How Long Does it Take to Improve Your Marriage?

When it comes to couples counseling, we all want to know how much time, energy, and money it will take to improve. A common question is: How long does it take to improve your marriage? But what they’re really asking is “How long will it take for us to get the momentum we need once we come to counseling?

To improve, it takes a lifetime

Our friends who’ve been married for more than forty years tell me they’ve had several different marriages. And they also say they are different spouses than they were when they said, “I do.” In essence, they’ve been married to several different people, even though it’s the two of them.

All stages of marriages open up dimensions of our journey that we couldn’t imagine before. And each transition moves us into a “different” marriage. Most of us began with a lustful romance. Then we build careers and have children. We settle into an ebb and flow of adjustments. At every turn we have opportunities to grow and grow up. Each juncture is a choice to become aware and intentional.

Our challenge is to risk vulnerability and intimacy with ourselves and our spouse. Click To Tweet

It’s common to become misaligned when one spouse grows while the other doesn’t. But changes are inevitable. And we need to grow beyond messy relationships and marriages. Our challenge is to risk being vulnerable.

To get short-term help, it takes categories

Couples who seek counseling usually fall into one of three categories. They are: crisis mode, control mode, or construction mode.

Crisis Mode

The first is crisis mode. One or both believe that therapy is the last resort. If it doesn’t work, one or the other has made plans for a catastrophic exit like divorce.

Just to be clear, crisis mode is not the same as counseling. Most couples on the verge of divorce need additional help to get them out of crisis mode. And to clarify, a marital crisis is not the same as a mental health crisis.

In addition, couples’ work is not appropriate for those hiding affairs. Nor is it feasible for those with severe addictions, depression, or mania. Rather, it’s absolutely crucial to get out of crisis mode and assess the damage before counseling can begin.

Some therapists are more skilled than others in handling crisis cases. But do not assume that crisis management is the same as counseling.

Unfortunately, some claim that couples counseling leads to divorce. But they don’t take into account that crisis management and counseling are different. Also, some counselors have more training than others to assess for emotional and verbal abuse within the relationship. Ignoring these and other crucial factors make couples counseling ineffective.

Couples counseling is not appropriate if certain other issues interfere. Rather, it causes more damage to both individuals if underlying manipulation, secrecy, fear, or a mental health crisis is going on.

Control Mode

The second major category is the control mode. One feels the need for change and the other doesn’t. Neither wants to divorce, but if they don’t get help, one is sure the marriage is heading in that direction. An undercurrent agenda of “social engineering” prevails. Social engineering is a term I use for our unconscious tendency to control others. The control mode is where one person wants the comfort of sameness while the other needs change.

Construction Mode

The last major category is construction mode. Premarital or newlywed couples come in to make sure they’re on the right track. Transitions such as parenthood, empty-nest, or blended families fall in this category. They both want to build healthy and growing partnership habits. They want to be proactive.

It’s always wise to establish the counselor/client relationship before you need one. Think of how we want to be established with a primary care physician. When issues arise, we have familiarity and trust of the counselor and therapy process.

To grow, it takes change

None of us wants to talk about the “D” word. Whether that “D” means death or divorce, it’s a subject we avoid. But if we don’t face endings, we’re unable to become unstuck from our relationship messes.

What’s important is to honor the worth, value, and dignity of both individuals in a relationship. To get beyond the messiness, it may be time to realize an old marriage is not working anymore. It needs to change.

Think of changes as a divorce from toxic patterns, reactions, and unhealthy dances. We need to say goodbye to the old and hello to different ways of being. Otherwise, the commitment to a destructive marriage degrades both individuals. Long-term toxic patterns in relationships account for stress-related illness or even premature death.

To get beyond the messiness, it may be time to realize an old marriage is not working anymore. It needs to change. Click To Tweet

How long does it take to improve your marriage? It’s a life-time of growth throughout the categories and stages that marriage can provide. And the right counselor can show us how in addition to couples who are doing it.

