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Coaching Couples Through Emotional Memories

Oct 10th, 2011 | By | Category: Family Coaching Center

Growing marriages often experience seasons of growth and pleasure followed by seasons of frustration and pain. Three steps forward and two steps back. Why is this and what can be done about it?

Change is challenging and habits are hard to break. But there’s another explanation we want to focus on so that you will be better equipped to coach your own marriage and to help others. It’s about the principle of reaping and sowing.

Why does your partner sometimes assume that they know what you are going to say, or jump to a conclusion about what you mean before you finish explaining? Is that their fault or yours?

I’ve often cried foul when that happens to me in our marriage. “Why did you hijack the listening process to confront me about something I hadn’t even said yet,” I asked. “Because, that’s what you said you meant every time you said it before,” Jill said.  Fair enough, but I’m trying to change the way I think, listen and respond.  How can I do that if I’m going to be held to the past?

Just as it takes two to Tango, it takes two to cooperate with a season of growth and change in marriage. I have to be willing to persevere in different ways of thinking, listening and responding, and she has to be willing to be patient with the process and so do I.

I asked the Lord to help me sort this out while riding my bicycle a little bit ago (one of my thinking places). “What would you have from me Lord?” I asked, desperate for a solution to a stuck conversation. “Be completely humble and gentle,” I heard. “Yeah, you’re right (as usual).  I wasn’t very much like that when I flashed in anger this morning, was I?”  “No, but that’s ok. Go forward”.  Yep, that sounds like Jesus.  “Forget what’s behind and strain toward what’s ahead.” But that’s easier said than done, Lord.  “I know,” He said. “But, I’ll help you.”  Of course.  I don’t have to do this alone.  “Thank you, Jesus.”

But, what about the flashing of emotion in the middle of efforts to grow and change toward Christ-like loving kindness? Where does such powerful emotion come from, and what can be done about it?”

My understanding of this is based on Triune Brain theory (Paul MacLean) which teaches that emotional memories[1] are our most powerful memories and that they have no statute of limitations. In other words, memories that are emotionally powerful can last a lifetime.

Here’s a hypothetical situation: Say that I make [J1] a pile of emotional memories in my wife’s emotional brain by reacting angrily to her attempts to offer suggestions to me during a season of professional failure and brokenness. Say that these unhappy rants of a wounded Lion[J2] /choleric/D temperament during a season of disillusionment and despair make [J3] a pile of emotional memories in my wife. And imagine that this pile is highly flammable, like a dry pile of brush.  It wouldn’t take much to ignite it, right? {This is actually a very real example from our life}.

What if the pile ignites?  Who is to blame? The person who made[J4] the pile or the one in whom the emotional memories are piled up in? Are you following?

Let me say it another way.  If I want something to change, maybe I need to change something.  Maybe my wife’s quick assumption about the way a conversation is going to go is a fair assumption based on the past.  It doesn’t make it right for her to jump to a conclusion but it does make it understandable.  So what can I do about it?

Let’s go back to Jesus’ counsel. “Be completely humble and gentle…mature and complete, patient, full of hope, ever persevering.” I can do that through His life in me, or I can be human and continue to ignite her piles of emotional memories, and let her ignite mine. OR, we can both take responsibility for the piles we’ve piled up in each other, and be completely humble and gentle in our interactions to neutralize these sites of potential explosions by living differently, consistently over time and thereby creating a new history to make assumptions about.

Now to the application for coaching marriages (and your own):

Be curious about the responsibility of the one complaining – If the husband says he doesn’t like something, be curious about how he might have contributed to his wife’s assumption or reaction.  ASK, “How did this develop?” Do you see how this is coaching and not counseling? It is asking not telling and diagnosing.  Your question is an informed question in light of your understanding of emotional memories and the reactivity that it helps to explain.

Ask for ideas from both of them about how to short-circuit the cycle – Ask what they think is happening inside of themselves and each other and what ideas they have to change the contribution that they make to the unpleasant and painful conversations.  Begin by asking each to identify what they bring to the equation, and then ask if they are open to hearing what their partner thinks they bring to the equation.

Listen for emotional memories – Be quick to listen for complaints from both about how the other said or did things in the past that hurt or scared them. Honor this by reflecting what they say and facilitating them to hear each other.

Facilitate Forgiveness – Help them to make apologies to each other and to ask forgiveness. Proclaim that today is the first day of the rest of their marriage, that Jesus makes all things new, and that they can walk in freedom toward a different future as they identify emotional memories and then allow the Lord to heal these[2] so that they cannot be ignited again.

Include or refer for Theophostic type prayer ministry – If you are not familiar, this ministry can bring instant truth and emotional healing from Jesus through identification of lies that have been believed, such as, “He/she will never change, He/she meant those words actions to harm me.”  The person/couple trained in this type of ministry can facilitate prayer to ask Jesus to come immediately to speak to the person and show them the truth that replaces the lie and leads to different feelings. We think it is legitimate for Marriage Coaching couples to include this in their work with couples (if they have been trained), or to refer for adjunct sessions with trained persons or couples.


Current estimates from our Marriage Coaching ministry is that the happiest and strongest couples identify 90-95% of their relationship to be awesome and the other 5-10% to be confusing, dark and stuck.  It has been our experience that painful emotional memories that have accrued with each other, or that came from earlier relationships or experiences in life contribute to the 5-10%.  Helping couples to discover these, hear and hold these, and apologize and forgive can resolve the issues in that small percentage of pain in their relationship.

Jeff and Jill Williams are a marriage coaching couple who provide direct service to couples that want coaching and training that prepares couples to do marriage coaching.  In addition to being a certified coach and coach trainer, Jeff holds a license as a Professional Clinical Counselor (State of Ohio, E-3098). 937-717-5591 or,

[1] For more information, Google Triune brain theory and emotional memories.  Wikipedia has articles on both.  It is involved and controversial to some folks, but the basic notion seems valid; that memories with strong emotions attached to them are our most powerful memories, and that these emotions have no statute of limitations.  The emotions can be as powerful today as they were when we first experienced them.

[2] This type of healing may require additional work through a technique like guided Theophostic prayer ministry which is described below.



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