Usually it’s not too long before this question comes up- often at the end of the first session as the couple looks to me with a combination of hope and despair and says “do we have a chance?” Surely I am not the only counselor that this question is posed to. Holding multiple credentials brings a wide variety of clients to my practice including a fair amount of marital work. It’s like taking your car to the garage and asking- can you fix this? We know there are things we should or could have done to maintain the car but once a problem hits we really hope and want for someone else to just make it right for us. But a marriage is a complicated vehicle and may have been mired in rust and dust for a long time.
Of course I’d love to say- “who knows? Do you think I’m a genius or what?”, but in reality I share what is the truth I have come to know, which is an expansion of my initial thought. I really do not know the outcome for any session or process, much less for the larger picture of someone’s life. But I know that the more someone owns an internal sense of driving that outcome, the better their odds are.
In the initial sessions while rapport and trust are being built and a pile of history gets combed through, the other process that hopefully takes place is the transfer of responsibility for this task from me to them. Oh, they will say “we know we have to do the work” but their secret hope is you have some tasty morsel of wisdom that will speed the process or magically transform the misery into productive progress. I know I share their fantasy and wish! In reality though, we open the hood and start to check out the systems that run this marriage, and until we check things out or admit what needs replaced or renewed- nothing will start up a stalled marriage. Client and counselor alike suffer when hopes get in the way of the in-the-moment work of repairing a marriage or relationship.
Over and over I remind them that they are the experts, they have the history and the will, they can define their relationship and change it if they choose. They are in the driver’s seat. Sometimes I ask them to create a drawing or artwork that depicts a mode of transportation to represent the marriage. Who is driving? Are they low on fuel? Where do the repairs need to be? When were they last in the back seat making out? I do use humor whenever I can- life is serious enough. I may be the mechanic they are visiting, but no one lives at the mechanic shop and if they can just learn the sounds of distress and do more preventive maintenance I feel sure the relationship will not require towing.
This transportation metaphor really seems rich and many husbands, in my experience, have some new thinking about their marriage when they can delve into this metaphor. For example, many couples complain about diminished intimacy, sexual frequency, affectionate gestures or other relationship maintaining behaviors. These things are sometimes seen as “frills” or something that goes away over time in some natural process. However, when I point out that most marriages are like a new car- you love everything about it at first, love to show off the car, go places, polish it up. But over time if you stop doing that your car loses its luster- literally. And on a day to day basis if you don’t fill the fuel tank- you really aren’t going anywhere.
In a marriage, that fuel is kindness, affection, respect, and the outward demonstration of those things- not just thinking about them. Men will tell me “she knows I love her” or “she knows I want her” and I just use the metaphor and say- “oh so if your car knows you realize it needs gas, then it will just keep going even if you don’t fill it up?” This conversation alone has been my best gift to some couples… not rocket science I realize, but basic maintenance steps can yield good results. Spoken like a true mechanic.
Joan Phillips is a counselor, art therapist, and marriage and family therapist. She maintains a private practice and teaches at the University of Oklahoma.