling apart.  BUT, my husband doesn’t want to come in for counseling.  Can you help us?”

Absolutely!  We often get calls from the “hopeful spouse.” Sometimes it’s the husband, other times it’s the wife.  They are committed to doing whatever it takes to help save their marriage even if their partner is reluctant or unwilling to join in the therapy component.

The hopeful news is that often when one partner starts making changes and really puts a lot of focused effort into helping the marriage, the other spouse becomes motivated to join in the process.  It doesn’t always work that way, but regardless, getting the help you need, even if it’s by yourself, can really help improve the quality of your life and potentially the quality of your marriage.

Feel free to give one of our marriage specialists a call to ask about this service.

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Good Marriage Counselor

6 months ago Roger and Dianne called me to discuss some difficulties they’ve been experiencing during their 12 year marriage.  At the end of our conversation Roger told me, “Glen, we’ve already been to 2 marriage counselors.  This whole process has been more frustrating than it should be.  I like your experience and I like what I read about Well Marriage Center, so we’re inclined to give this one more chance, but we’re pretty vulnerable here.  Why is a good marriage counselor so hard to find?”

“Why is a good marriage counselor so hard to find?”

I told Roger I appreciated his candor and I could understand his frustration.  And I could.  I’m always disappointed to hear when couples can’t find the help they need when they’re open and ready for it.  Unfortunately, Roger and Dianne aren’t alone.  We often get calls from couples who have been to one or two counselors before at some point during their relationship.  Their frustration is palpable.  So why is a good marriage counselor so hard to find and what can you look for when searching out the good ones?

I’m a big fan of Malcolm Gladwell – brilliant thinker, researcher, and writer.  In his best-selling book Outliers, Gladwell makes the convincing case that to truly become an expert in your field requires a devotion to your craft of at least 10,000 hours.  I love this premise…I think those of us working towards and achieving that “expert” label understand at a deep level how much we’ve learned and how much we still have to learn.  And it’s not just experience…it’s how often are you practicing this craft and how quickly are you building towards those 10,000 hours.

One of my biggest excitements about starting Well Marriage Center was that we could focus 100% on relationships.  We could devote 100% of our energy, effort, research, and training to couples.  Imagine how you can help couples with that kind of attention!  While most therapists offer marriage counseling on the side, we could offer marriage counseling as what we do exclusively…100% of the time!  I think this is something to pay attention to when looking for the best marriage counselors.  How do they spend their “hours” each week and are they building to those 10,000?

The happy ending for Roger and Dianne is that we were able to give them the help they needed.  Their marriage is doing remarkably well and we’re celebrating their success with them!

Marriage counseling is an art form in which the counselor helps guide the couple through (often) sticky, messy, and intense emotions and dynamics…all while holding the hope for their relationship.  It’s an intricate dance and I hope you trust only the best to help you navigate your most primary and intimate relationship.  The good news at Well Marriage Center – we’re all either above that 10,000 hour mark or building quickly and exclusively towards it!  We’re all specialist here…

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Predicting Divorce

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (Predicting Divorce)

With the end of the world upon us tomorrow, I thought it would be a fitting time to address the difficult reality of divorce – particularly what indicators in a relationship are most likely to lead to its end.

Are there warning signs you can pay attention to that may prevent the end of your marriage?   

Dr. John Gottman is one of the leading marriage researchers and a top authority in the marriage counseling world.  We have the utmost respect for Dr. Gottman and all of our marriage counselors are required to complete Gottman Level 1 and Level 2 trainings…at a minimum.  Dr. Gottman reports that he can predict with 96% accuracy within the first few minutes of a couple having a conversation whether the relationship he is watching will survive over the long-haul or not.  He bases his prediction on four elements, which he calls the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse.  These lethal horseman “clip-clop into the heart of a marriage in the following order: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, stonewalling.”  I’m going to explain these four elements below because they are indeed incredibly toxic to the long-term success of your relationship.

BUT, all hope is not lost if one or more describe you.  We work with couples all the time who have one or more of these “horseman” present in their relationship.  I’ve seen too many of these couples do the hard work of stopping these horsemen in their tracks, survive, and go on to thrive in their relationship.  We think the important distinction is this: the continuation of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is what dooms a marriage, not just their presence.

So, the good news is: tomorrow is not actually the end of the world.  And tomorrow doesn’t have to be the end of your marriage.  But many couples do wait until these horsemen are firmly entrenched.  If any of the four below describe you, contact the relationship specialists at Well Marriage Center immediately.  We’re trained and experienced to help your marriage grow and thrive…for the long term!

Dr. John Gottman’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalpyse:

1)      Criticism: This is different than having a complaint about our partner or offering a critique, which are normal in a long-term relationship.  No, what he’s referring is how we communicate our complaints to our partners.  Criticism is “a way of fueling an attack, so you state your complaint as an attack on the other person.  It’s not constructive and it ends up escalating the conflict.”  It’s when we complain by way of attacking our partner at their very core.

