by Joel Silverman, MA, LPC
It can get very crowded in my office during marriage counseling. You might think I only have the couple and me in there, but I can feel the presence of many more people edging their way into my small space. When a couple comes in for marriage counseling they each bring with them an entire family tree full of examples of how to be in a relationship. There are the healthy role models in their lives, but also the histories of dysfunctions, unwritten rules, family secrets, myths, addictions, and a skeleton or two. How are two good-hearted people supposed to create a healthy relationship with all of those folks looking for attention? It can get a little claustrophobic.
Of course, most of these extra people are locked in the unconscious of the couple. Often they are not really accessible until they make the leap to get some help. With the presence of a marriage counselor, the couple can gain awareness of all the old baggage they carry into their present day marriage. They can also get in touch with the scared children inside them who don’t know about intimacy but know how to fight like kids on a playground. These wounded people may have created a “false self” that came about as a form of protection against trauma, family stress, and other childhood wounds.
So what to do with such a rambunctious group? First, I try to bring them into the room. We talk about the cast of characters and the effects they’ve had on each partner. Through the use of a genogram, a psychological family tree, we can identify the important people who have influenced our lives, their place in our history, and their good points as well as their difficult personalities and behaviors. We can also visit their own upbringing. For example, if his dad was a traumatized war veteran and her mom grew up in an abusive family, they may have fought often and been unable to create a safe environment for the kids who have now grown up and found each other. These children may have grown up in a chaotic atmosphere where they felt lonely or even abandoned. They may seek out a partner who fills some of the needs not filled through good parenting. They may choose someone who may, at first, feel more like a “good parent.” This person they felt attraction to may appear to be safer than their own parents. Of course, this does not create a stress-free and equal relationship. No one really wants to be married to a child who needs reparenting. Yet, that is what I often see. The husband or wife will take on the child’s role and hope to get the love and attention they did not get when they needed it most. These people often find a partner who appears to thrive in the “caretaker” role. These are the “false selves” I often see in the form of well-intentioned adults.
As soon as we can recognize the roles that are being played out, we can start working with the real adults in the room who want to create an equal relationship filled with love, intimacy, and friendship. This is the kind of conscious marriage that can really last. And those scared little kids who disguise themselves as you and your spouse? You can help them through the process by acknowledging their existence and letting them know it’s ok to let the grownups be in control of the conversation-especially when it gets heated.
Marriage counseling works. When a couple can get in touch with the childhood wounds that have informed their choice of a mate, they can start to make positive and lasting changes to the relationship. Marriage counseling can help you gain awareness of your own unconscious feelings and behaviors and help you work with that person you fell in love with, not against them. It will help you leave your parents, their negative influences, your “false self,” and the rest of that unruly crowd outside the door.
For more information about creating a “conscious marriage” check out Getting the Love You Want: A Guide for Couples by Harville Hendrix.
If you would like to speak to a therapist about this subject or about any other issue you may be experiencing, contact the Maria Droste Access Center at 303-867-4600.
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Joel Silverman, MA, LPC, is a member of The Therapist Group at Maria Droste Counseling Center in Colorado. He specializes in Individual Therapy, Couples Counseling, and Addiction Counseling.