Anyone who has tried to change something big in life — such as giving up a bad habit, or starting a good one — knows that it isn’t easy. There are a lot of reasons why this is the case, and a quick Google search will probably reveal plenty. But one thing that makes it harder is that we often do not see the whole picture. We do not see all the things that we get out of the status quo — things we would lose if change actually happened.
A while back, I was working with a couple in marriage counseling. The big problem in this couple’s relationship was the male partner’s alcohol addiction. His wife wanted him to quit drinking, and he said he wanted to quit, too. Yet over and over, she discovered that he had been drinking and lying about it. We met a number of times, talking about wounds from his past, poor self-esteem, and so on, but after a while, it became clear that under the surface, probably unconsciously, he did not want to change. Promising to change but not actually doing it was actually working well for him.
The costs of the status quo were obvious — pain, shame, fights, fear of losing the relationship. But the benefits of the status quo — and the costs of change — were not. Every time he wept and apologized, and promised to do better, his wife would flood him with forgiveness, affection, and affirmation. She would tell him how much she believed in him, and how much good she saw in him. Now, obviously there is absolutely nothing wrong with forgiveness, affection, and affirmation. But counter-intuitively, his pattern of alcohol addiction had become a very effective means of getting them. And on top of that, he got to keep drinking.
Now, I am certainly not saying that this was the reason for his addiction, or that the addiction ended when the whole picture came into focus. Overcoming substance addiction is usually a long and difficult road. But this man could not begin to walk down that road until both he and his wife saw what he was getting out of staying where he was.
Denver has most of the counseling and psychotherapy options that you would expect to find in a reasonably-sized, US city. So what are those options? What kinds of counseling are available?
First, it is worth describing the basic types of professionals who can legally practice counseling in Colorado.
This state is unique in the US in that Colorado allows people to practice psychotherapy without proving that they have any relevant training and without going through a licensing process, provided they first register with the regulatory agency that oversees the profession, known as DORA (Department of Regulatory Affairs). A registered psychotherapist could be an experienced, well-trained practitioner, or quite the opposite, so it is important to ask about his or her qualifications. Many registered psychotherapists are counselors who are still in the process of completing the requirements for one of the licenses issued by DORA. Others may be professionals whose training, education, or experience does not qualify for one of these licenses. Regardless, it is always a good idea to ask about credentials, training, and experience when you begin working with a psychotherapy professional, and by law you have a right to receive that information.
Next: Part 2 (coming soon)
One good reason you and your partner might need marriage counseling or couple counseling is that you have a issue you can’t agree on, or a problem you haven’t been able to solve. And no matter how many times you’ve gone around in circles with each other, having the same conversations or the same fights, it never gets much better. For many couples, these fights create emotional wounds that make it even more difficult to resolve the problem.
During therapy sessions with a marriage counselor or couple counselor, you and your partner will probably gain a deeper understanding of the pattern in which you are stuck. You will probably also learn more about the underlying, basic needs that you are both trying to meet through your relationship. And hopefully, in the process of learning these things, you and your partner will gain greater appreciation and empathy for each other.
Bottom line? If your marriage or relationship seems stuck, think about marriage counseling or couple counseling. Yes, it takes courage to admit you need some help, but isn’t your relationship worth it?
Most of the people I know have mixed feelings about seeing a counselor (aka therapist, psychotherapist). They talk about counseling like it’s a good thing, something that might actually be beneficial, but when it comes to actually picking up the phone and calling one, they just … don’t. Just the other day, a friend of mine said that she and her husband probably needed to see a counselor. Yet in the same breath she said, “But we’ll never admit we need help.”
People will go to the doctor when they have a body part that isn’t working right, or pain that is stopping them from doing what they want to do. And they will join a gym or hire a personal trainer to improve their physical performance and appearance. But when their emotions, thoughts, behaviors, or relationships stop working for them, or cause them pain, they don’t seek help.
I’m certainly not the first person to observe this, but I think we are held back by the Platonic idea that the mind is somehow separate from the body. In spite of all the evidence to the contrary, I think we believe, deep down, that we ought to be able to control everything that goes on in our minds. Somehow we suspect that if something is wrong in our minds, it is a reflection on our character, or our identity. Somehow we believe that improving our mental functioning should be as simple as making a decision.
The reality is that most of what occurs between our ears is outside of the realm of our awareness, let alone our direct control. And regardless of our personal beliefs about the relationship between spirit, mind, and body, it is a biological fact that our memories, emotions, thoughts, and even personality, are very much tied to the electrical and chemical processes going on in our physical brains. Seeing a counselor (or other mental health practitioner) should not be a source of shame, but a normal part of taking care of ourselves. It doesn’t mean that a person is crazy, or can’t “get it together,” any more than going to see a doctor for back pain, or going to a personal trainer to get in shape.