What is Our Approach to Marital Therapy?

What is Our Approach to Marital Therapy?

It is important that you know your therapist believes in marriage, is married himself and specializes in the field.

We don’t just ask you how you feel or what you need to do to be happy!  We’re concerned about your marriage.  You made a promise.  Our society screams that you shouldn’t settle!  If your feelings are gone your spouse needs to be gone!  You deserve to be happy!

We say we’re tired of the Woe-is-me-I’m-a victim-and-have-no-responsibility mentality so common in our society.  It’s time to grow up.  We’ve got enough 14-year olds already!  We could use a few adults.  Starting with you would be fine!

I explain in this podcast three points that differentiate Heart to Heart Communication and our website, amescounselingcenter.com, from the pack.  I remind my listeners of my Masters Level and Ph.D. work in marriage at Iowa State University, my 36-year marriage and my continual learning from the thousands of couples I’ve seen.  So our first characteristic is that we specialize in marriage!  We talk about marriage in our supervision meetings and I share the methods and insights I’ve learned with our staff and supervision students.

Secondly, we take a mentoring-coaching approach with our clients.  We’re great listeners, but we’re also not opposed to give you a few ideas along the way.  We know the terrain.  We’ve been down that road with many others.  We can share what the journey looks like and what it’ll take from you.  This is reassuring for our clients.   We don’t let you beat each other up in our sessions and you can’t pay us enough to fight in our office!  We’re not trying to pick sides.  We’re trying to help you both make the changes you need to make for the marriage’s sake!

Thirdly, we believe in the intrinsic value of marriage, that marriage is made up of the complementary nature of one husband and one wife to create a new family that is meant to span the generations, provide nurturing and love for the next generation and stability for our neighborhoods, cities, country and the world.  A man and woman couple, married for the rest of their lives, form the nucleus of a thriving family and provide the safest and warmest place for children to be raised.  Children have a right to be raised by their birth parents!  This is the best way!  At Heart to Heart Communication and amescounselingcenter.com we’re doing all we can to re-introduce this foreign concept back into American culture!

We believe in marriage.  Let us help you believe in yours!  Let us help you keep your commitment that you made in good faith.

So check out our new podcast, and, if need be, give us a call.

What is Our Approach to Marital Therapy?

Dr. Bing Wall’s Story: Why He Became A Marriage Therapist

The style of this podcast is a bit different.  I record the podcast on a walk in the early morning.  You can hear the birds in the background and I’m talking like you and I are just chatting.  It’s a lot more informal than the other podcasts to date.

One of the authors that had a huge impact upon me was Dr. Francis Schaeffer.  I refer to him in this podcast.  I read most of his books in the early 70’s.  The ones that impacted me the most with their links are the following:

The God Who Is There

Genesis in Space and Time

And True Spirituality.

I refer also to the book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible and Solomon’s statement that there is a time and a place for everything under the sun.  Knowing when to talk about things and knowing when NOT to is wisdom.  You can read the original passage here.

A book that helped me through my midlife “crisis” was The Season’s of a Man’s Life by Daniel Levinson.  It was recommended to me by my counselor at the time.  I ended up reading it twice.  After reading it I realized I wasn’t crazy after all and I needed to be proactive about the rest of my life and how I used my time.  I ended up preparing for a whole new career.  This podcast tells a little of that journey.

Part One On Communication: Careful! You May NOT Be Able to Read My Mind After All!

Part One On Communication: Careful! You May NOT Be Able to Read My Mind After All!

He probably lets his mind wander just a tad too much.

He thinks that I think that he’s a ______(fill in the blank, such as failure) and I don’t think that.

A frequent comment in marital therapy

Woe to me! The LORD has added sorrow to my pain. I am worn out with groaning and find no rest.*

Jeremiah 45:3

A recent article by Patricia Cohen in the New York Times (March 31, 2010) explained the current brain research that is looking at “mental states” and how we can predict, pretty accurately it seems, what someone else is thinking. Literature scholars are taking this one step further and asking how many layers of complexity we can comprehend using brain scans of people reading various literature passages. A common example from our popular culture was given to illustrate the point:

To illustrate what a growing number of literary scholars consider the most exciting area of new research, Lisa Zunshine, a professor of English at the University of Kentucky, refers to an episode from the TV series “Friends.”

