He was a big, affable man and his attractive wife was petite. He explained to me how his wife was accustomed to attack him physically. And he had the scars of her fingernails to prove it. I was counselling in a presbytery in London. A mile away, in another presbytery, my wife was counselling a woman who had a disabled child. The child was sired by her own father. None of this will surprise a parish priest: all human life is to be found in the confessional or amongst those who seek a little word with him after Sunday Mass. Our job was to give practical help to those he steered into our counselling rooms.
The model I used was “The Skilled Helper”, developed in the 1980s by the Jesuit, Gerard Egan, at Loyola University, Chicago. This was a problem solving framework which could be applied in a range of counselling circumstances. I was later to use it for my own “Managing People and Problems’, 1988 – which was gratifyingly published internationally.
The format was similar to that to be developed for cognitive behavioural therapy, which I described in my last column. It started with a listening stage in which the counsellor non-judgmentally took in the client‘s story, reflecting his understanding of how the client experienced the problem. This was followed by mutual exploration, which the counsellor gently guided. Usually they discovered that what had been a multi-faceted issue could be distilled into one or two key difficulties.
Following this analysis, goals were set for change. These followed the established rules for effective goals, in particular their order and concrete nature. More often than not, the client – or clients — needed specific training to achieve these goals. The last, and often lengthiest, stage was the achievement and monitoring of these goals over, perhaps, several weeks.
The application of this simple format required considerable skills. The range of difficulties was broad: how would you for instance help a couple who find that they share no interests, or a wife distressed by her husband’s addiction to pornography? But the common run of married or cohabiting clients shared the same common problem: communication.
That sounds like a motherhood word, but there is no doubt that the quality of sustained communication is a common factor for the good or ill of this relationship. The circumstances of marriage continually change — from young couplehood to parenthood to the empty nest and to retirement. The psychological needs we have in our twenties are not the same as we have in our fifties. Circumstances may vary from poverty to plenty and, perhaps, back to poverty again. And every change requires a new adaptation to each other, without a guarantee that both partners will adapt in the same way. No wonder that many people take for granted that marriage is a temporary state.
But there is communication and communication. The etymology of the word suggests a coming together as one; it requires not only the giving of information but also receiving it through listening. The first comes naturally, the second does not. Many conversations are a little like playing table tennis – we only take in what our partner is saying in order to whip back our response. Useful exchanges require that we listen to both the words and the feelings of the other, and acknowledge these before we respond. It is not hard to distinguish duelling from communication. It is through this ability to understand how a situation is seen, understood and felt by each other that accord can be achieved; it is the main tool for adjustment within the changing circumstances of a marriage.
Of course there are many reasons for marriage difficulties other than communication, but I found that it was so often a contributory factor that I spent much time drilling couples in this difficult skill. And drilling was needed. I would ask X to explain an issue already raised, from his point of view, and Y to respond by showing that she had taken in both the facts and the feelings. When they got it wrong (often) I checked them, and they had to start again. Frequently, that exercise enabled them to solve the actual problem in question – providing the proof of the pudding.
Given the pain which a couple may suffer, perhaps over years, before they come to counselling, it is a pity that they were never schooled in communication when they were preparing for marriage. This, I would argue, is a main function of marriage preparation courses. It cannot be done over a single day because the couple must develop and mature over a period. Subjects (such as ideal family size, what difficulties could arise in a mixed marriage, discipline and children, savers versus spenders, female and male attitudes to sexuality, natural family planning, marriage as sacrament, commitment) need more than information — they require actual practice in exchanging views. And most of that practice will be homework between sessions.
It might sound ambitious to ask a young couple to give up five successive evenings. But, except for the odd couple who leave after the first week, the rest will stay the course. – they are far too interested to leave. You can watch couples maturing before your eyes, and, in a very few cases, see a couple learning that they are not ready for marriage. (We even had one young man who came hopefully with two fiancées to see whom to choose.) Even now, decades later, we still meet couples who volunteer how formative these courses were for their own marriages.