Your next step

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Photo by Taras Lazer from Pixabay

How to Be Your Authentic Self in a Difficult Marriage

Many prospective clients are unsure of whether they need individual or marriage counseling. Some have told me they don’t know themselves within their marriages. It’s a common complaint from those who have been married for decades. I must say, I hear it most from women in the “empty nest” stage of life. As a result, here’s how to be your authentic self in a difficult marriage.

First of all, we need to identify our terms. 1. Difficult marriage and 2. Authentic self.

What is a Difficult Marriage?

There is a difference between “difficult” and “destructive” marriages. In addition, different seasons of marriage will manifest in ways that make us question whether or not we are in a toxic relationship. We question what is normal difficulty verses destructive difficulty.

For example, it’s “normal” for marital satisfaction to decrease within the first year of having a baby. New adjustments and roles are being established. A couple transitions from being husband and wife to mom and dad. They are discovering new roles and identities.

Think of “healthy difficulties” as revealing core values with accompanying ways to grow and grow up. Our thoughts, beliefs, and reasonings are designed to mature. Remaining stuck in an earlier mode of life can groom a marriage to become destructive.

One way to know if you are growing is to ask yourself. “What would I say to my younger self?” If you’re in your 50’s and you still think like a 22 year old, there’s a problem.

Drs. John and Julie Gottman identify four horsemen as predictors of divorce. They are:

  1. Accusation
  2. Defensiveness
  3. Stonewalling
  4. Contempt

Throughout my years of counseling couples, I now identify a fifth horsemen. That is isolation. I describe more about this in my book, “Beyond Messy Relationships.”

Remaining stuck in an earlier mode of life can groom a marriage to become destructive. Click To Tweet

Now, let’s define the “authentic self.”

What is the Authentic Self?

This seems more like a philosophical question with various dimensions. For the sake of this article, let’s think of authenticity as the true self. My conservative Christian upbringing made me think that the self is selfish and needs to die. But I believe the “false self” is the ego-centric selfish part that we need to shed. It includes false beliefs, arrogance, manipulation and a host of other malices.

On the other hand, our authentic self is who God designed us to be. It includes our giftedness and a filling of our souls with forgiveness, love, joy, peace, and patience. And of course, authenticity emerges through our human struggles in ways we can become clear about our dignity, value, and worthiness. We are able to accept both our depravity and dignity and know that we’re deeply loved.

How to Be Your Authentic Self Through Difficulties

Of course, we are on a courageous journey toward our authentic self. As a result, the difficulties in our marriages give us these three necessary ingredients for this first stage of awareness.

Awareness of Perspective

Our brains are designed with “mirror neurons.” Here’s an excerpt from chapter 20 of “Beyond Messy Relationships.”

Our mirror neurons trigger reciprocal interactions in relationships. When we smile at babies, they smile back at us. When others are kind to us, we’re kind to them. If we think negative thoughts without verbalizing, the mirror neurons of others sense the tension. Of course, we can’t read each other’s minds. But we can be aware of how mirror neurons pick up “metacommunications.” Nonverbal messages include body language, muscle tension in the face, gestures, and even dilation in our eyes.

Think of your marriage as a mirror reflecting what’s impossible for you to see on your own. If you and your spouse are flat mirrors to each other, you’re able to respect and love each other in spite of the other’s quirks, irritations, and character flaws. Rather than attitudes of judgement, you’ll reflect the good will of the other. It’s opportunity for growing our character and becoming more aware.

On the other hand, if one spouse reflects a distorted mirror to the other, then we get unrealistic views of ourselves. For example, critical attitudes, put-downs, and shaming give us a concentrated negative view of ourselves. Our authentic self is assaulted and we believe we’re not worthy. Remember the mirrors at amusement parks?

Awareness of Power

No one knows your needs better than you. This includes physical, emotional, spiritual and mental needs. Don’t expect your spouse to do for you what only you can do for yourself. In other words, you are responsible for being your own advocate.

It’s important to emphasis that self care is never selfish. Even if others accuse you of being so. Again, no one can feel your emotions or think your thoughts. We need to let go of unrealistic expectations and people-pleasing “black holes.”