(Follow closely now; this is about the science of English.) Phoebe and Rachel plot to play a joke on Monica and Chandler after they learn the two are secretly dating. The couple discover the prank and try to turn the tables, but Phoebe realizes this turnabout and once again tries to outwit them.

As Phoebe tells Rachel, “They don’t know that we know they know we know.”

This layered process of figuring out what someone else is thinking — of mind reading — is both a common literary device and an essential survival skill. Why human beings are equipped with this capacity and what particular brain functions enable them to do it are questions that have occupied primarily cognitive psychologists.

Now English professors and graduate students are asking them too. They say they’re convinced science not only offers unexpected insights into individual texts, but that it may help to answer fundamental questions about literature’s very existence: Why do we read fiction? Why do we care so passionately about nonexistent characters? What underlying mental processes are activated when we read?

The article goes on to say that modern literature authors frequently use narrative technique to bring the reader into the minds of the various characters, and that most of us can follow these “mental states” for three levels before getting confused.

Jane Austen’s novels are frequently constructed around mistaken interpretations. In “Emma” the eponymous heroine assumes Mr. Elton’s attentions signal a romantic interest in her friend Harriet, though he is actually intent on marrying Emma. She similarly misinterprets the behavior of Frank Churchill and Mr. Knightly, and misses the true objects of their affections.

Humans can comfortably keep track of three different mental states at a time, Ms. Zunshine said. For example, the proposition “Peter said that Paul believed that Mary liked chocolate” is not too hard to follow. Add a fourth level, though, and it’s suddenly more difficult. And experiments have shown that at the fifth level understanding drops off by 60 percent, Ms. Zunshine said. Modernist authors like Virginia Woolf are especially challenging because she asks readers to keep up with six different mental states, or what the scholars call levels of intentionality.

You might be able to guess that all of this would interest a marital therapist like myself. It’s not uncommon for a wife to tell me what her mother-in-law was thinking and what her mother-in-law’s motives were and now the wife in my office is explaining to me her hurt and the husband then says that he knows his mother better than his wife and that his mother’s motives weren’t negative at all and that his wife shouldn’t feel hurt and then both of them look to me to be the arbiter of what someone else was thinking when I’ve never even met that other person and now they want my opinion on the motives of the mother-in-law! Whoa!  Slow down.

About the time I read this NYT article I came across the passage in Jeremiah quoted above that predates Virginia Woolf by 2500 years and the NYT article by 2600 years.

I dare you to look this passage up (here or it’s included at the end of this blog today) and try to figure out who is saying what to whom. It’s a bit confusing. I’ve lost track of how many layers of complexity there are. The passage is in the book of Jeremiah, which was written by the Hebrew Prophet Jeremiah, who dictated it to his assistant, Baruch. The verse above at the beginning of this blog is a direct quote from God, who tells Jeremiah what Baruch is saying. So Baruch is writing words that Jeremiah told him God said that Baruch is saying. And now you are reading these words that I said God said to Jeremiah what Baruch said and then Baruch wrote them all down so you and I could benefit from the worries of Baruch, reported third or forth or fifth hand.

Then, as if this isn’t confusing enough, God goes on to tell Jeremiah to give a message from God to Baruch of what God is thinking about what Baruch is saying and thinking. God tells Jeremiah what that message is. Presumably, Jeremiah obeys God and tells Baruch that message. What we don’t know is if Jeremiah told Baruch that message so that Baruch could write it down and then he told Baruch that message or if he told Baruch that message and then Baruch wrote it down later. Regardless of the order, Baruch wrote down what Jeremiah told him God said that Baruch said and then God gave his opinion of what Baruch said to Jeremiah who was to tell Baruch God’s message of what God said about what Baruch said.

