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.
Needless to say I agree with everything Quentin has laid out in this blog. Assuming that mutual love motivates two people to make a permanent covenant with each other – whether or not it is sealed by God – communication is vital to the good health of a life-long commitment. I intuit that most couples learn the ‘ hard way ‘ in that the complimentary of the male/female pact must be strengthened by good communication not just in the physical sphere but in daily listening and speaking to each other relaying their deepest needs and anxieties.
Even then, after maybe years of misunderstandings or failure to grasp each others deepest attitudes /personal beliefs – including psychological or emotional problems that may beset any relationship from time to time – one can see that the initial importance of the impressing on a couple of the need to communicate well with each other cannot be overstated. One cannot speak for ones spouse, ( but she is well aware of my beliefs no doubt helped by being Christian herself ) but as a Catholic Christian in a ‘ mixed ‘ marriage sealed by God , I can testify that in growing into a mature / stable relationship later on in our marriage would have helped us probably to come to a better level of maturity earlier on . As it is, the sacramental nature of our state in life ( self-evident to people of religious faith ) from my point of view , proved to be the saving grace which formed the basis of such ‘ maturing ‘ as was needed to bring us both to this point in our lives. In that respect marriages are ‘ made in heaven ‘ – but in the sociological sphere it needs to be bolstered by the good down -to – earth chemistry of personal communication preparing for ‘ the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune ‘ which will surely come a couples way.
I have to add that not communicating everything to ones spouse can be as important as frank communication. This is a point where ones personal love/devotion to ones spouse and the concept embracing two people to marry takes over. The mixture of love and commitment is a heady one and as always has personal costs and demands sacrifices – but who said the natural way of things was easy ?
There is no doubt that marriage counselling is an important service to all couples facing dilemmas or marriage threatening conflicts. Pre-marriage guidance counselling is one important facet of the art of marriage counselling that is not readily appreciated by members of the public. What if a couple were not compatible? It would be germane to any engaged couple to understand fully the serious responsibility that they will shoulder as married partners as well as parents. Part of that responsibility would be to have a serious appreciation of the entire gamut of issues that they will inevitably contend with as a married couple.
For my money, it would be essential that all couples engaged or not, be given the tools of marriage. That would have to include skills such as communication, assertion skills, listening skills, and most importantly conflict resolution skills. While these skills can be a real assistance to most couples, they should not be conceptualised as a panacea. There will be times when stresses, time restraints and tiredness will mitigate against their normal efficacy. No set of skills can resolve any and every problem. This is precisely where a qualified and experienced family counsellor can be of assistance.
Even if a couple never had the opportunity to become familiar with any marriage skills, the main things that will get them through will be dying for the other, love, talking to one another, sharing household duties, working as a team, having an attitude of being constantly open to negotiation, and maturity. There are three things that I always keep reminding myself whenever I face a major issue, which are not set in any chronological order. One, true wealth is inside yourself. Two, the solution to most of your problems are right under your nose. And three, you are your own worst enemy.
Only hearsay, but I understand that. some years ago, a longitudinal study of marriages was carried out under the auspices of the late Dr Jack Dominian. But it ran into trouble because the process of being interviewed by the researchers at regular intervals necessarily involved the couples in deep communication. The substantial advantage of this communication unfortunately ensured that the couples became untypical of ordinary marriages who did not have this “enforced” communication.
Does this suggest that ordinary couples would benefit from an annual tune-up with a counsellor?
I will be interested to see how this discussion develops. I remember many years back mentioning a marriage difficulty in Confession, and the priest, after recommending deeper communication, said “or would that be opening a can of worms?”. I thought it was a valid point – what do others think?
It would seem that our Holy Father is dead set on opening many ‘ cans of worms ‘ within the Church. To have frank, open discussions is the gateway to change . After all to ” have changed much ” is the way to holiness. I too am interested in seeing this aspect of renewal / mending of married life which could profit those who seek such a path. For the couple involved this must always be a two- way event while seeking the Sacrament of Reconciliation must always involve – by its very nature – the baring of the individuals soul to The Almighty. Counseling with a priest / counselor in this situation can only profitably take place when the second party [ spouse ] feels comfortable expressing him / herself outside the confessional. In the case of ‘ mixed – marriages ‘ this might mean a long term process whereby the Catholic may have to explain and convince the non- Catholic partner of the efficacy and importance of seeking help to resolve such ” marriage difficulties “. In such a situation of say a mixed marriage , which would seem to have the most potential for future difficulties in the marital state, I believe that the strength of ones faith and the commitment to life-long commitment of the Catholic partner, in the long term, through the grace of God , holds the best means by which the non-Catholic partner will see the virtue of seeking repair/ healing of a marriage.
