One day while driving on the highway, I casually glanced at the driver in the car next to me. Her steering wheel was shaking wildly. Even more astonishing was her indifference as her hands vibrated along with the erratic motion.

My guess is that the wheels of her car went out of balance and began wobbling so gradually that, without realising it, she acclimated herself to the problem.

I think of this driver whenever couples in crisis come to my counselling office. Marriages can fall into unhealthy patterns so gradually that, without realising it, couples acclimate themselves to the dysfunction. By my rough estimate, the average couple waits six years to get help after marriage troubles hit. After that much time has passed, the hurts are so deep, bad communication habits so entrenched and issues so volatile that their relationship is "wobbling."

For this reason, I suggest that couples set aside funds in their budget for an occasional relationship adjustment. Paying for a new car without budgeting for future maintenance is unwise. Getting married without investing in the health of your relationship is even more foolish. Periodic marriage counselling can straighten out the wobbles before they leave your marriage stranded on the side of the road.

Minor adjustments

I am astonished when I hear men or women – who have hired personal coaches to help improve their time management or exercise routine – balk at seeking the help of a relationship coach.

Many couples equate going to a marriage counsellor with going to the hospital, necessary only in emergencies. They think, We’re not in a crisis, so what’s the point? This mindset prevents couples from getting the minor adjustments they need.

Karen*, a client of mine, said, "We were so much in love that we didn’t think we’d have any problems. That was unrealistic because we’re two different personalities."

Even more damaging is the belief that seeing a counsellor is a sign of personal failure or lack of faith. In reality, proactive couples show wisdom when they invite a trusted counsellor to reflect with them on the finer points of marriage. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of intervention.

Doug*, another client who has been married less than four years, said, "Marriage counselling provided for us an impartial third party to listen to and help us sort out hard-to-see emotional baggage. We also received tools to strengthen the marriage for future rough patches."

His wife, Marie*, added, "Newly married couples learn how to ‘fight nicely,’ discuss money issues and tell their spouse their needs, wants and concerns. This prevents resentment."

Vicious cycles

When a wheel starts to wobble, it causes other parts of the car to shake. Similarly, one partner’s temperament, conversational style or attitude toward conflict can influence his or her partner negatively. For example:

  • An assertive partner can trigger a passive partner’s withdrawal, which can then lead to increased assertiveness.
  • An overly jealous partner can become controlling. That control then sparks the other spouse’s desire to assert greater independence.
  • A partner’s unmet need for meaningful conversation can turn to anger, which contributes to the other partner becoming even less communicative.
  • A skilled counsellor is often needed to help such couples get out of these vicious cycles.

Relationship tune-ups

A woman once told me she took up motorcycle racing in order to spend time with her motocross-enthused boyfriend. She got a helmet, overcame her distaste for noise, dirt and risk, and began to compete. After their wedding, her interest in bike racing lasted about 20 minutes. He felt abandoned and frustrated. She became irritated by his constant pressure to get back on a motorcycle. This situation required a marriage adjustment.

Christian counsellors do not decide for couples whether to get back on a motorcycle. Instead, they teach couples how to have meaningful conversations about their relationship.

"When we first started counselling," Karen said, "I was nervous to tell people because I didn’t want them to think we were having problems. But now I’m proud we went and would encourage anyone to do it. The skills we learned for resolving conflict, being active listeners and showing empathy were priceless."

  • Names have been changed
© 2009 Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. International copyright secured. Used by permission.

Erik Johnson

Erik Johnson was a family counsellor and founder of Family Challenge Ministries at the time of publication.

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