In my role as Professional Counselor, I am often called on to help individuals and couples dealing with relationship issues. Clients bear their souls about their marriages, children, and parents. They want healthy and positive connections and experience heart-breaking frustration and hurt when they don't have the solid bonds they need. Marital issues can be some of the most difficult problems to help people with as a counselor, but helping people have healthy and meaningful relationships is why I went into this work. Since this is what I am most passionate about, I'm willing to take on the difficult and often exhausting and thankless task of helping clients heal hurts, stop negative patterns of relating, and strengthen bonds that are fraying and crumbling.
During my counseling graduate program at the University of South Carolina, I specialized in Marriage and Family Therapy and have a license in this specialized work, as well. This means I have specific knowledge and training that is supposed to guide me as I help clients with their relationship concerns. Book learning and counseling experience, combined with some common sense and a capacity for insight, have taught me a lot. I wish my graduate program had addressed the area of couples counseling in more detail, though. I learned about family therapy theories, including Transgenerational Family Therapy, Structural Family Therapy, Experiential Family Therapy, and newer models including solution focussed and narrative approaches. These included some information about helping couples, but that particular relationship did not receive the specialized instruction it deserves, in my opinion. The breakdown of solid marriages causes stress and hurt for children, which often leads to behavioral issues and other problems that bring families into counseling. Preventing such problems means preventing couples from falling apart and disrupting the entire family's sense of stability. For this reason, I believe the marital relationship deserves special attention.
Fortunately, early on in grad school, a classmate introduced me to the SmartMarriages website.
The point of the folks who believe in the SmartMarriages philosophy is that marital success is about knowledge and skill, and doing what works. SmartMarriages folks believe love and mushy feelings are not enough for marital success and that marriage in America is in a state of crisis. Our national average that half of all marriages (42% of first marriages and 67% of second marriages)will end in divorce kind of makes this a no brainer.
This resource exposed me to a whole new cast of characters than the ones I was learning about in my counseling classes. Over and over, I heard about John Gottman, Susan Johnson, Peggy Vaughan, Bill Dougherty, Scott Stanley, Pat Love, Michelle Weiner-Davis, and so many others. SmartMarriages folks believe that having a strong and healthy marriage is about commitment and skills. They believe most people want good marriages, but simply don't know how to have them. Their passion is to help couples understand what is "normal" or "expected" in marriage and ways of communicating and relating that are intentional so that the relationship stays close and positive.
I was fascinated and very excited about the information I gained from the website and eagerly subscribed to the SmartMarriages email newslist to learn more about this different way of approaching work with couples. SmartMarriages founder and coordinator, Diane Solee, frequently sent out information and articles featuring these psychologists, sociologists, clergy, and other disciplines and the programs and research they were involved in. Information I received from SmartMarriages paralelled my graduate training and gave me access to a separate but complimentary set of knowledge. I drank it in like water then and still do today. I first learned about SmartMarriages back in the summer of 2001. Today, I am still subscribed to this list and plugged in to the programs, books, and vast body of constantly growing knowledge about how we can most effectively help couples presented via email and the SmartMarriages website. I often recommend these resources to my clients, as well.
During the past month, lots of the material that has come across the newslist has been related to the national SmartMarriages conference. In early July, droves of marriage educators, psychologists and counselors, clergy, trained facilitators of the various programs represented, and interested journalists and others who believe in strengthening marital relationships flocked to Orlando for this exciting event. Enthusiastic attendees took in Workshops, presentations, and information from leading researchers, program creators, authors, and national presenters. Anything you can think of that has to do with marriage gets talked about at this conference and on the email newslist.
Presenters and participants at the SmartMarriages conference, and on the newslist, come from diverse backgrounds (religious and secular, conservative and liberal, professionally trained and peer leaders, etc). What they have in common is a belief that marriages in our country are in trouble, combined with a belief that marriages can be better. Programs at the most recent and past conferences have included how types of love are different over time, common feelings and frustrations couples have around sex, money, and parenting, and facing important transitions (becoming parents, relocating, and empty nesting). These typical but stressful issues can trip couples up if they aren't prepared for them, don't know what is "normal," or handle them in ways that do serious damage to the relationship. . Leaders presented on topics all couples deal with, like finding time for each other, how to handle arguments productively, how to stay united as each person grows and changes as an individual, and how to keep love, friendship, and playfulness alive over time. Other workshops tackled more difficult challenges, such as job loss, unexpected illness, addictions, grief and loss, and other serious issues that can either pull couples together or push them apart. As expected, affairs were a hot topic. Several workshops explored the way technology, particularly social networking sites such as FaceBook, are changing the ways affairs develop and take place and how to prevent such problems.
All of these issues are ones I hear about, and have to help clients with, in my office every day. When talking with clients about relationship issues, I frequently reference research findings and insights gained from the authors and speakers I first learned about through SmartMarriages. I believe exposure to the wealth of information provided through this resource has greatly enhanced my knowledge and effectiveness around working with couples. It is highly relevant and turns theory and research into concrete skills and insights that couples can use in their day-to-day lives. I believe that if such information and application were more widely available to dating, premarital, and newly married couples, marriage counselors would be called upon far less often to intervene. We are often the last stop before a couple splits up, and by then, so much damage has been done that it is often hard to get both parties re-invested enough for change and healing to take place.
The key seems to largely be in prevention rather than intervention. I would much rather help a couple understand the problems they will face in their relationship and have strategies in place for managing those problems and keeping the relationship strong so that the problems don't drive them apart than to intervene once a couple is halfway to divorce court. There will still be a need for marriage counselors to help clients learn what they need to have a successful marriage, and intervention will always be necessary. There will always be couples who never should have gotten married in the first place and who truly can't continue as spouses for various reasons. There will always be couples who, due to their own personal issues and marital interactions, are stuck in patterns that are so destructive that the marriage should be dissolved.
These couples are the exception, not the rule, though. I believe most couples could work things out if they received help soon enough. If counseling became more about skills training, education, and prevention, crises would be less severe because relationships would already have a more solid foundation. Rates of success and true effectiveness with troubled couples would be much greater than it is now. Perhaps, down the road, marriage counseling will move more in this direction. I hope it does.