I’m making this more confusing than it is for a reason, so hang in here with me. I believe that the Bible is true and that God really did read Baruch’s mind accurately, whether Baruch said these words to himself, out loud to his wife or directly to Jeremiah or in a prayer to God. We really don’t know to whom Baruch said these words. Baruch wrote them in Hebrew around 600 BC and they were written down by scribes over the years, time and time again and then around 1973 some English scholars translated these ancient Masoretic Hebrew texts into English from some modern day copies of the ancient (around 1000 years old by this time) scrolls. And some printer prints it and a machine puts it all together and it’s boxed and shipped and unloaded and put on a shelf in a retail store by a number of different people and I buy the Bible 24 years ago this month and it’s sitting here by my side on my chair and hassock and I type it into Microsoft Word in my Apple MacBook and soon I’ll use my Apple Time Machine wireless router that will send the message to Mediacom’s RCA modem which, through an intricate cable network will send the message to WordPress’ computer servers in the San Francisco Bay area where it’ll be downloaded to my blog and then from there it will travel through the internet all over the world, but, specifically today and right now, you will look at it on your computer after it’s gone in reverse through the same process. And, I assume, that in the translation and the myriad changes that have gone on to the message, that you will be able to cogently understand the message of what God was saying to Jeremiah of what God said Baruch said and Jeremiah told this message to Baruch of what God said Baruch said and then Baruch wrote it down so that millennia latter you could read it and comprehend it.

And I even skipped many layers of human interaction and involvement and dependency in what it took to get all of these different layers together. It’s not a measly 6 layers. It’s thousands upon thousands: Just to get this bible by my lap we have the lumber man who cut down the tree from which the paper was made and the hundreds of inventions that were needed to put a chainsaw together, let alone a semi truck or a printing machine or the ink that was invented and manufactured and shipped or the box it was all stored in or the graphic artist that put the final flourishes on the cover of the bible or the typesetter that laid out the text or the lady that served the truck driver coffee in Nebraska as he drove across the country and the farmer that harvested the coffee beans in South America. And this is not even mentioning all the people involved across the world that were involved in the invention, production, transportation and sales of the chair and hassock I’m sitting on as I write this on a computer that took hundreds of inventions with collaboration and networking and tears and countless people from unnamed countries to develop and perfect or to credit the scientists that invented the medicine that I take every day that if I didn’t take I’d be dead by now and wouldn’t have these thoughts that I am actually conveying so that you can somehow, miraculously, comprehend and read my mind which you are reading today, but I wrote it the day before and thought about it for a long while before that.

Now one of the major points of the NYT’s article above is that our ability as humans to understand different layers of complexity in human communication is an evolutionary process, which I find a complete package of crazy nonsense.If you think about it, communication between people is a pretty amazing thing.How could we have evolved from a natural system with only one degree of communication (like from one fly to another) to this elaborate system of interlocking and interplaying mechanisms so we could comprehend the thoughts and feelings of a scared scribe 2600 years ago?Take any other animal you want.For example a cow is just a cow.It has no feelings to convey.There is only one degree of separation in communication between one cow and another cow at best and probably no degrees of separation from a cow to us.There is no memory and certainly no history.Cows don’t collaborate or read each other’s minds or contemplate each other’s mental states.They don’t invent anything or have libraries.The cow doesn’t covey anything to us, nor we to the cow, nor to each other, but with us and between us we have myriads and myriads of connections over great distances and different systems and companies and entities and over unimaginable epochs and even then the communication can be sent, understood and comprehended.How this “evolved” and is all just chance and has absolutely no meaning at all and then you even have the gall to ask me to believe it (!) is a complete collection of fantastical mythology.