No one knows your needs better than you. . . .Don't expect your spouse to do for you what only you can do for yourself. Click To Tweet

Learn to trust your body and your heart. This is a God-given responsibility. We cannot do for others what only we can do for ourselves. Too many women especially, take on too much.

Awareness of Purpose

When we grow in our perspective and begin to shed the “false self,” our purpose becomes more clear.

Of course, whether your marriage is “difficult” or “destructive,” don’t hesitate to surround yourself with flat mirrored friendships. It may begin with an individual counseling session. Or you may want to confide to a trust-worthy friend.

Whether you’re seeking individual or marriage counseling, keep in mind that your authentic self if worth the journey.

Your Next Steps. . .

Share this article with your spouse or a trusted friend and begin the dialogue

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Three Mistakes to Avoid in the New Year.

Many of us feel relief with the start of 2020. And it’s not only a New Year, but a new decade! To start out right, there’s three mistakes to avoid in the New Year. Maybe you’re like many leaders I know who reflect and write down their goals. Or, you might be relieved to just say “good-bye” to 2019.

Wherever you are, all of us want to start the year out right. And of course, we want to avoid mistakes.

Here’s three mistakes to avoid in the New Year. Those include: ignoring regrets, ignoring accomplishments, and ignoring vision.

Mistake # 1 – Ignoring Regrets

As much as we try to admit that we don’t have regrets, really, all of us do.

My writing coach, Marion Roach Smith said to me several times, “Judy, it’s not what you did. It’s what you did with it.” This wise advice was more than therapy to me as I wrote my memoir, Beyond Messy Relationships.

A universal part of our humanity is both the light and shadows of our authentic selves. When we don’t admit our “shadows” (which includes poor choices, judgements, and regrets) we will subconsciously be driven by them. In other words, we’ll easily judge others because we clearly see their “shadows.” But we’re blinded by our own. And those closest to us are mirrors to the blind spots in our lives. When they reflect our “shadows”, we get reactive.

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. — George Santayana Click To Tweet

What do we do with our regrets instead? After all, none of us like the feelings that come when facing them.

1. Examine life lessons.

There’s purpose in all our human struggles. Our lives are worthy of examining. The “bad” feelings are temporary messengers to the soul. I believe it’s God’s way of showing us how to live a full and abundant life. Let’s listen to the feelings of our humaness.

None of our feelings are designed to be permanent. They’re meant to flow with the rhythm of life. Plus there’s life lessons waiting to be discovered.

2. Extract the learning.

The messiness of life helps us discover our values and need for growth. There are patterns. A good way to notice patterns of our messiness is through journal-writing. Writing our experiences, thoughts, and feelings brings clarity.

Fresh learning comes through admitting the regrets. Then we can experience the feelings and messages we need for wisdom. The journey through our past wasn’t meant to be forgotten. Our life experiences have meaning and valuable lessons for us.

Mistake # 2 – Ignoring Accomplishments

It doesn’t matter if you’re a high-achiever, or you’ve endured a season of darkness in 2019. Rather, it’s vital that you don’t ignore your accomplishments. It’s common for my clients (or any of us) to be the last to notice our own growth.

Why is that? I’m glad you asked. It’s likely a combination of these four factors.

1. We focus on comparing ourselves with others.
2. We all have blind spots that keep us from seeing what others see in us.
3. Those closest to us focus on what we’ve not done.
4. The negative harsh critic in our heads convinces us to ignore accomplishments. By the way, the human brain has a natural negative bias.

Here’s how we can shift to acknowledge accomplishments.

It’s important to hang out with friends who know us well enough to show us our resilience and bravery. When we don’t have a positive social network, the right therapist can realistically bring affirmation, honor the struggle, and enlighten us.

The lessons of 2019 are catalysts for transformation in 2020. Click To Tweet

Mistake # 3 – Ignoring Vision

Last year, I took the time to find pictures and create a “vision board.” One was a picture of my book, Beyond Messy Relationships. Another was of me and my husband looking lovingly into each other’s eyes. I posted those and other pictures on my computer screen and planners. They were daily reminders of what I wanted 2019 to be.

Our choice of focus makes a difference. We all have God-given imaginations that are powerful. Guided meditations can be positive affirmations for our mental health and well-being.

