Strength in Partnership

Reinforcing Relationships Through Counseling

Mtn Living Mag April 2009

Two men stand side-by-side and work under the hood of a nearly-restored muscle car. Their eyes never meet as one talks about his teen-aged son and the other about his mother-in-law coming into town. From the driveway to the kitchen, a similar conversation plays out between their wives. The women wrap their hands around coffee mugs. Their eyes scan one another for subtle clues as they chat face-to-face.

From the driveway to the kitchen, the same discussion played out between Liz and Janine, their wives. The gals wrapped their hands around coffee mugs, but their eyes scanned one another for subtle clues as they chatted face-to-face.

Both kinds of communication have cemented these couples’ strong friendships, but intermingling the styles doesn’t always work. It often leads to criticism, defensiveness and more. Why? Along with a difference in physical equipment, men and women communicate differently. Men prefer parallel talking – picture men fishing or watching football. Then, observe women commanding attention in a tête-à-tête.

“Men are more quickly emotionally flooded, and so, shut down,” said Marie Schimmelpenninck, licensed Marriage and Family Therapist at New Leaf Wellness Building in Flagstaff. “Cortisole rages, and they cannot engage. Women calm down by connecting with their eyes.” It’s that simple. And not a problem, if we use such keys to unlock the mysteries in our marriages.

Three Stages

Another key is to understand how relationships change over time. All is well when people are first in love. “We are reptiles in love,” said Schimmelpenninck. “Our reptilian brain is activated in this first stage by primitive, instinctual reactions.”

We don’t judge, we just enjoy. “There is no activity registering in the neo- cortex according to MRI results,” she continued. “Initial sex follows the same development. Then, couples are disappointed by the crack in the beautiful sex they had because thinking entered into it. People are driven together to procreate – and that’s wonderful – but you can’t constantly be procreating. You have to cook dinner, finish that report and pay bills. All of a sudden, a Northern wind blows and one of you says, ‘What? I can’t believe you said that! Or did that!’”

It’s a relief to find that such situations are completely normal, even predictable. But they are also avoidable with pre-marital counseling. The reassuring bottom line:   Differences are negotiable if couples get help at nearly any point. When Schimmelpenninck and business partner, Bob Tures, lead workshops, they break love down into three stages.

The first is enchantment. This is solely experiencing. People fall into lusty love. The hallmark is ‘we are the same.’ Differences are positive and cute. This equation reads, 1+1=1.” The second stage is reality. The reality is “we are two different people,” so 1+1=2. In this stage, differences aren’t funny anymore. They’re frustrating and hamper smooth sailing. The third stage is the relationship itself, which is 1+1=3. This happens when two people create synergy through a strong partnership. This is where couples really take off into the wild blue yonder.

“The child in us would just love to be the idealized person in someone’s life – safe, cared for – but we fall from Paradise at some point,” said Schimmelpenninck with a grin. “It’s OK. You’re naked and turn toward one another, and instead of thinking, ‘What can I get out of the relationship?’ we think, ‘What I can give to my partner?’ People fantasize that love should conquer all – like it’s a superhero – but our actions are what strengthen and sustain love.”

Because of upbringing and temperament, couples naturally draw apart when they face transitions in their lives: first baby, seven-year itch, re-marriage, empty nest, retirement. And between these events, we incur job losses, money issues, health crises, moves and deaths to stress us. All of these leave couples vulnerable to affairs, feeling alone and out of control.

“Marriage needs to be a sacred place – safe, accepted and where you’re able to express worries without blame – a place where you can solve those worries as a partnership,” said Schimmelpenninck. “Couples should act as a team, using their differences to their advantage.”

Powers for Good

One way to do this is by creating a Couples’ Vision, courtesy of Imago Therapy and author of Getting the Love You Want, Harville Hendrix, Ph.D. Each partner fills out a blank list with their married expectations, couched in positive language. Example: “We are a couple that makes time for sex, negotiates expenditures, encourages one another…” From the two lists, one emerges that focuses a joint vision.

The power of positive words shouldn’t be forgotten either. In fact, it takes five compliments to deconstruct a criticism. Express love and appreciation through gestures and words regularly, like breathing – because doing so is as vital to maintaining life in a marriage as air.

People say, “Love me for who I am,” in a sweeping bow to acceptance, but they’re focusing on behaviors, and behaviors can change. Healthy couples become better people through their devotion to a better relationship. NAMLM  Gail G. Collins

Read more about making marriage work by Marie Schimmelpenninck with useful links at:

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