Tag Archives: marriage

Conflict in Marriages and Families

Conflict is a good thing.  It is a necessary part of life, progress, growth and movement.  Conflict is a part of marriages and families that holds great potential for growth and maturity.

In Psychology Today (March 23, 2017) Elizabeth Dorrance Hall observes that there are least three reasons conflict is a good thing in relationships.

  1. Conflict signals a need for change.

The biggest room in anyone’s life is the room for improvement.  Conflict pushes us out of comfort zones and wakes us up to opportunities and challenges that enrich our lives and equip us for bigger challenges.

2. Conflict celebrates our interdependence.

Relationships are fascinating mixtures of independent people trying to work together in mutually beneficial ways. Our unique personal preferences, priorities and goals will conflict with those qualities of another unique individual.  Healthy relationships learn to celebrate the differences that push us to grow beyond ourselves.  They do this by identifying the points of conflict, working to understand each other’s perspective and collaborating to discover new and different ways to compensate for those differences.

3. Conflict is almost never about that which it seems to be on the surface.

In marriage and family therapy we often see conflict as the symptom that is calling attention to the real problem.  Everyone is enriched when we  push past the conflicting symptom to discuss the deeper values and principles that at stake.


Metaphors abound in nature to illustrate the benefits of conflict.

  • Chicks necessarily pecking to exit their eggshells.
  • Germinating seeds that push through the dirt to find the light.
  • Road graders that must push aside the soil for a highway.
  • Students trying to push through assignments before deadlines.
Conflict handled in a mutually beneficial manner holds so much potential for good.  It is unfortunate that many see conflict as more of a threat than an opportunity for growth.
Sometimes we are more interested in making sure our issues are heard and understood than we are in considering the viewpoint of the other person.  It does not take much time or effort to be misunderstood.  Conversely, understanding and being understood takes time and focused attention.


The truth is that there are few ‘simple’ solutions easily applied that readily result in positive outcomes.  At the same time there are some general guidelines that may be helpful.

  1. Seek to understand rather than to be understood. Listening is a skill to be learned and practiced.  It is particularly challenging to practice our listening skills when we strongly disagree with what is being said by the other person.  Conflict is easier to manage when we take the time to listen and reflect so we can respond carefully.
  2. Observe the “STOP” rule to avoid destructive conflict.  When the destructive communication begins to emerge, each person should be given the right to call a ‘time out’.  Follow this immediately with agreeing to meet at a better time and place and try again, applying Guideline 1 (above).
  3. Seek win/win solutions.  Win/lose and lose/lose situations rarely succeed in resolving feelings.  When one person ‘wins’ an argument by intimidation, the ‘loser’ is left to come up with a way to resolve feelings that can be pretty intense .  Lose/lose situations occur when each person compromises, losing something in order to win something else.


Work to achieve solutions where each person feels that they have been heard, understood and respected.  Everyone wins when we spend the time and energy to arrive at mutually beneficial solutions to conflict.

Routines in Marriages and Families

One day last week I got up as usual and showed up at the gym at the usual time as part of my daily routine.  There was only one problem.  I forgot that it was Saturday.  The gym opens 30 minutes later on Saturday mornings.  I knew that; I just forgot.  So, I put gas in the car and came back, checked messages on my phone.  No big deal.

Routines are helpful parts of our usual day because they allow us to execute mindless tasks while thinking of other things or talking to other people at the same time.  Think of the mindless tasks we execute every day when we dress, eat or brush our teeth.  Multitasking is enabled by simple routines.  Routines are helpful.

Establishing routines can be an exercise in efficiency.  For example, I know that when I use my key to open the trunk of my car, I will, without thought, leave the key in the lock.  This way I won’t lock my keys in the trunk…like I used to do…until I learned a new routine.  Now, I don’t have to waste time waiting on a locksmith to open my trunk so I can get my keys.

I like to keep routine office hours.  This way, people know when they can come to my office and have a face-to-face conversation without having to bother with an appointment.  I do my best to maintain those regular, predictable office hours; but, there are exceptions.


In marriages routines are important ways to establish and maintain  trust.  Regular, predictable behaviors and attitudes over a long period of time build relational strength and flexibility.

For example, when one partner knows the other will be at a certain place at a certain time it becomes an expectation.  It is part of the routine.  A simple text message or phone call when the routine is changed can assure partners that all is well; no worries.  However, repeated disruptions of routines without warning can erode trust; a key to lasting relationships.

Partners tend to choose to believe the best when routines are maintained and they are informed about sudden changes.  Unexpected changes in routines without clear lines of communication can lead partners to begin to question their choice to trust.  If left unattended, trust in one’s partner can become a serious question.  In decaying relationships, partners can actually begin to believe the worst, even for the most innocent of alterations to routines.

Routines are important.


A common refrain I hear from the self-employed business owner is that good help is hard to find.  When asked what the most common problem they must face with new employees I often hear that they are not dependable.  In other words, their routines have not adapted to show up for work on time rested and ready to be productive throughout the work day.