How do we get a vision that’s bigger than our reality right now?

1. Expand the imagination of our ideal life.

In the book, Living Forward, authors Hyatt and Harkavy give us structure for creating a life plan. There’s more resources to expand the imagination and intentionally plan for 2020.

2. Experience communities and friendships that honor our growth.

We’re like the five people we hang out with the most. Take inventory of the quality of relationships you have now. Be intentional to nurture yourself and others through positive groups, mentors and friends.

3. Explore what you do best.

Our self awareness increases through relationships. Be intentional to allow relationships to reveal your giftedness and talents. Dan Miller’s weekly Eagerprenuer Mastermind group helped me envision what’s possible. My mentor, Shannon Ethridge, continues to enlighten me in ways I’m unable to see on my own.

As for me, I’m thankful that my book became top finalist for Best Memoir with Author Academy Awards. Although, 2019, I do regret being so scattered, and disorganized without a clearer plan for getting this powerful message out more. Yet, these experiences have given me a clearer vision and purpose for 2020.

Now that 2020 has begun, it’s time for all of us to move forward and avoid the mistakes. Instead, be willing to gain life lessons, envision accomplishments, and envision your best year ever.

And don’t ever forget that your life is valuable and worthy of living well. In addition, your past doesn’t define you. Instead, it has wisdom for you. And most of all, you can be better than ever in 2020 as we start a new year and a new decade.

Your Next Steps . . .

Schedule your Life Plan Consultation

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How To Steer Clear Of Holiday Stress

Every Black Friday for several years, my husband and I spent time dressing up as Mr. & Mrs. Santa with our decked out 17 foot red Mohawk canoe. Red lights, Charlie Brown Christmas tree, and lots of adrenaline rush energized us as we paddled amongst fancily lighted yachts and cruisers. Hundreds cheered in rhythm shouting, “San-ta, San-ta, San-ta” as we honked the horn with the same rhythm. I may have missed shopping deals on Black Friday, but I’ve not regretted past experiences of creative events like this. Although any event or shopping spree can be stressful, we can learn how to steer clear of Holiday stress.

We can learn how to steer clear of Holiday stress. Click To Tweet

Here’s three tendencies to change if you’re overcome with stress.

Tendency to live with perpetual stressors

It’s easy to get used to our stressors without realizing the effect it’s having on us. Whether we’re overcome with finances, relationships, or household clutter, we tend to adapt it as normal.

We need to re-evaluate every 90 days to discover what we need to eliminate from our routines. For example, after years of decorating our canoe, we made a conscious decision to let go of the yearly tradition. We’re thankful for the memories, but have accepted our limits and energy at this season of our lives.

Tendency to be a harsh self critic

If we listened to our automatic thoughts out-loud, we may be shocked to discover how harsh we are with ourselves. We wouldn’t speak to our best friends with the same critical messages in our heads. Do you find yourself being critical when you’ve forgotten or failed at something? Thoughts like,

I should have done this or that or, I could have. . . or, I wished I would have. . . 

If we spend our mental energies thinking the would’a, could’a, should’a; we’ll perpetuate the stress awaiting our attention.

We perpetuate stress by using mental energy to ruminate on would'a, could'a, should'a. Click To Tweet

Tendency to think we can do it all

Many times we measure ourselves with others even though our physical energy and motivations are different. And we make the mistake of measuring our current selves with our past selves.

Although we’d dressed up our canoe and ourselves for the Parade of Lights for several years in a row, we began to realize our tendency to compare our present energy with our past. It took a lot of rowing and concentration along with risks among the larger crafts. It was okay to allow our experiences to become memories and relieve ourselves of the stress.

Each of us have specific situations when it comes to knowing how to steer clear of holiday stress. It’s important to re-evaluate and consider our tendencies to:

  • Live with perpetual stress
  • Be a harsh self critic
  • Think we can do it all

Our ability to steer clear of holiday stress takes just as much concentration, balance, and partnership as Mr. & Mrs. Santa rowing in a lighted canoe in the parade of lights.

Your next step

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