All this to make this little point: While God might know what Baruch said and thought and felt, and was able to convey that to us through Baruch’s message from Jeremiah, you don’t know what your spouse thinks and feels unless you ask or he tells you. You will really get into a mess if you tell your spouse what she thinks and she tells you she doesn’t think that and then you say that she indeed did think that. Now God knows what Baruch said and thought and felt, but you are NOT God and you DO NOT know what your spouse thinks and feels. You have a hunch. You can test your hunch by asking your spouse if that is what he meant. That would be fine. But if you ask, you need to be prepared to believe it. What a complete waste of time for your spouse to tell you what he is thinking or feeling and then you tell him he’s not thinking and feeling that and then he says yes he is and then you argue about what you said he said and he argues that that is not what he meant and you say yes you did.

Folks, we’ve only got 2 degrees here.We should be able to get this.We’re not separated by centuries and cultures and languages and races and geography and technology and mediums.She’s standing right there.She just told you what she said and felt.STOP.LISTEN.SLOW DOWN.You should be able to get this.

I thought you meant this.

No, I meant that. I could see how you could think I thought this, but, no, I meant that.

Oh. Okay. Man, that freaked me out, because I thought you thought this. What a relief.

Yeah, sorry. No, I meant that. It would really be creepy if I meant this.

Yeah, no kidding.I’m glad you meant that.


Clearing the air.

Checking in.

Let’s leave the mind reading to God.

*The full passage from Jeremiah 45 is as follows (from the NIV and the website: http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=jer%2045&version=NIV ): This is what Jeremiah the prophet told Baruch son of Neriah in the fourth year of Jehoiakim son of Josiah king of Judah, after Baruch had written on a scroll the words Jeremiah was then dictating: “This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says to you, Baruch: You said, ‘Woe to me! The LORD has added sorrow to my pain; I am worn out with groaning and find no rest.’ “

The LORD said, “Say this to him: ‘This is what the LORD says: I will overthrow what I have built and uproot what I have planted, throughout the land. Should you then seek great things for yourself? Seek them not. For I will bring disaster on all people, declares the LORD, but wherever you go I will let you escape with your life.’ “

Part One On Communication: Careful! You May NOT Be Able to Read My Mind After All!

Part One On Healing From An Affair

Through love and faithfulness, sin is atoned for.

Proverbs 16:6

Normally one of the key aspects of therapy for a couple after an affair is the healing for the person whose spouse had the affair. But what about the person who had the affair? How does that person heal?*

For the purposes of simplicity, let’s say the person who had the affair is Spouse A and the Spouse who found out that Spouse A had an affair is Spouse B and let’s call A’s affairee C.

The hardest part for A is what is known in our field (mental health treatment) as relapse prevention. It is no use telling A to forgive himself if he goes back to his affairee! To quote what Jesus said to the woman caught in adultery: Go and sin no more. There you have it. This is the foundation of healing for A (and for B for that matter): Going forward and sinning no more. No more C. No emails, no texts, no cell phone calls, no Facebook or Twitter contacting, no clandestine meetings, no mementos (all gifts and letters and pictures, etc, are gone). If A still works with C, efforts are made on A’s part to distance A from the C. Sometimes this involves a request from A to management for A being removed from a particular project or moved to a different office. Sometimes this means only A being more conscientious about choices A makes throughout A’s day such as going to lunch at a different time or place than C.

A crucial part of healing for both A and B is A learning to be forthright about things going on in A’s life.Except in bizzaare cases, A cannot have an affair is A is NOT keeping a secret.If A had told B about the nature of A’s relationship with C all along, the affair more than likely wouldn’t have occurred.So, going forward, in order to heal, A has to learn to make better choices.This is one of the major benefits of marriage: Your spouse has your back, you have someone to bounce your ideas off of, you are not alone, and you have a beloved that will give you a reality check on choices that come your way.Your spouse can’t be of help to you unless your spouse knows what’s going on in your life.

Oftentimes one of the most powerful magnets that draws A to an affair in the first place is A talking to C about things that are none of C’s business, things that A should have been telling B all along. So, going forward, A should tell B these things and more. I call it OVERREPORTING. That’s probably not the best term, because I don’t want it to feel like tattling, but it’s the idea that A will tell B, going forward after an affair, more about A’s life than A ever has in the past: Where A went, what A did, who A saw and talked to, what A felt for good or ill, worries and fears. Of course B should be doing this to A as well. Every partner in a marriage should be doing this. Accountability in marriage is one of the major blessings of marriage and until a couple gets this, their marriage will NEVER reach it’s potential.

