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Ten Small Steps to Big Rewards

Good parent counseling needs to start with good marriage counseling

Over decades of working with families, I’ve learned that I cannot always understand kids and their parents without understanding spouses. In other words, sometimes, good parent counseling needs to start with good marriage counseling.

I have also learned that counseling will often end up in a different place from where it started. The discoveries of each session can dramatically shift the overall focus. Not only can the client be surprised by a new direction: sometimes the therapist must also totally reassess things. Or put another way, what we all thought the trouble was may not really be what the trouble is.

Getting at the root problem

My specialty is families. People call me to talk about parenting and discipline: a sixteen-year-old is spiraling out of control, a thirteen-year-old argues with every breath, a ten-year-old “just won’t listen,” a seven-year-old has single handedly launched his teacher into retirement, a four-year-old throws fiery fits that can set off the sprinkler system—in another building.

So while my counseling most often begins with a look at what is going on with a parent or child, it doesn’t always stay there. Whatever the initial complaint—a frustrating child, a frustrated parent, poor discipline style—it often quickly becomes apparent that the core issue is not in the parenting; it is in the marriage. The core issue lies not in how a certain big person gets along with a certain little person; it lies in how the two big people get along. Parenting struggles may be one sign of marital struggles. The husband-wife relationship can reveal a lot of dissatisfaction unrelated to the original kid-centered upheaval.

The “presenting problem,” as we call it in the counseling business, may be young Jacob’s addiction to computer games and his resultant crashing grades. Within two visits, though, Dad admits to buying all the games because he doesn’t see anything wrong with them and to disagreeing with Mom’s whole approach to discipline. Further, he considers her too controlling, not only of all things electronic but also of their other two children and of him. As it turns out, his computer game stance reflects an emotional alliance with his son that has formed gradually over the years, while his relationship with his wife has progressively deteriorated.

What might have seemed to be a good, commonsense suggestion early in therapy—limit or eliminate the games—becomes unworkable in the face of the conflicted marriage. Dad’s resistance will sabotage the most basic of parenting ideas. The course of good family therapy must now involve improving the marriage.

Choosing the right focus

Routinely a parent will enter my office with myriad complaints about his or her child: Katy talks back, can out-argue a trial lawyer, challenges any and all caretakers, can erupt with the slightest emotional bump, and is the sole reason her nine-year-old brother wants to move out. The situation has been years in developing; now it appears to be an overwhelming and intricate mosaic of discipline bewilderment. “Where do we begin? And how?” lament Mom and Dad.

Fortunately, although family life may look pretty deteriorated, it can start to improve quickly with some simple ideas. For example, if Katy is a young child, I might advise her parents to send her to the corner for a time at the first gesture of uncooperativeness or defiance. If she’s older, I might tell them to require a several-hundred-word essay for each and any form of disrespect. And naturally there will be no privileges until the discipline is quietly served.

Nothing too fancy. Just a few discipline adjustments. How could such elementary ideas improve matters, especially given the seeming complexities of the discipline brew?

In fact, frequently they do. At the very next session, not uncommonly a parent will express shock at the noticeable change for the better in conduct and attitude, even in “really stubborn” situations. Sometimes trouble spots that have not even been directly targeted, such as sibling quibbling or homework hassles, respond to one modification. How does this happen? How do such minor adjustments lead to major improvements?

I call it the “cascade effect.” The changes, however narrowly targeted, set in motion a whole new positive chain reaction. Now the parent relies on “the corner” instead of arguing or yelling to get cooperation. Katy learns that Mom and Dad mean what they say; thus she argues less. With less arguing, good will has the chance to thrive.

More good will elicits more compliments from parents. Katy feels better overall, and she tries harder to please her parents. Mom and Dad feel softer toward this once highly exasperating youngster, and so, while firmer, they become kinder in their approach. As a result Katy spends less time in the corner more time free from discipline. Everyone’s mood brightens as daily agitation declines.

Granted, it takes time to expand such changes into a permanent way of home life, but in the meantime, the family’s downward momentum and been arrested and reversed. The family’s discord, which had seems as intractable as it was ugly, has proven to be unexpectedly responsive to some relatively easy changes. Small changes can bring big effects.

We see another illustration of this in the field of medicine. If you take two aspirin, you can cure a headache along with neck stiffness, visual sensitivity, nausea, and fatigue. If you take antibiotics for your abscessed tooth, you can quickly alleviate a whole cluster of bodily symptoms—fever, joint pain, muscle aches, lethargy, loss of appetite.

