Monday, September 21, 2015

Counseling as a Couple: 10 Lessons from a Happy Marriage by Stephanie McRae

Counseling as a Couple

10 Lessons from a Happy Marriage

What is Counseling as a Couple?

To “counsel” is “the act of exchanging opinions and ideas” (American Heritage Dictionary).

Counseling as a couple can be a casual conversation in the kitchen about how to divide the housework. It can be at the dining room table around a rough-draft of the coming month’s budget. It can be a consoling e-mail to or from a deployed spouse. It can be a long conversation after the kids go to bed about how to help them cope with a recent move. It can be holding hands in the temple while pondering the possibility of welcoming another little person into your family.

1. Talk Often
If you’re married, you should talk to each other. Are you in the car together? You could be talking. Are you at the table together? You could be talking. Do you go to bed together? You could be talking.

At least some of that talking time needs to be without interruptions (a.k.a. children).
If you find you regularly cannot talk without interruptions, you may need to reevaluate the children’s bedtimes. My parents routinely sent us to bed early, allowing the lights to stay on for quiet reading time. A lot of little troubles can be discussed during such a quiet hour, possibly over the laundry or the dishes.

2. Take Notes on Things to Discuss
As you go about your day, you may have ideas about things that need discussing. If a decision affects both you, it should be discussed (I try not to volunteer my husband for things). If the children you are raising together have a single big problem or a recurring little problem, it should be discussed. If you have ideas for Family Home Evening, an upcoming vacation, or a wish list for dates, those should be discussed.

If you have a great memory, just try to remember to bring it up with your spouse later that day or week. If you like to be organized, you might jot a note on your to-do list or in your planner, to remind you.

Once things have been discussed, decisions may need to be noted on the calendar, budget, shopping list, etc.

3. Take a Rain Check
Suppose I’m in the middle of dinner prep combined with homework help chaos. My husband, who just got home, starts talking about his plans to build a cabinet for the electronic equipment in the living room. It’s too much for me to focus on at once. I can say, “Honey, that sounds important and I would love to talk about it, but right now isn’t the best time. How about after dinner?”

Another rain check to take is if it’s getting late and there is no end in sight (or someone is getting emotional). Just say, “Honey, I’m too tired to think straight. Can we talk about this in the morning?”

4. Research, Ponder, and Pray
For big decisions, my husband and I use a pattern I call “research, ponder, and pray.” The type of research will depend on the decision being made. Are we considering a big move? We will want to research the cost of living in the area. Is there a problem at school? The research might include a book on learning styles or a parent-teacher conference.

When making decisions as a couple, it isn’t enough to just ponder by yourself. To make a unified decision, you need to discuss your feelings and thoughts with your spouse. To equally “exchange opinions and ideas,” roughly half of that discussion should be you talking, and the other half should be you listening. Some quiet pondering (before or after discussing) could happen in the peace and quiet of the temple.

Include God in your big decisions. After attempting to reach a unified decision together, see if it feels right through prayer. This prayer might be at the end of a joint fast, at the end of a discussion, or just at the end of a long day. If possible, praying silently side-by-side in the temple can also be a powerful resource.

5. Allow Time
Unity on some issues may be a distant destination. Elder M. Russell Ballard, explaining how the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles reaches a decision, said, “We discuss a wide variety of issues, from Church administration to world events, and we do so frankly and openly. Sometimes issues are discussed for weeks, months, and occasionally even years before a decision is made” (as Quoted in “Counseling Together in Marriage,” Ensign 2012/June by Randy Keyes).

If the Quorum of the Twelve can take years to achieve unity on an issue, surely I can give my husband and myself time where we allow ourselves to not agree, without becoming disagreeable.

6. Divide the Research
For us, often one spouse will research a topic and then we will come together to share findings. It will be whoever is most interested in doing the research. If we’re considering replacing a computer or a car, my husband will spend hours and hours researching the consumer reports, prices, and how things work. That’s his kind of research. I would hate it. He will summarize his findings for me, and we will discuss them together.

If the decision involves nurturing the children or home d├ęcor, I’ll usually do the research or footwork. When “we” planned a summer incentive chart for the children, I spent a lot of time thinking it through. I had ideas for what I wanted the children to learn how to do, and activities they could earn. I presented the plan to my husband in beta form. We discussed it before finalizing it.

In this way, we can synergize our talents and be more effective than we would be otherwise.

Discuss Big Purchases: A Personal Story
My husband just started work on his master’s degree. He needed a laptop so he can take his studies with him when he is deployed. The only laptop we own has barely functioned for the last several years. We had a discussion about it. We decided it was a need, not a want (under the circumstances). We discussed our savings account. He went out and did some research. When he found a special discount, I encouraged him to take advantage of it. After the kids went to bed, he went out and bought the laptop. When the children came down in the morning, they were surprised and excited to see it. “Mom! Look! Dad bought a new laptop!” Cory laughed and said, “Mom knows there’s a new laptop. There wouldn’t have been a new laptop if Mom hadn’t known about it.”

