Chapter 4. Relationship-Building Tools

Growth Counseling for Marriage Enrichment
by Howard J. Clinebell, Jr.

Chapter 4. Relationship-Building Tools

The elements [of a dialogical relationship] are, first, a relation . . . between two persons, second, an event experienced by them in common, . . . and third, the fact that this one person, without forfeiting anything of the felt reality of his activity, at the same time lives through the common event from the standpoint of the other. 1. -- Martin Buber

The most satisfying and most complete example of ego transcendence, and certainly the most healthy from the point of view of avoiding illness of the character, is the throwing of oneself into a healthy love relationship. 2.

-- Abraham Maslow

The central task in both marriage enrichment and marriage growth counseling, is to help couples enhance their dialogical communication skills so they can nurture their love and resolve their conflicts constructively. What counts is the actual practice of new communication skills. And being coached by a counselor or group facilitator is the most efficient way to learn to use them.

What follows are communication and relationship-building tools which I have found useful in both couple counseling and marriage enrichment groups. The best way to learn to use them, and simultaneously to enhance your own communication skills, is to experience them. So, invite your spouse (or any close friend) to join you as you try them. There’s no "right" or "wrong" way of experiencing any of these methods. Your actual experience of them, however, affords your best opportunity to increase your ability to communicate. Improving communication with others begins by enhancing communication within ourselves. In the first two exercises have someone read the instructions, stopping as long as necessary at each slash (/) for you to do what has been suggested.

 Strengthening Self-Awareness

Find a comfortable position; close your eyes to concentrate on your inner experience.!

Center down; become aware of your body in this moment.! Breathe deeply several times, letting your tension go out as you exhale./

Picture your inner space, your consciousness, as a room within your mind. What kind of room is it? How is it furnished? How does it feel inside your consciousness?!

If your room feels cramped, enlarge your inner space by pushing back the walls -- give your spirit more room.!

Stay with your awareness now as you experience the center from which you relate.!

Open your eyes and share your experience with your partner (or your group).!


Experiencing Inner Liberation

Developing a mutually liberating marriage depends, in part, on the degree to which we are free spirits. We project our feelings of trappedness or freedom onto our intimate relationships. This guided meditation focuses on inner liberation, and on our power to choose to be free within ourselves.

Get comfortable, close your eyes; center down, claiming your inner space.!

Picture yourself inside a closed box.!

Push on the sides to experience being boxed-in.!

Examine your box, looking for a way out.!

If you find a way, get out now.!

If you’re still in the box, invite whomever you need to help you out now.!

See yourself in .a beautiful spring meadow, enjoying its freedom and openness. Let yourself go!!

Be aware of differences between your feelings in the box and your feelings in the meadow.!

If you’re alone, invite someone to enjoy the meadow with you.!

What in your actual life is represented by the particular box and meadow which you created?!

Return in your thoughts to where you’re presently meeting, and share whatever you experienced with your spouse (or small group).!

What biblical themes come to your mind as you reflect on your box and meadow experience?!

Share these with each other.!

This meditation goes to the heart of growth counseling -- inner liberation leading to liberating relationships and ultimately to liberating institutions. I find I spend too much time in my box and not enough time in the inner freedom of my meadow. But this is my choice and I have the power to change it! How about you? Discuss this now.!


Listening Responsively

Learning to listen sensitively, staying on the other’s feeling wavelength, is a vital marital skill that can be strengthened by practice. Facing each other, one person simply states what he! she is feeling and experiencing right now. The partner listens carefully, and every few sentences, summarizes what was communicated both verbally and non-verbally, beginning with the words, "Do I hear you saying (or feeling). . . ?" Use no other questions or responses. Just try to understand the other’s inner world; let that person know you are trying to understand, and keep checking to see how accurate your understanding is. Do this now.!

Now reverse roles and let the other partner practice the responsive listening.!

In workshops, two couples can work together taking turns coaching each other in listening more effectively. In counseling, the procedure can be used like this: "John, would you tell your wife how you feel about this?" Then (after he does so):

"Mary, tell your husband what you heard him say, just to make sure you understand each other."