A potential employee may have a predictable routine of staying up late at night playing video games, sleeping later than most in the morning and being sluggish throughout the day.  Nonetheless, as comfortable as the potential employee may be with similar routines, they will likely have to change when a typical day-job with responsibilities comes along; that is, if they wish to in crease the probabilities for lasting employment and a good reputation.


More than just something to do over and over, routines can be keys to trust in your relationships.


So, You’re Getting Married?

By now many will have picked the setting for the wedding, worked out the invitations and the mailing list, chosen the reception and honeymoon locations and taken care of many of the details in between.  Now it is just a matter of planning for and going through the wedding itself.

With the time, energy and expense that goes into preparing for a wedding might I suggest that one expense worth considering is pre-marital counseling.  Usually 4-6 sessions can encourage thoughtful conversations before the knot is tied rather than risk potentially explosive confrontations later.

More importantly, there are times when certain insights and new understandings before tying the knot can enrich our lives afterwards.  Especially when it comes to communication skills, conflict resolution coaching to help couples push through tough issues constructively can be priceless.  The skills needed to produce more win/win situations can make all of the difference in contrast to the win/lose scenarios that can be so destructive.


Marriage and Family Therapy

In April 2014 we closed the Trenton office in the southeast part of Michigan to move to Saint Joseph on the southwestern part of the state.  Since July 2014 I have been working as the Lead Minister of the Church of Christ of Saint Joseph, settling in to become better acquainted with God’s people here and the community around us.  My goal has been to discern God’s leading and how my private practice will fit into my ministerial responsibilities.

This year I began seeing clients at the church building and I have found it to be well suited to my needs as a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist.  Therefore, I am now taking appointments with individuals, couples and families, dedicated to “Helping people overcome obstacles, manage transitions and reach their potential” according to the principles of brief, solution-focused marriage and family therapy.


New Year’s Resolutions and Marriage and Family Therapy

January1I don’t make new year’s resolutions.

I’m doing pretty good to make–and follow through with–one-day resolutions.

“One day at a time” is a great phrase for a recovery program, a project with a hard deadline, a new year’s resolution and, according to Jesus, a life.  For example, in Matthew 6:34 He encourages His listeners not to worry about tomorrow because today has enough trouble of its own.

“You know how to eat an elephant?” the man asked.  The answer: “One bite at a time!”

In my own life I have found that a year is too long precisely because it is too long.  Nonetheless, after building up 365 one-day-at-a-time events a year does not seem so long and is more easily achieved.

Sometimes people want to schedule appointments for counseling in rapid-fire succession.  They want this because of the urgency with which they desire change to be implemented.  The problem is that solutions to problems may take more than a few days or weeks to achieve.  Sometimes it is important to encourage people to take their time to implement change so that it is both achievable and lasting.  So it is not uncommon to schedule appointments two to three weeks apart.

Coming off the holidays, paying the credit cards off after all of those Christmas presents and getting back to work usually kicks off the new year.  We managed to hold it all together to encourage quality family time over the holidays but then, at the beginning of the year…. Bam!  Everything is back up in the air and the elephant walks back into the living room to have a seat on the floor.

So it is with Marriage and Family Therapy…one day at a time to get you where you need to go.

Marriage, Holiness & Spiritual Growth

In his book, Sacred Marriage, Gary Thomas asks a powerful question: “What if God designed marriage to make us holy more than to make us happy?”  Holiness is one of those things we want to leave in church buildings. Rarely do we attribute the marital contract between two people as a holy, spiritual covenant.

In our world today these kinds of assertions bring a sobriety to life that is humbling.  Happiness is such an important goal to which we aspire that we often feel betrayed and burdened when it is hard and painful.  The hope that we will find a clearing in our marital relationships where we can run freely, hand-in-hand into the sunset, just like in the movies, eludes many marriages from beginning to end.

Does that mean that those relationships that do not achieve a romantic nirvana are of no value?  Of course not.  As I watch my own parents move closer to the margins of life I see their love and care for each other during their ‘Golden Years.’  For them, it truly is the golden years but with a very other-worldly quality that transcends their struggles and suffering, leading them to a place where their undying love for each other is deep, strong, vibrant and as youthful as ever.

Tony Reinke on John Piper’s Desiring God blog site made some similar oservations in a recent article about the marriage of Abraham Lincoln, inspired by the realistc depiction of the struggles of his marriage to Mary Todd in the most recent movie by Steven Spielberg.  The article is entitled, “Learning from Lincoln’s Flawed Marriage.”  He attributes the steadfast leadership of Lincoln to the fact that he and his wife chose to embrace their pain.  They chose to wrestle with it in their own unique ways in the face of the temptation to walk away when the tough parts of their marriage seemed never ending..

But embracing the pain of marriage is only one portion of the overwhelming drama that unfolds in the context of this most intimate of relationships.  In every corner of our mariages are hidden eternal truths that can lead us to a deeper understanding of the God we strive to know and to imitate.  Why not give Thomas’ book a read as you seek out the joy  of finding God in the midst of the multi-faceted complexities of your life-long commitment to that other person at your side.


