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How to Coach Your Marriage Through Difficult Conversations

May 23rd, 2011 | By | Category: Family Coaching Center

The primary difference between couples that remain together in mostly pleasurable relationships and ones who don’t is the way they resolve conflict. Happy couples have found a way to work through conflicts in a way that builds the relationship, while unhappy couples deal with conflicts in a way that erodes the relationship. Methods that erode relationships include stone-walling, withholding, explosions and passive-aggressive tactics, to name a few. Anything other than direct and honest discussion is corrosive. Thankfully, a coaching approach to conflictive conversations is a great way to protect your marriage.

Conflict is inevitable if we are honest with ourselves and our partners about our thoughts, feelings and desires. We have different feelings, different perspectives and different desires. Basically, we will want different things at different times and have different ideas about how to handle situations, etc. Our point is that potential for conflict is enormous!

While coaching a couple yesterday, we were reminded about a common destructive cycle that is easy to slip into. He is intense and emotional when upset. She has emotional allergies from being maltreated in past relationships. When he speaks in a loud and emotional tone of voice, she freezes and tunes out. The more she withdraws, the more he pursues, and the more he pursues, the more she withdraws. Both become increasingly frustrated to the point that they walk away from the conversation. Usually, a long period of hopeless silence ensues.

Both partners want to be connected with shared understanding. They are tired of living together but apart; sick and tired of misunderstanding, hurt and hopelessness. It’s only their faith in The Great Physician that brought them to sessions with us. They are willing for a marriage miracle; willing to hope in faith for what can be, and what God wants them to have in their marriage!

Some will contend that this is a circumstance more appropriate for counseling than coaching due to the presence of pain. But our experience continues to be that when both partners are motivated to grow and change, and willing to work together on a shared goal, that a coaching approach can be effective.

In this instance, the couple’s shared goal is to hear and to be heard. They each want the full strength of their honest thoughts, feelings and desires to be heard, and they each want to be able to hear.

Now, the way we coach this is the same way they can coach themselves. The questions we ask are ones they can learn to ask themselves, or more importantly, that they can ask their marriage. What? Yes, that’s right. They can step back from participation in their marriage to observe their relationship and to ask themselves what it would ask for if their marriage could speak.

Here were some of their answers: “With respect to the way we handle conflict, our marriage would ask for a slower pace and more gentle expression of feelings. It would ask us to take turns hearing each other, and for us to reflect what we hear from each other. It would also remind us that we need to take turns speaking and listening; that to have balance and fairness we both need opportunities to be heard.”

The next thing we did was to ask for a recent example of a conversation in which some of the desired ingredients were present. “Just this morning we had a good conversation. I (the wife) was about to stop sharing about something but then said to myself, ‘I’ll try and maybe he will do different than usual.’ He did, and it really felt good to me. He didn’t fly off the handle in an angry way with his own opinion, and so I felt safe to continue sharing.” We commended her for taking a risk, and commended him for doing differently in listening. She thanked him, and he made a mental note about what he did differently that felt good to her.

Consider the process to this point. We asked the couple what their marriage would ask for. They identified some general qualities of conversation. Next, we asked them for a recent example in which some of these qualities were present. The next step was to ask them how they could have such conversations in the future. She said that she could tell him when she notices that he is listening in a way that makes her feel safe. He said that it would help him to be willing to do more of this if she would try to do it for him too.

The final portion of the session was to help the couple set a goal to practice this new way of having challenging conversations. They agreed to list five topics they would like to talk about, and to set three thirty minute blocks of time during the week to try to have conversations about the least challenging topics on their list. They also agreed that if one of them becomes overwhelmed or upset to the point of not being able to do the conversation well, that they will ask for a time-out. And, the other partner would respect the time-out for a mutually agreed portion of time during which they would both pray, reflect and perhaps journal to get a handle on their emotions and perspective.

After being coached through a goal-setting process, this couple expressed a higher level of confidence that this is something they can do for themselves at home. How well?  We’ll see. But we expect to hear progress in their ability to coach their own marriage and increased pleasure as they practice having emotional and conflictive conversations in a way that builds their relationship.

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