Is marriage counseling inevitable?

All couples have challenges, there is no doubt about that. Sometimes the challenges are external; job related stresses or job loss, familial conflict or major life events like the birth of a child. Some conflicts are internal; depression and anxiety can result in conflict in a relationship, poor habits from past relationships or even patterns learned as a child all contribute to how you relate to your partner.  Add to that personality differences, cultural differences and you have loads of potential for conflict.

Is it just inevitable that at some point in a long term committed relationship you would need to seek marriage counseling?

marriage counseling

Just as the question gets complicated so does the answer.  All couples can benefit from learning new relationship skills. Couples who are able to manage conflict in a healthy way are far less likely to divorce or need counseling. While all couples can benefit from a good marriage therapist, counseling can likely be avoided if you are proactive about learning solid skills as early on in your relationship is possible. Continue reading Is marriage counseling inevitable?

Communication with your spouse: Win win decision making.

This week is all about win win decision making.  Last week’s post was about the importance of staying in the calm zone but what happens next? After you have noticed the signs that you are reaching your anger ceiling you have hopefully walked away, taken some time to cool off and then you return to the conversation.

Communication with your spouse isn't always easy
Communication with your spouse isn’t always easy. The right skills can make all the difference.

So what’s the next step? How can you enhance communication with your spouse in a way that allows you to tackle a tough topic and move out of conflict and into a collaborative decision making stance? WIN WIN decision making is the answer. Yes, there are a few communication basics that are helpful to understand like avoiding crossovers and learning effective listening strategies that we have covered in the past.  Once you have learned the basics, the next step is to use the win win strategies outlined by Dr. Susan Heitler in her book and workbook and skills taught at Power of Two online. Continue reading Communication with your spouse: Win win decision making.

Is free online marriage counseling possible?

You can find just about anything online these days, what about free online marriage counseling?  There are no shortages of articles, forums, advice columns and chats to read and participate in. While there is a lot of great information to be found, there’s also much misinformation from folks who have no place giving it out. So how do you separate the good, bad and the ugly?

Focus on marriage education programs, these kinds of programs offer real, practical skills for making changes in your relationship. Look for articles written by professionals associated with the program to give you a sense for whether or not they are reputable, trained and can teach you something. Marriage education programs often offer some amount of material for free and then if you want to continue you can pay a small fee.

free online marriage counseling

Understand that the most important thing you can do to fix a relationship is to fix yourself. There is a “fundamental law of relational theory” according to Psychiatrist Marina Benjamin “that when any part of a system changes, the entire system will be forced to change.” What this means is that the more you are able to effect positive change on yourself, the more your relationship will move in that direction. Marriage education programs are perfect for situations where one spouse is interested in working and the other is resistant. Continue reading Is free online marriage counseling possible?

More Tips from Dr. Heitler: Shared decision making as a Couple

Marriage partners are in a sense yoked together. Couples, therefore, need skills for shared decision making and communication. Many couples mistakenly believe that each decision must end in one of them “winning their way.” While this may get things done, it leads to resentment and negativity in the relationship. If they can choose together when to turn left and when to turn right, neither of them will feel compromised, dominated, or controlled by the other. Instead, each shared decision just enhances their loving partnership.

Shared decision making necessitates that couples look deep into why each wants what they do. Often we get stuck on the way Use shared decision making to avoid fightssomething is to be done–this is only the surface level of the decision. As soon as couples see themselves preferring different plans of action, they switch from launching a tug of war over their preferred solutions to exploring the concerns that underlie each of their preferences. As they come to understand their own and their partner’s underlying concerns, then they can look for a solution. They can then use shared decision making to form a plan of action responsive to all the concerns of both of them.