Within psychiatry, relatively simple interventions can reduce or conquer a litany of physical troubles. For example, take depression, with its blue mood, social apathy, decreased appetite, poor sleep, self-deprecation, and a lack of energy. In many cases all of these symptoms respond well simply to the implementation of an exercise regime.

No “secret keys” to marriage

Let’s draw a parallel to unhappy marriages. Practically speaking, the puzzle often looks unsolvable: communication is poor, intimacy is lacking, affection is minimal, disagreements are routine, and arguments escalate quickly. How in the world can you begin to undo these knots of interrelated struggles?

To be sure, some marriages are seriously disturbed. One or more critical threats assault them: major psychiatric disorders, spousal of child abuse, infidelity, alcohol or substance abuse. But overall, most unhappy unions are not marked by such pathologies. They would more accurately be termed the “daily discontented.” On the whole the husband and wife are decent people who would like their marriage to work. Once they loved each other much better, and their warmth was more obvious. Their problems have developed over time, as they drifted apart or as life brought more stresses.

In my experience, most marriages, no matter how near the point of no return they may seem to be, can not only pull back from the edge but also dramatically heal and grow in intimacy. Is mine a therapeutic exception to the norm? Not at all. You likely know of marriages that were at one time unpleasant, unfulfilling, and even close to divorce. And yet now they have come up from the grave and are actually growing more alive each year.

A recent survey confirmed this. When couples in troubled marriages stayed together and were asked five years later about their relationship, 86 percent reported that their marriage was much improved (see Linda Waite and Maggie Gallagher, The Case for Marriage: Why Married People Are Happier, Healthier, and Better Off Financially, 148).

One small step at a time

The following practices infuse good marriages. That’s why I present them here. You will find no psychobabble, no fancy communication strategies, no grand alterations in lifestyle—just some simple ways to break bad habits and replace them with good ones. And obviously, since I am a Catholic, these practices come from a Catholic perspective, but there is nothing religious about them (apart from Christ’s admonition to love your neighbor—especially your spouse—as yourself; see Matthew 22:29).

One caution: just because something is simple does not mean that it’s easy. How to treat another better is akin to learning multiplication tables so that we can use them in daily life. In family life—both in marriage and in child rearing—most of us know what to do. We just need to do what we know.

I would love to make it unnecessary for you to make an appointment with me or any other marriage counselor. While each couple’s situation is unique, I think any marriage will benefit from applications of these ten small steps.

Small step 1:

Say “I’m sorry.”

If not the top two most healing words, the phrase I’m sorry has to be in the top ten. It’s a major psychological paradox that words brimming with so much good will for all involved can be so difficult to say out loud. One needn’t be 100 percent in the wrong to be moved to say them. Any little parcel of blame can be cause for a heartfelt “I’m sorry.”

Be the first to express regret and doing so will get easier—not merely from practice but from receiving the reaction and reciprocation likely to come from your spouse.

Even those of us most faultless—in our own eyes—have a hefty capacity to say the hurtful, do the harmful, entertain the hostile. Maturing morally is the work of a lifetime. The transformation begins with the recognition of when you’ve done wrong and when to say you’re sorry.

Small step 2:

Don’t say it.

For better or worse, none of us is Mr. Spock, the character on the TV series Star Trek, who acted only by reason. Even Spock, being half human, half alien, never succeeded in eliminating every vestige of emotion. It lived still, deep in his personality.

We will never conquer all hurtful emotions. Emotions are part of who we are. But we are endowed also with a will, the intellectual, decision-making part of us, to rein in any bad effects of those emotions. And some of the worst effects are the words that accompany them.

Practice silence for seconds during the peak surge of negative emotion, and the urge to put that emotion into words will recede. Better judgment will be allowed critical moments to assert itself, if not every time then enough of the time to avoid much relational damage. Follow this rule: when you feel most compelled to say it, don’t say it.

Small step 3:

Listen a minute.

You don’t learn much by talking. And if you want to know what another thinks and feels, especially about you, you learn nothing by talking. You must listen. Not only will you learn, you’ll also soothe. Staying quiet and attentive, however briefly, puts the brakes on the hurtful momentum of words and emotions.

