A Lesson (for Myself) in Marriage Counseling

A lot has been going on in my life—both good and bad. My client load has increased and counseling three years in a row gives me more joy than I ever thought possible in a job. Charis Counseling is a great place to work and the people here treat me well while I get to help clients walk through some difficulties in their life, trying to make sense of it and offering them hope for a changed life and a brighter tomorrow. Its hard work, but I love it, am good at it and enjoy the role I get to play in people’s lives.

But there are things going on in my personal life that make me sad and discouraged. Why am I not getting along with my wife lately? How is it that a marriage counselor who knows a lot about how to be in a healthy relationships can’t apply it in his own home? Maybe I know too much and I’m trying too hard to see the same results many of my clients are seeing. Whatever has worked for us in the past doesn’t seem to be anymore? Did I go wrong somewhere or is she not doing her part to make this marriage a success? These are some of the questions I’ve been wrestling with lately.

It all came to a head for me last week when I was asked to speak at Northland’s Marriage 911 group and I shared the story of how Kelly and I met, got engaged are were married. After the first few years our marriage took a turn for the worse and conflict became the norm in our household. I was the overbearing husband who always wanted to resolve things and would hound my wife to engage while she just tried to steer clear of my confrontations and anger. This is where we found ourselves after 8 years, sitting down with Jim Keller (founder of Charis Counseling) to talk about our probelms.

Finally, after 8 years, he helped us wade through our issues and we began to see things turn around for the better. But it didn’t happen the way I thought it would. After seeing my wife for the first session, he asked to see me alone. After talking for a long time about our marriage and its problems, he finally said: “It seems to me that you think you have a few issues that contribute to your unhealthy relationship, but that Kelly has a lot more to work on and if she got her act together and dealt with her issues, things would be good.” In full confidence I said: “Yeah, that’s pretty much it!” to which he responded, “I don’t think so! You have some things you are contributing to this unhealthy relationship and they are just as big or bigger than the issues Kelly is bringing to the marriage.” I couldn’t believe my ears. How dare he say such a thing? He continued on: “Trent, I know Kelly isn’t perfect and has her own issues, but as the man in the relationship, you have got to get on your hands and knees and beg God to give you the grace and mercy to love your wife just as she is! It’s the only way your marriage and you will make it out of this alive.”

As I shared this with the audience last week, I began to tear up because I remember how powerfully that hit me many years ago and that I really hadn’t been loving Kelly in a way that was unconditional and accepting of where she was. And yet this was the exact thing I wanted from her, to love me unconditionally and accept me with my issues. The main point of my talk was “You don’t need your spouse to change for your marriage to get better!”

After giving my talk at Marriage 911, I was excited because it had an obvious impact on the 80+ in attendance and many shared with me how hard and yet encouraging it was to hear my message. As the audience broke up into smaller groups to discuss what I had shared, many voiced that they too were guilty of always looking to their partner to change instead of looking at their own issues.

I drove home excited to tell Kelly how my talk had gone and that I was blessed to have had an influence on the couples who attended that night. After walking through the door however, I was met with a hostile tone and the complaint that I was home a lot later than she had expected. I brushed it off and tried to share about my excitement but it was of no use. She asked if I had heard what she’d said, to which I got defensive and a few minutes later we were fighting. Further into our discourse and now visibly upset I finally yelled: “I have clients who pay me for advice you won’t even take for free” and something else about a prophet not being honored in his hometown (it’s a bible reference)!

Do you see the discrepancy in my life? I know what it takes to live in healthy relationships. It’s utter and total abandonment of self, giving up what you hold dear (my excitement about my talk) and loving the other person where they’re at (disappointed that I came home late). And yet here I was, having just preached about needing to love our spouses and yet unwilling to do it myself. Guess I still have more to learn about my issues and what it means to really love my wife and accept her as she is. Even though I’m good at what I do, I still find it hard to practice what I preach.