We are into our third day of one of our Love Odyssey couples counseling retreats during which my wife Helen and I are working hard to rescue another marriage. We’re docked up snug at Ocracoke Island in Silver Lake Harbor, just off the Pamlico Sound of North Carolina. The aroma of fresh perked coffee in the galley gives the boat a cozy atmosphere for writing another blog.
I have a particular beef with the field of marriage counseling. It’s exemplified perfectly by our current couple who will soon arrive at our boat for another session. Helen and I won’t be teaching them how to communicate. We won’t focus on tools to resolve conflicts. Those would be the staple for most marriage counseling sessions the way they’re usually performed. But I would predict that we would fail miserably if we did that with this couple. The reason is because there’s a deeper level of structural failure within this couple’s relationship.
When we start to work with a couple on one of our marriage counseling retreats, we look for potential problems on three levels: knowledge, skill and capacity. Most marriage counseling deals with the first two levels but not the third. Let me explain.
Knowledge – The couple may be missing information with which they can readily solve their problem. There’s no training that’s necessary. You can tell the couple what they need to do and they can readily change their behavior to solve the problem. For example, a couple may not be aware that their emotional state during constant parenting will not reinforce their affection for each other. They can be told to arrange weekly child care, remove themselves from the house and focus on intimate communication with each other for at least several hours each week. Many couples on our marriage retreats can readily implement this and then discover that their affection for each other increases dramatically. No training is needed.
Skill – The couple may know what they need to do but don’t have the behavior embedded in memory so that it’s automatic. It’s like the difference between reading a book about how to ride a bicycle versus developing the intuitive sense of balancing the bike. Tactful communication is like this. Skill needs to be trained in or else the person won’t use it. Education won’t work but repetitive performance training will.
Capacity – This level is much more diffuse than skill. I had to invent this term to refer to how well an individual operates down in their unconscious. Think of capacity as being the foundation of what we call “character.” It’s the ability of the unconscious to draw on a complex set of resources to perform some very important tasks. For example:
- Emotional Regulation – The ability to override impulse and consciously choose a wiser course of action than the impulse. This capacity requires the ability to have strong meta-conscious ability to observe your own thoughts that in turn depends on high metabolism in the brain’s pre-frontal regions. It also requires good intuitive modeling of possible futures. This dimension will affect how much a couple will sink down into shame fights with screaming, calling each other names and using history to beat the other into submission. Violence, destruction of property and other damaging behaviors are often symptoms of failure in emotional regulation.
- Theory of Mind – The ability to run an accurate intuitive model of another person’s thoughts and feelings. This intuitive modeling relies on the brain’s mirror-neuron system but it also depends on the person’s history of close relationships. The better a partner can observe and label his or her own emotional experience the better he or she can intuit how the other partner is feeling. This capacity helps one partner to be empathic and curious about the other. When one partner is sufficiently curious then he or she will pursue the other partner’s thoughts and feelings. Love will be nourished. It’s almost as if curious pursuit of mind is a rich fertilizer for growing affection.
- Level of Consciousness – The ability to value truth, responsibility and welfare beyond mere self-interest. These transcendent values support a partner’s level of maturity. Many partners lie. Others knowingly break commitments. During periods when one partner is disgusted with the other, level of consciousness will greatly influence how well the partners will stay on course and act responsibly. If a partner’s level of consciousness is low then he or she can cause great damage during the inevitable periods in a relationship when affection stops flowing. The true foundation of a relationship isn’t love for each other. It’s each partner’s spirituality that keeps the person steady and responsible.
I find these capacities to be the most important factors in determining a couple’s destiny. They’re the hidden factors that can gradually sabotage affection and lead to communication break-down. Most couples can communicate just fine at the start of a relationship. However, lack of capacity can lead them into maladaptive behaviors that build up inhibition. Covert fears, shame and resulting resentments will often lead to the inhibition that shuts down love. It’s not really about knowing how to communicate. It’s about having certain capacities that inoculates the couple against developing these inhibitions. These capacities can be developed if couples are taught how and if each partner has sufficient discipline to persist in their own individualized plan. It takes a lot of time and a lot of work by each partner beyond the counseling sessions. But this isn’t how most marriage counseling works. The field just doesn’t get it.