A cautionary note to B on this topic:It is not B’s responsibility to make sure that A is telling B what A is doing and thinking and feeling.That’s A’s responsibility.A offers this information to B freely without B asking A because A loves B and A wants to stop and never again have anything to do with C or any other future C’s and A needs some support and help and A will need to get that support from B.Of course A can also get support from A’s pastor or counselor (preferably both A and B’s counselor or pastor), but the real test of recovery for A is A’s willingness to be open with B about what’s what in A’s life.

Having said this, this does NOT mean that B can’t ask A about A’s day. This is fine, as long as it’s a normal conversation, like, “So anything new today?” kinds of conversations. Every marriage needs regular conversations about what each partner is going through and why. After and an affair, these conversations are the ointment to help the couple heal, both A and B.

I insist to my clients who come to see me after an affair, that A will agree to tell B whenever A sees or hears from or talks to C. A will voluntarily tell B if A runs into C at work or the grocery store or wherever or if C emails or texts or calls A for whatever reason. A will also make an attempt to minimize these contacts. This assignment I give A is not for B’s benefit! It is so that A will make the right choices going forward and so that A will learn to not have secrets from B. A side benefit is that B will learn, over time, to trust A, as A demonstrates to B that A is trustable (did you catch that?).

By the way, a wonderful result of A being open with B about A’s life is that B will learn, over time, to trust A again. More importantly, A will be KNOWN. As I’ve said before, BEING KNOWN IS THE SOIL IN WHICH MARITAL LOVE GROWS. Without that soil, you’ll have puny love. To the extent that you have secrets from your spouse about ANYTHING is the extent your relationship will feel distant and cold. This is a law of the universe and you can’t change it, just like you can’t change gravity. You can deny gravity’s existence, but if you defy it you will crash to the ground.

Just because Dr. Wall says A needs to be open to B about A’s life (and vice versa) doesn’t mean the couple will be able to do this. Many can and do discover this as a new found gold mine in their marriage they never knew existed. Other couples struggle with this. I know, as a marital therapist guy, that this is fundamental, so it’s a major emphasis in my work with post-affair couples. Don’t be discouraged if it’s a struggle at first. It HAS to happen. Sometimes it’s something simple, like making sure the couple takes the time! Kids or work or supper or TV or whatever, may be impinging on the couple’s habits and there may not BE enough face-to-face time for the couple to reacquaint at the end of the day. Making this a priority and reorienting their schedule, may be the secret to making sure this happens.

The other major obstacle to A opening up to B about A’s life is that B is emotionally hurt from A’s affair and it’s easy for B to get testy or mad or too inquisitive when A tells B about this or that, particularly when it’s about C.B is going to want to watch this and keep B’s anger and B’s interrogation of A at bay.If A had an affair, there’s a really good chance that A has had a difficult time opening up to B all along.Careful B.Let’s not use our talking about our day as a time to give advice or to freak out.Let’s just listen.Otherwise B will train A not to tell B anything.

There are certainly other steps to healing after an affair which we will discuss in future blogs, but this is one of the most important.  Without this step, we’re just spinning our wheels.

*My thanks to a client who asked me specifically to write a blog on this subject.

Part One On Communication: Careful! You May NOT Be Able to Read My Mind After All!

Morality and Chaos

By now, if you’ve read any of these “blogs”, you know that I am a Christian.  That can make a few people uncomfortable.  But look, I’m not going to sit and tell you you are going to hell.  You are hiring me for a service.  You’ve got a problem.  You want some answers.  If I was a car repair shop and you came in with pile of junk I might say,

Ah, you might consider a new car.

and you might concur, but you want me to fix Ol’ Bessy, so that’s what I’m going to do.  You are hiring me for a specific job.

