When I was around eight years old my parents dragged me to a family counselor to talk about their divorce. My only memory of that day is locking myself in their old Ford van and giving the middle finger to my parents and the counselor standing on the pavement on the other side of the dusty, tinted windows.
Fast forward twenty-five years and my own marriage was in trouble. Communication was essentially non-existent. Not only were my husband and I not on the same page, we weren’t even in the same book. When we did try communicating, it was as if we spoke different languages. Neither of us felt heard or understood and it drove the wedge between us deeper.
The “D” word had been mumbled more than once, but neither my husband nor I really wanted to follow in our parents’ footsteps. We truly desired to work out our problems but didn’t know how. We needed outside help and started asking around for marriage counselor recommendations.
It took several tries to find a counselor we both felt comfortable with who was actually helpful. The first few sessions were difficult to say the least. Emotions were high and hurts still tender. But as our gentle counselor sifted through the rubble of our marriage, he carefully revealed the root of our pain, conflict, and tension.
He gave us tools to build something beautiful out of the rubble. Our homework was to sit down once a week to build a bridge of mutual understanding through “exploring and explaining our points of view.”
My initial reaction when looking over the materials he sent us home with was: How is this going to work? It didn’t seem like anything extraordinary. And therefore I wasn’t in a hurry to get it on the calendar.
But good counselors know this is the way we humans work, so they schedule a follow-up appointment to motivate their clients and give them a deadline. With our follow up appointment looming, my husband and I sat down one night after a long day of work and kids and life and we did what we now call “couch time.” We worked through five questions assigned to us by our therapist:
- What are my observations or perceptions?
- What are my thoughts?
- What are my feelings?
- What do I want?
- What I will do is…
Doesn’t sound profound right? But it worked. We had a difficult conversation without arguing and, this is key, we both felt heard and validated. Instead of seeking only to be heard, we were seeking to understand. The framework our counselor gave us forced us to lower our guards. Our conversations weren’t heated. We weren’t operating out of defensiveness. The next time I observed something in my marriage that could be filed in the “difficult conversation” category, I filed it away for our next night of couch time. And it worked again.
Occasionally we show up in our counselor’s office with some issue we aren’t sure what to do with. But having the tools to de-escalate our hurt feelings and misguided stressors has been life changing for us and our marriage. We keep showing up on our couch once a week because it works. Because we are committed to one another. And because giving my husband the finger isn’t a great option for conflict resolution.