Chapter 8. Growth Counseling for Mid-Years Marriage Crises

Growth Counseling for Mid-Years Couples
by Howard J. Clinebell, Jr.

Chapter 8. Growth Counseling for Mid-Years Marriage Crises

Each of us may perceive various differences, qualities, or behavior in the other as undesirable.... But we also grow through grappling, with the impasse these differences may bring. Staying with it through the impasse, and growing through them requires courage, trust, honesty, and effort; yet it is here, only in the honest confrontation of self with another through time and change in the intimate and caring relationship, that the greatest depths of personal and emotional growth can occur. (O’Neill and O’Neill, pp. 216-17.)

—Nena and George O’Neill

Many mid-years couples are in pain, including many who on the surface seem to have no major hang-ups. For some, there is a cauldron of disappointment, resentment, boredom, and emptiness beneath the facade they present to the outside world. Some have been in a quiet crisis of growing alienation for years. In some such cases divorce may be the only way out of a paralyzed and paralyzing relationship; it may offer the only chance for a more potentializing future for the two persons. But in other cases couples can rebuild their relationship on a more growth-producing contract, if they are willing to work hard with a skilled counselor.

Many mid-years couples in marital crisis have had a functional marriage down through the years. Their relationship has simply been thrown off keel by the heavy pressure of multiple losses, changing roles, and diminished self-esteem. They still have a lot invested in their marriage, which is one reason for the intensity of their fighting. Though deeply distressed, they still value many things about their relationship. With the help of a skilled pastoral counselor or marriage counselor, many such couples not only weather the storm but develop a stronger relationship as a result of learning to handle it. This chapter describes some of the approaches by which couples in mid-years crisis can be helped to grow through counseling.

Marriage Growth Counseling

The growth counseling approach is particularly useful in helping individuals and couples handle severe mid-years stresses constructively. I have described the philosophy and basic methods of marriage growth counseling elsewhere.( See H. Clinebell, "Helping Couples in Crisis," in Marriage Enrichment, chap. 8.) The approach seeks to help couples use crises as growth opportunities. It awakens hope by activating the couple’s latent resources for taking action within their marriage to increase the satisfaction of mutual needs.

In counseling sessions two questions can help a counselor ascertain whether short-term marriage counseling, as contrasted to longer-term marriage therapy, is likely to be effective: "Have there been good periods in your marriage? If so, tell me about them." Later the counselor may ask: ‘`In spite of your pain, what do you still like about your marriage (or your partner)?" The second question should be asked only after the anger and hurt have been drained off by thorough ventilation. If it is asked prematurely, the caring that may still be there in the relationship is buried beneath anger and hurt. If couples can recall good times in the past or become aware of what they each still like in the marriage, their hope may be awakened; the renewal of hope increases motivation to change. If two people have had no good periods together and have nothing that they still like in the marriage, the prognosis is poor. Short-term marriage crisis counseling will probably not suffice. However, the best way to discover if they really need long-term marriage therapy is to try short-term crisis counseling methods for several sessions.

Many mid-years couples feel deeply embarrassed and hopeless about themselves and their relationship by the time they come for counseling. It is important to affirm them and to introduce the growth perspective in the counseling by statements such as these: "It takes strength to recognize that you need help and then do something to get it." "I realize that you both feel very discouraged about your marriage right now, for very understandable reasons. You’re going through a time of severe pressures. This crisis confronts you with the need to strengthen your marriage so that it will be more satisfying to you both." "You’ve been through a lot of ups and downs together. You seem to have some important things still going for your marriage. It’s likely that you’ll be able to rebuild some of the satisfying things you’ve lost from your marriage, if you’re both willing to work at it." Whatever the counselor says, of course, must be genuine and appropriate to what he or she perceives in a particular relationship.