Forever, Marriage Communication & Counseling

What does marital communication have to do with the word ‘forever’: a popular word on YouTube with more than 1 million hits.  A quick scan suggests that it is most often associated with music across a broad range of genres.  My suspicion is that most of those songs  relate to one person’s love for another and that the word that comes to mind is the word “forever.”

So, when we marry we say things like “till death do we part” and “through sickness and health, for richer or poorer” and more.  The words forever, love, marriage, family have traditionally been bound together.

Yet, we now live in a culture where the words are broken out into conditional sentences.  Often words like ‘forever’ are rendered emotional sentiments that have little basis in reality.

Part of this is anchored in our experience.  “Nothing lasts forever” is not only a colloquial phrase; it is the truth.  Then, there are the things that were supposed to last forever, meaning, a person’s lifetime.  When those lifetime things end through death we all understand that the phrase is true: nothing does last forever.

On the other hand, when children see their parents divorce the sense of permanence and stability engendered by lifelong commitments is challenged to reorient itself to words like disposable, temporary, and transient.  So, we do what we can to assure each other that our commitment to each other is ‘forever’ while we work out the pre-nuptual agreements…just in case.  So many couples, now, are foregoing the forever commitment of marriage and opting to live in the same house to enjoy the sweetness of commitment without having made ‘the’ commitment to each other.

Of course, the fear of any forever commitment to someone else entails an acceptance of responsibility that can be severely tested by a car accident, an unfortunate diagnosis, or a mid-life wanderlust.  Perhaps one reason for not wanting to make those kinds of forever commitments is that we have seen too many failures coupled with our desire to avoid the pain of disappointment and regret.

The reality is that there are no risk-free commitments, nor is there an insurance policy to protect us from emotional and psychological pain.  At the same time there are ways to increase the probabilities for success and preventive measures that can be taken to reduce the likelihood of dissolution when the times get tough…and those times will come.  The pain that will come in interpersonal relationships can provide the impetus for doing the things that will deepen and enrich our appreciation and love for each other if we take advantage of the tools that will open the door to healing and growth.

Among the most useful predictors of success or failure can be found in the basics of communication.  If we can refine and develop the skills needed to talk about tough issues we can navigate our ways through other potential trouble-spots such as financial management, religious beliefs, familial relationships, and parenting philosophies.  Conversely, if the art of good communication and conflict resolution skills are not built into a fledgling relationship early in a couple’s life together, these areas will predictably become problem areas later on.

So, while there are no guarantees for success in relationships it is still possible to make ‘forever’ promises when you know you have taken care of  increasing the probabilities for success.  Coaching in basic communication skills can help and there are wonderful resources available to help people along the way to understanding and appreciation of our similarities and differences so that the whole becomes greater than just the sum of its parts.

Pre-Marital Counseling

There are many tools available to the Marriage and Family Therapist to help a couple prepare for marriage.  Pre-Marital Counseling holds great potential as the perfect wedding gift that keeps on giving for years afterwards.

First is the simple intake interview.  During this time the therapist interviews each partner one-on-one to learn about their family history, their own life experiences and the challenges they have faced.  Counselors ask questions in order to understand more of the personality of each person: their preferences, their fears and their concerns.

Second is testing which can range from the standard personality inventories to detect any psychological or emotional challenges to assessments that highlight personal preferences and  styles.  Other inventories are specifically designed to help couples evaluate their compatibilities and points of potential conflict.  As the therapist gets to know the couple better he or she is better able to determine which evaluations would be most helpful.

Third is the family genogram which is a time of discovery for the couple to explore their own family histories.  Insights are gained by interviewing family members along their family tree to discover more about each other’s heritage and background.  Some take it so far as to interview distant relatives that they may not have had a relationship with before.  Others will actually visit old homesteads, cemeteries and family landmarks.

Other aspects often covered in the counseling process include religious, financial and occupational issues.  Sometimes other professionals are consulted when potential challenges are detected from health issues to legal matters.  Pre-marital counseling can focus on specific concerns that the therapist uncovers and need specialized attention such as communication training, parenting expectations, living arrangements and housekeeping assumptions.

Counseling is particularly helpful when families blend.  With children of each partner involved in the merging process the ability to address both the marital and the family issues that will arise can be invaluable.  With its emphasis upon the interactional and relational patterns within  each family, Marriage and Family Therapy can be effective prevention for helping couples avoid many of the hazards that often cripple families early in their marriage and in step-parenting.

The key is that the Marriage and Family Therapist is focused upon the dynamics of the family system and helping the couple explore as many aspects of their relationship as possible before they tie the knot.   With all of the time and energy that goes into a wedding and honeymoon that will last from a few hours to a few weeks, it just makes sense to take the time to look at those aspects of their marriage that will carry them through each day for the rest of their lives.