Certainly, if you want to talk about the meaning of life, I’d be happy to share with you what my meaning of life is.  But most people are in an immediate quandary and are wanting a way out of the mess they are in.  Believe me, if your wife is having  an affair, you are going to be glad that I have some moral bearings and I’m not going to say that that is fine that she is having an affair and it’s a free society and she can do whatever she wants and you need to get a life and quit letting other people’s decisions affect you so negatively.  You are going to find a supportive ear from me and I will point blank say that affairs are a very sad deal and if you want to ruin your life the quickest way possible, it’s one of the surest ways.  And if you are having an affair I won’t quote the Bible to you about it much, except to say,

Ah, you reap what you sow.

which is a Bible verse, but I’m not going to make a big deal out of it, because it’s pretty intuitive and the point I am making is that if you do certain things you get certain results and if you do other things you get other results and there are consequences to your behavior, for good or ill, even if your mommy never taught you that when you were two and you got your way all the time and you’ve been getting your way ever since and you can do whatever you want and look at you, you can have an affair, but don’t expect too much sympathy from me when your spouse isn’t thrilled about you getting your way on that deal.

People come to therapy when there is chaos in their lives.  Certainly, some chaos is outside our control: like a child dying or a debilitating disease, or a handicapped child, or the death of a spouse or a house burning down or being the victim of a crime or the witness of a tragic accident.  That’s tough stuff and it plays with your brain and your emotions go bonkers and talking to a counselor dude to get your bearings isn’t a bad idea.  For some reason, though, most of my clients come to see me because of the poor choices they made or their loved one’s made and or they both did together and now there is chaos in their lives.

Most of the chaos from poor choices in family life that I see has to do with sexuality.  Now our verse above says that God’s word is flawless and that He is a shield around those who take refuge in Him, and I take it to mean that the shield part is due to believing, for example, that when God said,

You shall not commit adultery,

that He wasn’t trying to be a fuddy-duddy to take all your fun away, but he said it in order to keep you from experiencing chaos in your life.   So, in the middle of your affair, you come to see me, because all of a sudden your life is one big mess, but you love your affairee and you’ve never experienced this type of love and you didn’t realize what a sexual being you were and you’ve finally discovered, that yes, indeed, you have feelings, and that there is someone out there who actually loves you and accepts you and you are attractive after all, that I’m not going to say,

You go, girl!

or guy, as the case may be.   No, I’m going to ask you,

So how’s your husband take that you are finding love in someone else’s arms?

And you say your husband is such a control freak and he ranting and raving, and you can’t get away from him fast enough, and he’s snooping and going through your cell phone and email accounts and calling you all the time and acting very insecure and scared and mostly like a crazy person, and you’ve never seen him like this, but now you are considering leaving him, because you can’t go on living like this, if you tell me all of this, I’m not going to say,

You poor thing.

I’ll probably ask about how your kids are responding to the new man in your life or if I don’t ask, you will probably tell me anyway, that they literally hate your affairee nor are they talking to you anymore and you moved out, so you could be free of your control freak husband, and now the kids don’t want to come see you in your tiny apartment, so you take them out to supper, but no one says anything and they certainly don’t ask about what’s-his-name, and you can bet they won’t want to have anything to do with him for years to come, and they will have a hard time dealing with you, too, and if they are teenagers all of a sudden sexual temptation will be easier to succumb to, even though they don’t want to end up a floozy like mom, but if she can’t respect her body or her marriage or her husband or herself or them enough to keep a lid on feelings that go against her family, why should they?  And now the school principal is calling you because your daughter, Sally, was making out with a boy at school, and you can’t believe it, and then your husband tells you he wants out altogether or you discover he’s having an affair now, too, and all of a sudden your little trip to Neverland doesn’t look so great after all, and you drag your husband to therapy and both of you say you are wanting to work on the marriage now and you are willing to stop your affairs, so then, I might say, ever so gently,

Ah, we could probably use a little morality here.

I might.  But I probably won’t have to.