To this extent, parish life could be in the forefront in firstly acknowledging that marriages will always be in need of support. In fact family life is only as vibrant as the union which supports it. Therefore every parish should be at the disposal of its married couples to insure the future good health of the Christian family which is under attack as never before from an anthropological maelstrom of confused philosophies.
Perhaps certain cans of worms are best left unopened? For instance, hypothetically speaking, we don’t want to rush to the end of the universe just because it might be possible to do so with the examining/disclosing of some already available highly volatile information (like splitting the atom?) — even if, that is, on the other hand, we do want to rush to the end of the universe so much as growing and perfecting ourselves (as the Church) in love makes us ready for Christ’s return.
Generally I would be more worried about cans of worms which are already opened, but to which are being turned a blind eye. (Ostrich mentality.)
I would agree with that hypothesis, except for the experiential proposition – if perhaps not ‘proved ‘conclusively – that ‘ growing and perfecting ourselves ( as the Church ) ‘, does as I have stated in the mind say of Blessed John Henry Newman inevitably means changing many times on the road to this perfected/holy state. Of course as Quentin as so poignantly laid out for us, this type of counselling/ slowly turning over stones , takes – as long as it takes ! He witnesses to many ‘ successes ‘ who later on contact him about the efficacy of this approach in their later life.
Isn’t this what Pope Francis wants to achieve in this Extraordinary series of Catholic Synods ? – not just navel- gazing for the sake of it, but re-conversion/ renewal of the whole Church which will inevitably be painful and disruptive for a while , but in a prophetic sense the fruits of which , resting in the Spirits hands will be in calculable. What do we think would happen to our ‘ Church ‘ if the whole sordid, sorry business of child sex abuse had not been uncovered and in the process of being repented of ostensibly by all of us ?This , Overload is surely done in love.
Brendan, “this type of counselling/ slowly turning over stones , takes – as long as it takes!”
The stones which really need to be overturned — will they ever be overturned? Fear of the devil — or even fear of the light (which exposes what is actually hidden in the darkness) — is a bitter stronghold. Can we — do we actually seek to and ask to — let the Holy Spirit into our deepest problems and fears? The methods of confusion, distraction and appeasement ceaselessly multiply, and will take advantage of any opportunity.
In view of Sunday’s gospel reading (about our identity as “children of the light”), I was recently struck by another, beautiful, passage about “children of light”, which I couldn’t remember reading before:
But all things become visible when they are exposed by the light, for everything that becomes visible is light. This is why it is said:
“Wake up, sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”
I believe a lot of knowledge could be learned on our Catholic faith especially programmes on marriage if we could only inform catholics to watch EWTN,
I have never heard of a priest mention it from the Pulpit.
We are blessed to have such a media going for us all over the world,
Giving up five successive evenings for marriage preparation doesn’t seem too arduous given the amount of time and thought often devoted to the wedding itself.
Quentin – the man who arrived with two different fiancees – did they arrive as a threesome, or did he bring first one and then the other?
He brought both, and sat between them. He sat stolidly, and wore heavy boots — always a bad sign. At the end of the first evening we had to explain that the course was only for the engaged. (Is ‘engaged’ still used today?; indeed is ‘living in sin’ still used today?) Anyway, he didn’t come back for the next evening.
Indeed, Iona, many couples, especially brides to be, seem to focus far more attention on preparations for a lavish wedding, than on the reality of their marriage commitment, as well as arranging extravagant hen and stag parties. I wonder if there are statistics showing any correlation of these over the top excesses with the length and stability of the subsequent marriages.