Resources for Mid-Years Counseling

Most of the guidelines and methods described in the first seven chapters of this book can be used in mid-years marriage counseling as well as in enrichment sessions. Much mid-years marriage counseling is simply personal instruction and coaching to help a couple apply the twelve strategies (chap. 2) in their individual lives and in their relationship to one another. Almost all mid-years couples who come for counseling need help in strengthening communication and in revising their priorities and values. Often dull sex, spiritual poverty, and crises with adolescents contribute to the escalating problems that brought them for help. In many cases, an unresolved bereavement coincided with the drastic worsening of their marital pain. For this reason, it is wise to ask all mid-years persons in counseling: "Have you had any major loss in the last few years?" If they have, and the grief wound is not yet healed, the first and perhaps the most basic help they need is in completing their grief work. (For methods of helping persons do their grief work, see Oates. Grief and Separation; also H. Clinebell’s cassette course 2B, "A Grief Recovery Group."

Most mid-years couples in severe crises need to revise their marital contracts radically. Many such couples are hurting because of lopsided, unfair contracts. It is essential in counseling, therefore, to raise their consciousness and increase their awareness of the need to correct this injustice.

After a couple’s anger and pain have diminished, and their blocked communication channels are reopened, it is helpful to introduce them to the Intentional Marriage Method as modified for use in counseling.( See above note, p. 72 )This is a hope-awakening tool which can give a couple the satisfaction of succeeding in revising one part of their contract at a time. After they have discovered that they can improve their working agreement, they should be coached in systematic revision of all aspects of the contract which are unfair to one person or are areas of chronic conflict (chap. 3). Because of the severe communication blocks present in most couples who come for counseling, it is helpful to have them write out their understanding of their contract, including the revisions.

As a couple takes each small step in implementing more mutually growth-producing ways of relating, the counselor should encourage them by expressing appreciation of their progress. This affirmation helps a couple keep on struggling to learn new communication and conflict-resolution skills, until their use of these tools produces enough satisfactions to make the process self-reinforcing and therefore self-perpetuating.

Transactional Analysis is useful to many mid-years couples in crisis counseling. Many couples have been playing destructive Parent-Child games for years, each trying vainly to make the other an always-nurturing Parent or an always submissive Child figure. Most of the futile, destructive conflicts and many of the sexual problems stem directly from this circular Parent-Child interaction. I recall several instances in which the underlying cause of a husband’s or a wife’s affair was that person’s Child side striking out rebelliously at the controlling Parent in the other. Parent-Child games reach a point of diminishing returns for many in mid-life. "Games," in T.A.’s understanding, are forms of repetitive, mutual manipulation which are substitutes for intimacy. If one partner —usually the wife experiences consciousness raising and stops playing one side of a long-standing Parent-Child game, chaos usually erupts. This kind of pain is a sign of hope, since it indicates that at least one person is fed up and may be open to developing a more mutually satisfying, Adult-to-Adult relationship.

I have described ways of using T.A. in resolving marital conflict elsewhere.( H. Clinebell, Basic Types of Pastoral Counseling (Nashville: Abingdon, 1966), pp. 134-36. For a "live" illustration of the use of T.A. in a growth counseling session, listen to cassette course 3A "Using Marriage Problems for Growth," in Growth Counseling: Enriching Marriage and Family Life) Suffice it here to say that if both persons respond to the counselor’s initial presentation of the P-A-C concepts, they should then be coached in using this tool to interrupt Parent-Child transactions and in learning to relate on an Adult-to-Adult basis. It is also important for them to identify and interrupt the one or two favorite games which have dominated their interaction for years. As Eric Berne pointed out, the all-time favorite marriage game is "If it weren’t for you...." It isn’t easy to relinquish games that have been practiced throughout a marriage. But if the "payoffs" of a game are no longer satisfying, many couples can do it, once they become aware of their games and the painful price of playing them. I often say to a couple: "You may not be able to turn off the old Parent-Child tape recordings fully, but your Adult can decide whether or not to be controlled by their messages." Individuals exercise their Adult sides by deciding and acting constructively. As they do, their Adult grows stronger and more able to guide their lives and their relationships.