Let’s take an example:

Louise and Chad, who are recently engaged, are discussing where they want to live after marrying. Louise wants to move to Montana; Chad likes living in Arkansas, where they both live now. Chad, on realizing they were beginning to argue over the issue,  switched into “win-win” mode. He asked Louise what about Montana appealed to her. This question switched the discussion from a struggle over who would get their way to an exploration of both of their underlying concerns. Louise explained that she loves the wide open spaces of Montana and wants some day to live on a small ranch. Chad’s concern was whether he would be able to find work outside of the state where he had always lived. Their solution was to agree that Chad would explore job openings in Montana. If a job there looked possible, then he’d be glad to move. A month of monitoring job postings in his field and there it was–a perfect job for Chad, and a move to the state she loved for Louise.

In Power of Two and my marriage help books, we call this shared decision making process the “Win-win Waltz” and it is very much like a dance with each partner giving, taking, and ultimately working in unison. Also like a dance, it requires patience and practice to learn. Next time you find yourself butting heads with your spouse, try taking a first step and delving deeper into their underlying concerns. This is also a very useful tool for shared decision making outside of your marriage. Try it at work, with your friends, and with other family members!

Dr. Heitler on relationship compatibility

All couples sometimes have different viewpoints and struggle with relationship compatibility. All couples, especially in the early years of marriage, discover their first problems in marriage–areas where his way and her way differ. The challenge of become fully successful marriage partners is to be able to talk over each of those differences with the goal of creating an our way, a plan of action that truly works well for both partners. Even if you consider yourselves very compatible, differing viewpoints are especially likely to arise in the courtship, engagement, wedding planning, and first-year stages of a relationship, when couples are first making decisions together. These decision-points offer excellent opportunities to practice building our way solutions. Continue reading Dr. Heitler on relationship compatibility

How to get your ex back

When your spouse insists on separation, is that the end, or is there a way you can win your marriage back? How to get your ex back is the subject of Dr. Heitler’s recent post on Psychology Today. In it she explains five essential steps to recovering from a separation and reconciling with your spouse. She follows the story of Peter, a real patient who allowed her to publish his writings to her in order for others to learn from his experience.

Step #1: Get back on your feet.

“Human experience has not yet devised anything,” Peter writes, “that can shield us from the pain of a broken love, the pain of feeling thrown out of your own world and out into the cold.” A separation–perhaps being thrown out of your own home–is a devastating experience. Allow yourself to feel pain, disappointment, loneliness, and anger. These are part of your grieving process. At the same time, don’t act on these feelings. Know that they are your body’s reaction to an emotionally painful event, acknowledge them, and let them pass through you over time.

A healthy marriage is made from two healthy individuals. Now is the time for you to rebuild your emotional and physical health so you can focus on how to get your ex back from a place of strength. Reach out to friends and counselors, get active, and try new social and spiritual activities. Don’t move forward with the other steps of how to get your ex back until you are truly back on your feet.

Step #2: List your spouse’s complaints.

Listening to complaints about ourselves is one of the hardest things to do. Many times our spouse’s criticisms touch on habits and behaviors we are well aware of and bring up feelings of embarrassment, shame, and guilt. To protect our ego from this pain, we practice avoidance, defensiveness and anger.

Many of your marriage problems may have come from avoiding confronting complaints. Well, no more! Make a list of each specific complaint that your spouse has, each reason that he or she has for divorce. Remember, “information is power,” Dr. Heitler writes, “even information you don’t like.”

Step #3: Clean up your act.

Neither of you bear the full blame for the collapse of your relationship; each of you contribute your own part. Your job is not to change your partner–you can only change yourself. Now that you have an honest list of areas to work on, it’s time to do just that! Make a game plan of clear, doable steps towards how you can address and solve your problem areas.

For example, Peter had once cheated during a business trip. To make sure this would never happen again, he made certain rules: he would never hang out after work with co-ed coworkers; he would go back to his hotel room by 10pm, call home and watch a movie; he wouldn’t drink.

Peter also knew that his dislike of his job had caused him to fall into a self-obsessed depression. This had lead to further distancing from his wife, increased his loneliness, and partly contributed to his infidelity. He promised himself to attend regular therapy, avoid thought patterns of “victimizing” himself, and immediately started looking for a new job.