7. We Are Equal and We Are Different
My husband has a degree in Rocket Science. I’m a stay-at-home mom who was unable to complete my B.A. because of our growing family. So what? We’re married, and that makes us equals in our home. Choosing to marry each other, choosing to be yoked together in the work of creating a family, we chose to place each other as equals.

He loves science and technology. I love art and literature. He goes with the flow. I make plans. He’s a man. I’m a woman. We’re different and we love it. Our family is enriched by the different talents and abilities we bring into it.

8. Be Respectful
I am my children’s mother, but I am my husband’s wife.
I don’t volunteer my husband to move the neighbor’s piano, monitor how many episodes he has watched, or pester him about eating in the living room (although I may request he vacuum once he’s done). He doesn’t tell me how to cut my hair or “volun-tell” me to make refreshments for a family he home teaches. He’s an adult, and so am I. We treat each other that way.

The family proclamation teaches us that one principle of a successful marriage is respect. Because we seek unity, we choose not to manipulate, micromanage, or nag each other.
If my husband is having a difficulty at work, I don’t embarrass him by calling his boss and sharing a piece of my mind. I let my husband work through it in his way, unless he specifically asks me for assistance.

Likewise, my husband doesn’t pester me about every little thing I manage around the house. If the children need an immediate answer to playtime or homework and Daddy isn’t around to discuss it with, I’ll address it myself with full authority. Now, if I notice a pattern of problems with the children, I may discuss that separately with my husband.

Do I need to exercise more, start dinner earlier, or coddle the children less? Does he need to play games less and home teach more? We probably already know it. An occasional comment or hint lets us know our spouse is also aware. That’s usually it, for us. If he needs to change, I can’t do it for him, and nagging just makes us both unhappy.

9. Be Romantic
If all you ever discuss are budgets and children, then you aren’t enriching your marriage. In an interview with Elder and Sister Ballard, Sister Ballard said, “When our children were little and my husband was serving as bishop, we would get a baby-sitter and go out at least once a week—nothing fancy but we spent some time together. We would sit down and try to talk objectively about our lives. I would ask, “How do you think we’re doing?”
Elder Ballard added, “And I would ask what I should be doing. They were great councils” (—and-sister-ballard?lang=eng).
Here are some other possible discussion starters:
What is the first thing you want to do when we retire? Place you want to go?
What do you want to do to celebrate our next big anniversary?
I’ve started a Pinboard for redecorating our bedroom. Would you like to tell me what you think of the ideas?
Can you name 5 things I do (or you wish I did) that make you feel loved?
Is there anything I did when we were courting (or newlyweds) that you wish I still did?
How have we changed in the last ten years? Are there things you used to like that you don’t anymore? (My husband was recently shocked to discover I no longer enjoy strawberry milk. He had been using it as a special occasion fall-back for years)

If you really want to improve your marriage, it might help to research some professional ideas. I like The Five Love Languages (If you’re in the military, definitely get the military edition). Just doing the “love language” quiz in the back might be eye opening.

10. Listen to Your Husband
Talking is easy. Listening is work. I have 13 ½ years of experience listening to my husband. Here is what I have learned.
Sometimes, the best thing a wife can do is listen. As the wife of a rocket scientist, sometimes his monologues can be a bit hard to follow, but I try because I love him (and because I expect him to listen to me).

I listen to my husband share his experiences from work. I listen to his concerns about his career. I listen to him talk about his interests and hobbies. Sometimes he gets really technical and I have to stop everything so my brain can follow along. But most important, I listen to my husband when he has been listening to the Spirit. Sometimes I ask my husband for a priesthood blessing. What I am really doing is saying I will listen to him as he listens to God.
Often in the Celestial room, my husband ponders and prays about his career. A military life is not easy on families. Is it still what God wants us to be doing? If my husband has been seeking the Spirit on an issue, I pay attention to anything he has to say about it, and listen attentively before bringing my thoughts into play.

Remember Mary and Joseph? Mary had the baby, but when there was danger, God sent the vision to Joseph to take their family to safety. Mary listened to Joseph, and their little family was able to act on the counsel given and stayed safe.

Sometimes God will speak to one of us before the other on an issue. Sometimes one of us will have more wisdom or experience in an area. That’s okay. That’s why we counsel. We counsel (exchange opinions and ideas) because we are stronger and wiser together than we are alone. More inspiration will come from the Holy Ghost when we are working together than when we are alone.

General Principles in Specific Lives
It seems to me that general authorities often teach general principles, and usually leave up to us (and personal revelation) how to apply those principles to our specific lives.
In this post I have shared a lot of specific ways my husband and I apply the general principle I have occasionally heard of counseling as a couple. These specifics feel right to us, and seem in harmony with our understanding of other general principles.

If the specifics I have shared don’t feel right for you and your marriage, I encourage you to study the general principles (especially those found in general conference talks) about marriage and family. Then counsel and pray about specific applications for your marriage.

Stephanie M. is a military wife and mother of 5. She teaches Gospel Doctrine and Teachings for Our Times in her home ward on the home front. She authors the blog Love Is Homemade (

Thank you, Stephanie, for sharing this great advice with us. Remember to share your family-related photos and the reasons why you love the proclamation under the hashtag #ILovetheFamilyProclamation all month long.

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