Give your spouse one uninterrupted minute. You’ll receive a clearer picture of how she sees you and your marriage. You’ll also quiet her mood. It’s hard to feel unrelentingly upset toward someone who is giving you both ears. And when you do speak, you’ll know better of what to speak if you listen a minute.

Small step 4:

Ask a few questions.

Socrates taught his students by asking them questions. He probed for what they thought, how they thought, and why they thought it. Whether married or not, he had wisdom about relationships. He understood that people want to be understood, especially by those close to them, such as their philosopher teacher or spouse.

Listening and questioning is a synergistic tandem. The two activities accommodate one another. Listening encourages freer expression. And freer expression encourages questions. It is said, “You can’t know until you ask.” Or, more to the point, you can’t know someone’s mind and heart unless you ask. Listening is the first step to understanding, but to understand more and better, you have to ask a few questions.

Small step 5:

Accept it.

One aim of any kind of counseling, personal or professional, is to change behavior and its accompanying attitudes. Listening starts the process; questioning continues it. Why is another thinking, feeling, and acting so? Answers come from the willingness not only to hear what is being said but also, at some level, to accept it. Only then can there be progress.

Disagreements in marriage, especially intense verbal ones, can be lessened by an honest effort to accept, for the moment, the other’s position or reasoning. You may be dumbstruck by what you hear. You may consider it downright ridiculous. You may not understand in the least how anyone could see it so. Nevertheless, to tone down the rancor and to nudge your spouse to look more closely at himself, for just a little while, accept it.

Small step 6:

Dump the d-word.

Words can move a marriage in either direction. They can build or destroy. One of the more, if not the most, destructive words to assault a marriage is the d-word: divorce. Its utterance alone, even if lacking intent, can foster disillusion, detachment, or depression. It invites the thought of the formerly unthinkable.

At first mention, the d-word may be probing for a reaction or a threat to prod a partner toward a little more cooperation. Once introduced into the marital discourse, however, divorce can evolve from the possible to the probable to the preferred.

Divorce is a door most spouses would hope to leave closed. Stay away from that door. Dump the d-word.

Small step 7:

Use your manners.

Familiarity breeds contempt. So goes the old saying. More accurately, familiarity breeds laziness. And few dimensions of familiarity are as prone to laziness as the use of good words. And few good words decay more quickly than the simplest: manners.

More than socially conditioned exercises in etiquette, manners carry a broader message: “I respect you. You are worth my affording you the same courtesy I afford other, often conscientiously so. Indeed, you deserve more.”

Manners speak their meaning through repetition. Polite words add worth and a pleasing sound to any words they precede or follow. Draw a grownup lesson from the old preschool admonition: use your manners.

Small step 8:


There is only one foolproof way for spouses to escape discipline disagreements: don’t let the kids in house. While father and mother often discipline differently, the ideal is that each complements what the other lacks.

Seldom anymore are men called to protect women from threats like cougars and bears. Nowadays the perils are closer to home and, some would say, more menacing: the kids. Men, use your God-given attributes to protect your wife from childish disrespect and mistreatment. She will appreciate it more than your realize, and the benefits to your parenting will extend well into your marriage.

Women, allow your husband to be a strong disciplinarian, in the finest sense of the words. For men, the instinct is hardwired—the instinct to protect.

Small step 9:

Make a list.

Do you know what your spouse likes about you? I mean, really likes, down to the bits and pieces? Does your spouse know what you really like about her? Do you know? Could you write it down?

More telling, would you find it harder to list the positives than the negatives? The strongest marriages can atrophy in their acknowledgement of the other’s good attributes. In those most strained, the criticism can bury the compliments.

Recall what you once admired about your spouse. Some of it must still be there, in some measure. Ponder her present attributes—physical, emotional, moral. Whatever the bad, it doesn’t invalidate the good. Work your memory, massage your perception, uncover the positives. You may find a picture that you’ve long ignored or denied. Transfer the picture from mind to paper. Share it with your spouse.

One quick way to restore some balance to the words in a relationship is to make a list.

Small step 10:

Add a touch.

Savvy counselors listen to the words of language. Savvier counselors also listen to the words of the body, or body language. What is another saying when he is not talking? Sometimes a whole lot.

Speaking well to your spouse may involve no words at all but gestures. The simplest yet often most profound words of the body’s language come through touch. Requiring little in the way of effort, a touch conveys much in the way of marital expression—love, acceptance, admiration, concern.

If you want to speak warmly and you can’t always find the right words, add a touch.

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