Step #4: Agree to divorce the old marriage.

An essential part of how to get your ex back is acknowledging that your old marriage is done for, finished, kaput. And that’s a good thing! It was toxic. Let your spouse know that you agree with him/her: you want a divorce from your old marriage. You want a new marriage but still with the same person. This is possible! Our thoughts, behaviors and habits are actually quite maleable. At the same time, they require practice and discipline to change. Learning the skills for a great marriage will take time and dedication, and is achievable for practically every couple.

Step #5: Reconnect from a position of strength.

Now that you are stable, healthy, and have a clear plan for how to do your part to build a new marriage, it’s time to meet with your ex. Get together in a neutral space that doesn’t provoke emotion or appears too intimate, such as a cafe or park. Again, how to get your ex back does not mean changing or controlling him or her in any way. All you can do is show your commitment and capacity to change by the steps that you have already taken. Avoid reacting to his or her comments with emotion, accusations, or criticism. Be prepared to take things slow. Know that you have the strength and love for yourself to weather this.


These five steps for how to get your ex back are no guarantee that your marriage will be saved. That depends on your level of commitment, your spouse, and the unique circumstances of your relationship. You will, however, find that these steps will help you find strength, clarity, and calm in a very emotional and painful time. Whatever the ultimate outcome, Dr. Heitler writes, “the panic of a devastating waterfall ahead [will be] replaced by anticipation of a safe and sunny future.”

What do we mean by emotional health?

In this guest post Susan Heitler, Ph.D, explains how psychologists define emotional health and what contributes to it. She reveals that the method for cultivating good mental emotional health involves learned skills that we develop as we grow and experience life–or learn from others and programs like Power of Two!

When we describe ourselves as being physically healthy, we generally mean that our bodies are humming along without pain, enabling us to work and play as we would like.
With mental health, the sign that all’s well is similar.  We feel little or no emotional pain, that is, negative feelings like anger, anxiety, or depression.  In this regard, mental health might better be called emotional health.

There’s lots we can do to prevent downturns in emotional health.  Learning to live in the present instead of dwelling in future-focused “what if’s” for instance can minimize needless anxieties.  Learning from our mistakes instead of beating ourselves up for them can similarly minimize our vulnerability to depression.

At the same time, emotional well-being can be enhanced. Religion, for instance, hopefully reinforces a life stance of gratitude and appreciation.  Devoting time and attention to building loving family, friend, and community relationships sustains self-confidence and augments our opportunities to enjoy happiness, pleasure, delight and affection.  Helping others, learning new skills, sexual release, experiencing something new, exercising our physical selves and accomplishing goals also promote feeling good.

How have other psychological thinkers described mental health?

Freud, the father of modern psychological thinking, defined mental health as the ability to love and work.  Work is what we do on our own, and love is what we do with others.  A subsequent psychological theorist, Adreas Angyal, similarly defined mental health as “the ability to experience both autonomy and belonging.”

A 1970’s group called The Incredible String Band beautifully express this paradoxical set of goals for human well-being when they sing:  “What is it that I am? and what is it that I am part of?”

How can folks upgrade their mental health?

While many think that mental health involves just doing what comes naturally, I myself am a believer that feeling consistently good —  alone with oneself, in work settings, and in relationships — takes skills. In addition to the emotional functioning skills I describe above, “people skills,” like the ones taught at, are vital.  These include ability to say things tactfully, to listen constructively, to minimize conflict and be able to make decisions with others cooperatively to repair misunderstandings, to manage emotions so that anger  and jealousy doen’t tarnish your relationships, and more.

Looking for a way to feel better?  Learn the skills that enhance mental health!

Am I depressed? Solving marriage problems through mental health.