Example:  “You haven’t asked me about how my day and how my big meeting went” is a complaint.  A criticism on the other hand is more general and blaming, “You always talk about yourself and never think about me.  You’re so selfish.”

2)      Contempt: Dr. Gottman considers this perhaps the best indicator of divorce, because it quickly reveals the “respect” value of a relationship.  This element contains a deadly air of superiority in which we are mean, often treating our partner with disrespect by using sarcasm, name-calling, ridicule, eye-rolling, etc.  Our partner feels despised and worthless.  Dr. Gottman says contempt is absolutely deadly and must be eliminated.

Example:  “You really are a self-centered jerk.  You just do whatever you want without regard for anyone else.  You’re the sorriest excuse for a wife or husband I can think of.”

3)      Defensiveness:  This is a particularly easy element to allow into our relationships.  If we feel accused, our natural inclination is to defend ourselves, to offer an excuse, or to shift blame back to the other person.  But the danger in defensiveness is that it communicates we don’t hear our partner’s complaint.  By being defensive and deflecting, we are ignoring our partner.  Dr. Gottman calls this defensiveness “self-protection in the form of righteous indignation or innocent victim-hood.”

Example:  “It’s not my fault I didn’t call you, I wasn’t near a phone.”

4)      Stonewalling: When a partner gets too tired or is afraid of confronting issues, he or she will just withdraw.  Emotionally, physically, mentally.  Also known as the silent treatment.  During an argument this can translate as stony silence, meaning the partner doesn’t engage or ignores her partner – which often escalates the fight.  Stonewalling involves turning away from our partner.

Example: The listener does not give the speaker the usual nonverbal signals that the listener is “tracking” the speaker.

Ninja Marriage Counseling!

How do you choose a counselor for your relationship?

You want to know a secret? Actually, it’s pretty much an open secret these days: most therapists don’t enjoy couples counseling. (See the recent New York Times article regarding this revelation below). This may not seem like a shock or a big deal, but the truth of the matter is it is significant, especially if you are searching for a couples or marriage counselor to help your relationship.

Most therapists are trained almost exclusively in one-on-one counseling. That’s where the majority of their supervision and experience has been. They’re trained to diagnose mental and emotional distress and begin a treatment plan for that individual. Counselors are your classic ‘good guys’ (and ‘gals’); the empathetic and accepting therapists who are especially concerned about creating a safe space for you. The problem is, the more passive “uh-huh, uh-huh, hmmm,” type of individual counseling just isn’t effective with couples – and certainly not helpful for a relationship.

This is why most counselors dread couples counseling. Relationships can be messy: the stakes are high and there can be volatility, secrets, triangles, and uncertainty. The following New York Times article describes couples counseling as “piloting a helicopter in the midst of a hurricane.” We don’t think it’s that bad, but for many counselors, couples therapy can be frightening because it’s a tremendous challenge to actually be of help when two strong individuals are colliding.

That’s why you need a ninja! :) Terry Real says it best in the following article when he talks about the best couple’s counselors: “You have to like action. To manage marital combat, a therapist needs to get in there, mix it up with the client, be a ninja. This is intimidating (for many counselors).”

The bottom line is: couples counseling is very different from individual counseling. When looking around, make sure the counselor you choose to assist your relationship has the majority of her or his experience with couples. Make sure their approach is an active one, one in which they get in there with you and aren’t intimidated. Make sure they won’t cause your relationship more harm than good. Make sure you find yourself a ninja!

Read here: the New York Times article entitled, “Does Couples Therapy Work?

(Well Marriage Center offers both a safe space AND ninja counseling for your relationship.  In fact, we specialize in marriage and couples counseling!  Read about Our Approach and feel free to ask questions!)

Marriage Counseling in Northern VA

Welcome to Well Marriage Center!  We understand it can be intimidating to consider couples counseling when your relationship runs into difficulty.  Plenty of questions run through people’s minds: “Will this help?” “How long does it last?” “How much money will this cost us?” “What if the counselor doesn’t think we can be helped?”

Click here to begin at our homepage: Well Marriage Center

It takes a lot of courage to ask for help.  Our commitment to you is to provide a safe, “marriage-friendly” approach that supports the probability that you can save and improve your relationship.  We want that for you and we believe you can make it happen!  For over 25 years we’ve sat with couples just like you, couples who have run into minor bumps or significant potholes, couples who wondered if their relationship could even be saved.  The great news is this: countless couples have echoed almost the identical statement, “several months ago I never would have imagined our relationship could be this good again.”

Well Marriage Center specializes in couples and marriage counseling in Northern VA. We utilize a combination of therapeutic and wellness (strengths-based) models, we study the latest research, we engage with the leaders in our field, and we work exclusively with relationships or relationship dynamics.  Trust your relationship to a couple’s specialist!

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We provide couples / marriage counseling Northern VA