Affirming Our Strengths

Growth counseling helps couples become more aware of the assets in themselves and in their marriage. These methods are "hope-awakeners":

Affirming Our History

Think back and recall two of your happiest experiences together. Relive these briefly in your memory.!

Tell your spouse about your memory experiences. / Recall two difficult or bad times which you handled well; be aware of the strengths it took to cope constructively./

Share your memory trips, affirming your strengths from both the good times and the bad times.!

Giving Gifts

Be a gift giver -- tell your spouse all the things that you regard as his or her major assets, strengths, and attractive qualities./ The recipient should respond in terms of how those assets might be used more fully.!

Now, reverse the process. (In a small group each person takes a turn at receiving the "gifts" from the other members.) /

Sharing Strengths

Take turns (in couples or in small groups) sharing something that made you feel especially good about yourself during the past two weeks.!

Take turns sharing something that was heavy or painful to bear.!

Now discuss how you feel about sharing recent joys and pain with each other.!


Risking and Trusting

Here are some experiences for getting in touch with the trust/mistrust feelings so crucial in marriage:

Trust Jogging

Take turns leading each other for ten minutes each, with the one who is led being blindfolded; include at least two minutes of jogging.!

Discuss what you learned about trusting each other.!


Turn to your spouse and both talk gibberish (nonsense sounds) for one minute -- risk appearing foolish, stupid, not in control.!

Share your feelings about this.!

Tell your spouse two secrets that will make him/her feel good.!

Discuss why you had not risked telling these secrets before.!


Evaluating Our Working Values

Value conflicts often go unrecognized and create blocked growth and pain in many marriages! Understanding each other’s values, caring deeply about some of the same things and respecting the spouse’s right to differ on other things -- all help keep a marriage growing. Here are two exercises which can be used to help couples clarify and revise their values in two crucial areas in marriage:

Evaluating Our Time Priorities

Close your eyes and relax.!

Imagine you’ve just been told that you have a limited amount of time in your marriage before one of you dies. How do you feel about this?!

What changes will you make in your present schedule and life-style in order to use the remaining time for the most important things? After a few minutes, open your eyes and share your experience with your partner.!

If you experienced depressing or anxious feelings, these can be constructive pain -- the pain of facing your finitude. Facing the fact that all of us do have a limited amount of time can make our lives together more precious. This exercise has helped some couples decide to spend more time together and less on the treadmill.

Evaluating Our Money Priorities

Close your eyes. Imagine that you have received a windfall of $15,000, the only condition being that you must spend it within two weeks.!

Decide how you’ll spend it.!

Open your eyes and each of you jot down your list of expenditures, without comparing notes.!

Now, compare your list with that of your spouse, discussing your assumptions about what’s important -- the values which guided your decisions.!


Increasing Spiritual Intimacy

Continuing growth in the dimension of personal faith, in experiences of transcendence and in one’s sense of relatedness to God and creation, is important in both marriage counseling and enrichment. Spiritual enrichment can well be the integrating center of marriage enrichment programs. Here are some ways to help couples communicate and grow in this area:

Drawing Your Theology

Take a piece of paper and a box of crayons.!

Without planning what you’ll do, express your feelings about God (or the Bible, or religion, or the church). Do it quickly. Let your fingers express freely how you really feel about these matters.!

Share your drawing with your spouse, discussing its meaning.!

Paraphrasing Biblical Passages

Working as a couple, read 1 Corinthians 13 (or another passage) and write out a paraphrase (in your own words) in terms of your own marriage.!

Share your paraphrases with your group.!

Doing Theology

Our personal theology includes our guiding principles for living and relating. Each of you write out a list of insights from the Bible that you find realistic and meaningful in your marriage.!

See if you can combine your list and that of your spouse into a joint theology of your marriage.!

Celebrating the Gifts of Marriage

After struggle, pain, and growth together in a counseling session or enrichment event, it’s good to lift up, in a brief worship happening, the gifts of the Creator which have been experienced together. Celebrate now whatever you have experienced in using these growth tools: move beyond communicating about the experience to the deeper sharing which is communion.