Due to the fact that many marriages are sooner rather than later ‘ hitting the buffers ‘, can you give us an idea Quentin , in the Catholic world of how many of our Diocese’ have taken this way of using ‘ cognitive behavioral therapy ‘ to address the position of couples presenting themselves in the pre-marriage stage ? Because of the secularised nature of the idea of marriage now being inculcated into western culture, it would seem that apart from giving couples a thorough grounding in the Catholic vision of the true nature of Holy Matrimony, one has to go as it were ‘ back to the drawing board ‘ in order that skillful counselling may help to tease out any misconceptions each has about marital life – as well as each of them exposing to themselves in a ‘ natural way ‘ a possible pre-dispostion to things like ‘ duelling ‘ which I’m sure all married couples can testify ,more often than not ,degenerate into a poisonous ‘ maze ‘ position which proves very difficult to shed when taking hold.
I can’t give you a reliable picture of the current position. But I note, of course, the importance that should be put on marriage preparation. In my day the courses were given by Marriage Care (then called CMAC) in conjunction with the parish. The emphasis then was on mixed marriages. The issues raised at the synod about all this have drawn attention to the possible ignorance about sacramental marriage even in the Catholic partner. My view is that ideally every marriage under Catholic auspices should be attending a preparation course along the lines I described.
You will be aware that the number of marriages concerned has declined considerably over the years. Marriages per 1,000 Catholic population are now 2.55 compared to 11.65 in 1965. Check through the search box my post, Facts we have to face.
Yes, a sobering synthesis indeed. Thanks for drawing my attention to it. Given that mass communication appears to be the engine by which knowledge at least is disseminated swiftly throughout our world – one can even add galaxy – one cannot get away from the alarming possibility , that inadvertantly at least, the Church ( from the 60’s ) itself has laid the foundations for the acceptability of something like Professor Brian Cox’s undisguised humanistic view of how we got here and why. This coupled with the release of the science fiction blockbuster ” Interstellar ” – which my wife and I have have just viewed with its stunning cinematography and casual mixture of fact and science fiction – followed closely on the film ” Gravity “, says something about the mindset which is now generally prevailing regarding such ideas .
As it happens, I am proposing to post some material re. Brian Cox on Thursday, so that we can discuss his views. So I would prefer that we didn’t follow up the Brian Cox line at this stage.
Overload – Your point is well met. I often feel like seeking succour in spiritual solace rather than meet the world ( my inner trials ) head on. Or as Shakespeare said in another context – ” feeling the weight of too much liberty “. There is a danger however of a kind of Quietism which locks us away from reality which when it comes crowding back can be as equal a shock to ones system as letting rip to the ” confusion ” which would arise through “appeasement and distraction “. For me, being a mature / ongoing mature Christian means not just ‘ letting in ‘ the Holy Spirit but awaiting the Spirit to guide me in the truth of that moment in my life. I would hope that a good counselor realize ” the sign of the times ” in his/her client and accordingly direct that person on the right track. In the case of marriage repair – quality of his/her relationship. For me Christian living ( as revealed by our Saviour ) is nothing unless it is dynamic in change and direction. Some ‘ stones ‘ may have to be turned over very gently( indeed by other professional means ) , but to that extent ” fear of the Devil … a bitter stronghold ” need not be a life sentence but a portal through which reality will form the catalyst through which the grace of God will shine through in all its splendour.
Your eloquent references from Holy Scripture feel attend to my points just as well.
As creatures of habit and the immediate grace-filled comfort derived from community ritual in all human societies, I rather like the notion of ‘ renewal of marriage vows ‘ at various times in ones matrimonial relationship. It may keep our parish priests focused , with the presence/ involvement / support of the parish as the community of believers. Apart from increasing the perceived value of the necessity of conjugal marriage for the good health of society, it would help counter the de-sacralisation of daily life around us which is gathering pace.
Just to add that my own parish priest, never seems to miss an opportunity throughout the liturgical year to unite the community of believers in some aspect of ‘ belief ‘ in our daily living. We Catholics in the past gave plenty of scope for that – as long as the ‘ grace-filled moment ‘ is embraced as gift in our lives and not just the ritual.
What part does ‘ ritual ‘ play Quentin , in marriage counselling ?
‘ritual’ is used to cover a range of meanings depending on context. You could, I suppose, refer to the problem-solving framework I describe as ritual. But it’s hardly helpful.
