I’ve been practicing Marriage Counseling and Relationship Coaching in Denver for over a decade. I’ve now been with my husband for 21 years this October. (I got married very young, and people used to be surprised by the longevity of my marriage. The creeping crinkles around my eyes now make my jokes about being a child bride less funny than they were a few years ago.)
Both married life and my career in marriage counseling in Denver has taught me a thing or two about relationships — especially how to have a successful marriage. What I’ve learned is that having a wonderful relationship is both extremely simple, and profoundly challenging in practice.
What’s the Big Secret to A Happy Marriage?
If you’re asking yourself this question, the answer may be the exact opposite of what you expect.
Here it is: stop focusing on what your partner is or isn’t doing, and start seriously focusing on yourself.
When I begin a marriage counseling session, I generally have two people sitting on my counseling couch, each almost vibrating with eagerness to tell me about how horrible and insensitive the other person has been to them. They can tick off dozens of transgressions. The big, appalling, devastating hurts, peppered with everyday acts of selfishness and callousness, spill out of them. They’ve been storing up the stories, and simmering in their hurts and resentments for months — sometimes years.
In the safe environment a marriage counseling office provides, the stories usually come rushing out.
Does this sound familiar?
Focusing on Personal Growth
I know both of you are in pain. Both of you are longing for love and connection, and so desperately want each other to understand how badly you’ve been hurting. You want compassion, validation, and empathy. You can’t get that from each other, but you can get it from me. And I give it to both of you.
The art and craft of my marriage counseling work comes from my ability to have understanding and empathy for each of you. That’s how I can help you understand and empathize with each other.
I have to step into your marriage and take each of your hands, and then slowly, gently, bring them together so that you’re holding hands with each other again.
But in order to do this, I have to help you lay down your personal agenda and start hearing (and caring about) what your partner is feeling.
Ladies: I have to block you from tearing into your partner during a vulnerable moment when he’s finally sharing his truth. I have to protect him from your criticism; so he doesn’t retreat into his stony shell again.
Guys: I have to help you understand that what your wife is saying isn’t “irrational” at all, but an understandable protest — an expression of her distress around feeling so disconnected from you. I have to help you hear and understand what she is saying, and teach you how to show her that you care about her.
I know it’s so hard to muster up compassion for the feelings of someone who has been hurting you. (Trust me, after so many years of marriage I completely understand.) But continuing to be frustrated, upset, critical or dismissive of what your partner is doing (or not doing!) to hurt your feelings creates an emotional environment where it is impossible to understand why they might be acting the way they are.
And I will guarantee that if you can listen to them, you will come to understand the way they are behaving makes perfect sense in light of who they are, where they come from, and how they are experiencing YOU.
Every once in a great while during my marriage counseling work, I do meet with a Denver couple where one person is a sociopath, or an addict, or struggling with an emotional problem that prevents them from being able to give and receive love. But almost all of the time, I’m simply meeting with two people who are in great pain, and who are both longing to be loved by the other.
They try to communicate this pain and longing by saying, “Understand me, understand me, understand me” through their words and actions. But when both people are desperate to be understood, shouting louder, becoming more dramatic in their efforts to show their pain… both leave empty and alone.
In order for this situation to change, you’ll need to stop focusing on how to make your partner understand how you are feeling, and what they are or aren’t doing, and how much that hurts you…. and start focusing on yourself.
How well do you listen? How do you demonstrate your love and affection? What “ingredients” are you putting into the marriage? Can you be generous, kind and compassionate — even when you don’t feel like it?
Marriage counseling can help enormously for Denver individuals having a lot of trouble looking at the marriage from their partner’s side of the table. You might need the support of a marriage counselor like me to feel safe enough to do that. But don’t underestimate the healing power of empathy, and your ability to bring love back into your marriage through enacting love: showing that you understand the world through your partner’s eyes — even just for a few minutes.
It feels like flying into a storm, I know. But your courage to listen and understand without judgment or selfishness can unlock a reciprocal door of compassion and generosity inside of your partner.
The bravery it takes to start showing love in the face of anger, and understanding in response to rejection can be the catalyst that begins the back and forth flow of generosity that happy marriages have.
How to start?
Remember that you love them. Then simply focus on how you handle yourself in emotionally-charged situations. Decide to be an emotionally safe person for your partner. Decide to understand them. Decide to show them that you love them, even when (especially when) you don’t feel like it.
Because True Love is much bigger than a fickle emotion. True Love is a choice.
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self. She is a licensed psychologist, a licensed marriage and family therapist, and a board-certified coach, as well as the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.
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