Enhancing Sexual Enjoyment

Many couples can improve their sex life and rekindle romance by methods such as the following:

Creating a More Sensual Setting for Lovemaking

Devise and implement a plan to do this -- for example, by adding candlelight, mood music, a waterbed, a "childproof" lock on the bedroom door, or finding a secluded meadow or beach.

Cultivating the Art of Mutual, Non-demand Pleasuring

Give each other a leisurely, full-body massage, using warm body lotion. Just relax and enjoy it. Flow with the pleasure wherever it takes you. Don’t worry about "making it" or get caught in the "we try harder" syndrome. Enjoy receiving and giving sensual pleasure. Sex is one of God’s best gifts -- so enjoy it leisurely and lustily.

Telling Each Other Exactly What You Enjoy Most

While you’re pleasuring or "making love" try signaling by sounds, words, or gestures which words, caresses, smells, motions, positions, or love-play you find most stimulating, and when you’re ready to climax. It’s very much to each person’s advantage to guide the other in maximizing pleasuring!

Reconnecting Regularly

Sex is communication -- an intense form of communication! It improves as other communication bridges between you are strengthened. Spend some time together each day seeking to get reconnected through communicating, caring, affirming each other, and dealing with small hurts and frictions that otherwise may build into a cold wall that blocks the flow of loving, sensual feelings.

Letting Your "Child" Side Play Regularly

Try scheduling mini-vacations at least once a week -- times away from the things that keep your inner "Parent" (the responsible, work-oriented, "don’t enjoy" side) activated. Some couples swap baby-sitting to assure themselves time together away from their children. Letting your fun-loving side frolic regularly refills the inner springs and also enlivens sex. "Unless you become like a little child. . . "


Coping Constructively with Conflict

In marriage and premarriage enrichment events and in crisis counseling it’s important to help couples become more skillful in handling the conflict and anger that are normal in any close relationship. Here are some methods that help:

Scheduling Regular Times for Clearing the Air

Minor annoyances, hurt feelings, and conflicts can grow into major problems. At appointed intervals, at least weekly, bring them out and articulate them. We try to do this on Wednesdays at our house, so that we can enjoy our more relaxed weekend opportunities for intimacy. The biblical wisdom about not letting the sun go down on your anger (Eph. 4:26) is salutary for marriages.

Discovering Physical Ways to Release Pent-Up Frustration

Beat the pillow or pound the bed with fists or a tennis racket, or kick a cardboard carton, until the held-in feelings are released and drained off. Or, as a couple, a few rounds of harmless pillow-fighting or Indian arm wrestling -- with the stronger person using his/her weaker arm to equalize the struggle -- can help bring repressed negative feelings to the surface where they can be dealt with.

Negotiating No-Lose Compromise Solutions

Keep your inner Adult in control during negotiations. See to it that in such negotiations each person’s needs are met to some extent. The heart of any conflict is a collision between the needs/wants of the two persons. In a marriage, if one "wins" and the other "loses" both lose because the relationship is hurt. 3. The Intentional Marriage Method (see above pp. l0--17) is a method of positive conflict prevention and Adult-to-Adult conflict resolution. Couples who have learned how to use the Parent/Adult/Child aspect of Transactional Analysis (see p. 81, n. 23) have a tool for conflict resolution and for employing the IMM more effectively.


Other Sources of Marriage-Building Tools

Additional tools for enrichment groups and growth counseling are plentifully available. 4. However, I recommend that you develop your own repertoire or growth tools, learning from others, adapting and creating your own.



1. Martin Buber, Between Man and Man (Boston: Beacon, 1955), p. 97

2. Abraham Maslow, Motivation and Personality (New York: Harper & Row, 1954), p. 251.

3. Bach and Wyden, Intimate Enemy, p. 53.

4. See, e.g., Nena and George O’Neill, The Open Marriage (New York: Lippincott, 1972), end of each chapter; also H. Clinebell, People Dynamic, pp. 46 -- 53; and Highlights of a Marriage Enrichment Workshop, in my Growth Counseling Cassettes series.