Perhaps not in the immediacy of the work you describe.
It would be relatively easy to introduce a ritual of affirmation into a marriage. Bringing home flowers, or going out to dinner or the cinema can be part of a marriage ritual and perhaps the sony “you don’t bring me flowers anymore’ expresses what happens when the ritual breaks down.
Parents often talk about having ‘quality time’ with their chidren but how many marriages past the 10 year point make the same effort; there’s an old saying ‘familiarity breeds contempt’; marriages can break down instantly over unfaithfulness, abuse or a tragedy, but many marriages fail from neglect.
The Catholic teaching on marriage is that it reflects, in the created order, the internal, creative love of the Trinity. The Jews would not accept the Trinitarian model but would similarly see marriage, open to life, as part of the fundamental plan of creation and instituted by God.
Given this, surely what we need, in addition to good marriage preparation and maintenance is a spirituality of marriage, lived out and constantly referenced in the life of faith of the church.
The two major challenges to this are:-
Priests find marriage a difficult area because of celibacy and the challenge of Humanae Vitae, with which many priests disagree.
The laity are used to a consumer model of church, and tend to if not agree with at least tolerate the morals of our age and so a lay initiative in this area would be unlikely.
Interviewer: “Tell me, in all your long 60 years of marriage did you not once consider divorce?”
Eminent Catholic interviewee: “Divorce? Never!…Murder ..quite frequently but never divorce….
Alas in this landlocked Midlands town the subject of marriage has never been broached once from the pulpit… except several years ago briefly when we had a priest who was himself married.
Ignatius, thank you for that, much appreciated after a session with my beloved deciding where and how to hang a room thermostat! Actually, it was quite amicable, we have learned a little during our 50 plus years. Good marriage preparation is of course enormously important, and I wish it had been available for our own children, but there will always be some things only learned through experience, trial and error.
Where are enough committed and competent people to be found who can provide the ideal courses described by Quentin? Must they be people whose own marriages approach some kind of perfection?
Perfection? How do you define that?
If you mean that they don’t have conflicts, then they’ll have nothing to teach. If you mean that they do have conflicts and they’re still want to stay together… well then, they have a real message to share.
Without conflicts of some sort I don’t see how a relationship can grow deeper. With conflicts it grows … or breaks. So the whole thing is how to channel the conflicts.
I’m wrestling with the whole idea of how we can set up a network of ‘listeners’ for couples that need help in our diocese — without going all the way of marriage counseling because we don’t have enough trained counselors. Thank you Quentin for this article. It’s given me some food for thought.
Tyke, tell us a little more about your project for the ‘listeners’ network. It sounds very constructive to me.
We recently had a meeting with the Family Pastoral Service and the various groups and movements that work with families in the diocese. One of the points that came up repeatedly was the fact that couples with problems had no one to turn to apart from marriage counselors who might be based 50 or 60 miles away. Some sort of simpler local arrangement seems to be needed as well.
The vision is to have a small group of people local to a deanery, or even to a larger parish who are available to _listen_ to families when difficulties _start_ to appear. So we’re looking at the various questions on how to set this up:
1. What exactly is the mission of the listeners? They are not meant to be marriage counselors — that needs a level of expertise and training that is beyond our means. But they should be able to let the couple talk, help them identify root causes and also refer them to other sources of help where appropriate. Think ‘Samaritans’ rather than psychologist/psychiatrist. And we can note in passing that family problems are more than just tension between the couples.
2. How do we attract the ‘right’ sort of listener? One interesting idea is to work with older members of the community to reinstate a surrogate parent/grand-parent relationship which has been lost to some extent in our society.
3. How can they be trained. We already have diocesan courses available on ‘Active listening’ But we’d need to go a bit further than that (Hence my interest in your article)
4. How to make contact with the families that need help? Possibly by referral from the parish priest or other social support groups. However this goes back to the first point. The mission needs to be understood by everyone otherwise we’re not going to get the confidence from the referrers or the people that need help.
5. How to support the listeners themselves, and ensure that they’re own involvement remains healthy.
This is very much brain-storming at the moment. But we think that there is a real need out there.
OK, tyke – it sounds an excellent idea at this stage, and could work well at local level.