If There Has Been an Affair

Frequently the crisis that brings a couple to counseling is the discovery by one partner that the other has had an affair. It is important to help couples understand the underlying causes of an affair. It is useful to distinguish between situational infidelity and chronic, repetitive patterns of infidelity. The latter often are driven by compulsive craving for reassurance about one’s masculinity or femininity, or by a vain attempt to fill the emptiness of not having had a satisfying relationship in childhood with the parent of the other sex. In such cases, the prognosis for any treatment except long-term individual and marital therapy is not hopeful.

In most other affairs, the fundamental cause is chronic neglect of each other and of the marriage, and the consequent accumulation of hurt, anger, resentment, and alienation. The affair is then a symptom of a barren relationship and of the mutual need deprivation that has produced this condition. It is essential to help the "offended" partner see how he or she contributed significantly to the malnourished relationship that made it easy for the affair to occur. A husband, for example, who is "married to his job" and spends little time with his wife, is inviting marital trouble.

Affairs in the mid-years often are "last flings." They are desperate attempts to recapture one’s lost youth or find moments of ecstasy to offset a dull, dreary marriage "before it’s too late." Such affairs often are unconscious attempts to quiet one’s fear of aging and death by relating intimately with a younger person.

In counseling, the offended partner should be encouraged to postpone drastic steps, such as initiating divorce proceedings, until he or she has dealt with feelings of intense anger and hurt. Doing this makes possible a more rational decision. In many cases, mid-years couples discover that they are better off staying with their long-term marriage than dissolving the relationship in hopes of finding greener pastures elsewhere. Affairs often are short-lived, partly because they fail to realize the dream of eternal youth for which the person is searching. If both marriage partners are willing to work together in counseling to rebuild their relationship on a new and stronger foundation, they may be able to use their painful crisis as an opportunity to grow together.

Constructive Divorce and New Beginnings

Mid-years realism and heightened awareness of swiftly passing time can help some persons face the fact that their only hope for a fulfilling life is to end a dead or deadening marriage. Speaking of their middle-aged friends whose marriages break up, Bernice and Morton Hunt observe: "While middle age can be a lengthy, joyous, liberated, fulfilling, and intensely pleasurable period of life, it is not likely to be any of those (except lengthy) if spent in the imprisonment of an outworn, outgrown, and loveless marriage. Divorce can be the greatest liberation of all for those who really need it."( Hunt and Hunt, pp. 61-62.) For couples who married for deeply neurotic reasons, or where one has grown and the other has not—or both have grown in different directions—or where one has no interest in developing a more growth-producing marriage, divorce may be an essential step toward growth.

The growth counselor’s function is to help such persons as they work through their resistance to bury a dead relationship; uncouple without infighting so as to avoid further hurt to each other and to their children; agree on a plan for the children that will be best for the children’s mental health; work through the ambivalent feelings that usually accompany divorce—guilt, rage, release, resentment, failure, joy, loss—so that each person’s infected grief wound can heal; discover what each contributed to the disintegration of their relationship; learn the relationship-building and love-nurturing skills which each will need either to enjoy creative singlehood or to establish a better marriage. Divorce counseling should help each individual move through the pain, utilizing the growth opportunity in the pain to prepare for a new and better chapter in life.

A person’s divorce growth work can be facilitated best by a combination of individual growth counseling and a divorce growth group.( The cassette course 3B, "The Crisis of Divorce—Growth Opportunities," in H. Clinebell, Growth Counseling includes segments of a divorce group with a discussion of the principles of setting up such a group.) A divorce growth group is a support and mutual-help group, similar to a grief group, in which divorcing persons share and work through their feelings and help each other make sound decisions in coping with the host of problems that single and divorced people face in a couple society. With over a million divorces in the nation each year, society desperately needs a network of such small growth groups in which persons can experience a caring community. A divorce growth group is an essential part of a church’s mid-years enrichment program. Through such a group, a mutual ministry of caring and growth can be implemented. As a participant in one such group declared: "I’ve discovered, in this group, that what I thought was the end is really a new beginning!"