I suggest that you think of (call?) your group ‘Skilled Listeners’; this gives them some status – in their own eyes as well as the eyes of others.
You need to select them carefully. You must avoid listeners who have a need to tell people just what to do. And you need to avoid people who volunteer because they have been through similar difficulties, and are in danger of thinking that their solution applies elsewhere. (Ironically, it may be just the people who wouldn’t think of volunteering whom you want!)
You then have to train them. It’s not difficult to administer training, but it is quite difficult to master the skills. However, the effect is life changing.
Your skilled listeners will in fact be using a form of psychotherapy which is often called Rogerian. Think of it as a kind of midwifery in which the acceptance and understanding of the listener allows and encourages the speaker to explore, to find themselves, and to discover possible solutions. It is not aimed at the pathological – who need to be referred.
The guru is Carl Rogers. You might read his “On Becoming a Person”. Look him up on Wiki. It is important to have grasped and to be able to promote the principles of client centred therapy to your skilled listeners. But you may want to avoid the word ‘therapy’ although skilled listening brings this about.
A caution. Listeners must accept rigorous confidentiality for obvious reasons. However the law is unlikely to recognise the arrangement you contemplate as privileged. That is, there may be a legal liability to report certain matters. You should talk to your tame Catholic legal adviser about this.
Think about this, and if it would help, come back to me directly rather than through the Blog, or we will bore people to death!
Very interesting, and helpful, Quentin, not boring at all, though probably more appropriate for you and Tyke to go into greater detail directly. I for one will be looking up Carl Rogers in due course, so thank you.
I think your suggestion for a group of Marriage in trouble is an excellant idea.
How would your group (I know in early stages yet) could it be applied to a mixed marriage.
My marriage survived and I truly believe this, that is because ‘I spoke and he listened’.
I didn’t do that in a compromising way , only once or twice.
My brother asked me if I was going to make him a catholic before we married, and I said certainly NO. he did with his wife 3 months crash course.My husband had one years instruction with the priest in the West Country where he moved to when we got engaged, I stayed in London until we married After his instruction they played cards until midnight, he loved it!.
Back to’ I spoke and he listened’. We were visiting my brothers mother-in-law in Devon,my brother lived there, so we didn’t go to Sunday morning Mass we were going to go to evening Mass, however we stopped in a Fun Fare on the way home with my brothers 4 young children and my 6 and 7 year old, time was passing and it was getting late so I said to my husband we better leave now or we will be late for Mass, he told me to sush, my brother said to me ‘Why didn’t you be a Nun and live in a Monastery.We did not get to Mass. I said to my husband ‘If you ever do that again I will leave you’.. He never did He knew he was in the wrong and apologised, and worked for the Church, for SPUC with my children, helped with NFP, came to Mass every Sunday, raised money from the Public House we ran for the new parish, Organised Fetes for the Parish etc, Then in his last 3 years before becoming ill at 64 bought a Motor Caravan and went around the country signing catholics up on Hot Bird to watch EWTN. that was after going to the Cannonisation of Padre Pio. Then became a Catholic One of his last wishes was that EWTN came on SKY, and it did just before he died, being Confirmed 3 days before that. May he RIP.I miss him 9 years now, especially now.
It sounds as though I bullied him but I didn’t just reminded him that he had a duty.
We had our disagreements but being both in the same mind with Holy Mother Church.we got over them. My children are still practising catholics, thanks must go to him as well
The results from my Scan showed my tumour on my pancreas has not grown thank God, but I do need another 3 months of Chem treatment to make it shrink starting next Thursday,but not so severe as the last one.
I thank everyone for your prayers again.
Quentin I apologise if this post is too long, I didnt count the words!
I wish you courage with the chemotherapy and good health as a Christmas present (you know one of those Christmas presents that lasts and lasts!)
The idea behind the listeners’ network, is to somehow let couples discover that God has signed up with them for the long haul, and that their relationship is important to Him. Nothing in there to say that they both have to be Christians or whatever else. Three problems with that approach is that (1) I don’t want to frighten people away by being too ‘aggressively’ Christian; (2) it should be useful to non-believers without comprising the Christian perspective and (3) it should not be directive.
No-one said life had to be simple!
Thank you for sharing your story. Like Quentin’s comments it helped me to think about how this should go.