Have you ever wondered, “Am I depressed?” Most people will experience depression at some point in their lives. At the same time, many may feel the symptoms of depression without recognizing it as such. Depression is a sliding scale of emotions, thoughts, actions and chemistry – depression can be a mild sense of being “off” to a debilitating experience. Symptoms of depression include:

  • Lack of energy/physical fatigue
  • Loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Feeling an indescribable “dark cloud”
  • Changes in appetite or weight
  • Increased irritability
  • Crying and unexplained sorrow
  • Unexplained aches and pains

If you experience any of these symptoms for a period of two weeks or longer, it’s a good time to ask yourself, “Am I depressed?” Recognizing depression is the first step to addressing it. Step two is exploring where your depression comes from. A marriage can be both the trigger and casualty of depression. This is the story of Bonnie, a real patient of Dr. Heitler:

Bonnie is a stay at home mom of two young children. She is a strong, creative woman who enjoys spending time with her kids and is usually very positive and energetic. Lately she has been feeling tired and has a hard time being enthusiastic about anything. She finds herself criticizing herself: “Your house is so messy,” “Why can’t you keep track of anything,” “You look old and worn out.” She is uncharacteristically snappy and irritated with her children.

One night she and her husband have an argument. She is unhappy that he works so late at his new job and comes home too tired to interact with her. She is so excited to see him and she feels abandoned. Her husband snaps back: “I’m doing this to support the family! I can’t risk asking for fewer hours. When I come home, you hover over me and the kids are so worked up…I need to relax, I can’t take it.” Bonnie drops the subject.

Interestingly, Bonnie hadn’t wondered “am I depressed?” while experiencing these dark times. Is Bonnie depressed? Yes. Is she depressed because she feels abandoned and is fighting with her husband? Well…yes and no. Depression, Dr. Heitler writes, is rooted in an imbalance of power. We feel depressed when we feel powerless. In Bonnie’s case, part of her depression stems from feeling powerless over her lonely situation. Her husband has dominated the conversation while she defers to his criticism and needs.

Depression is a common result of dominant-submissive conflict resolution. Many people believe that an argument is resolved when you have a winner and a looser. This belief comes from the mistaken idea that

Am I depressed? Depression comes in many forms

power is the same thing as control, specifically, having control over another person. In fact, power is the ability to get what you want, but not by definition at the expense of those around you. Truly powerful people are able to reach satisfying solutions that also satisfy others – win-win solutions.

In reality, when you solve a conflict with a clear “winner” and “looser,” you don’t solve anything. Especially in marriage, a pattern of winning and loosing will lead to depression in the submissive spouse. 

To help Bonnie get the root of her power imbalance, Dr. Heitler used a visualization experiment. You can try this, too.

First she asked Bonnie, “If you could be angry at anybody right now, who would it be?”

“My husband,” Bonnie replied.

“Close your eyes and image the last argument you had with your husband. Picture you two together. Now, who seems bigger.”

“My husband,” Bonnie replied again. “He’s huge. He’s towering over me.”

“Ok, now I want you to look up in this scene and see above you a light powder sprinkling down on you. It could be green, or gold, or like snowflakes. As it falls on you, you find yourself growing, like Alice in Wonderland. Tell me when you’ve stopped growing.”

“Ok, I’ve stopped”

“And where are you now? How big are you.”

“I’m towering over him, at least four times as big.”

“Now that you’re so big, you can look down and see things you couldn’t see before. What can you see about him now?

Bonnie reflected for a minute. “He’s all puffed up. He’s not really that big, he’s puffing himself up like a puffer fish.”


“Because he’s scared…and he’s covered his ears because he doesn’t want to hear what I’m saying”

“Why is he scared?”

Bonnie thought again. “He’s scared because he thinks that I’m telling him he’s a bad person. But I’m not, I know he’s a good person. I know he works late because he feels anxious about supporting the family.”

With this insight Bonnie was able to have another kind of conversation with her husband. This time, she brought the subject up delicately, talking about her feelings and clarifying how much she respected and appreciated him. Together, they came to a surprising solution.

Bonnie is a highly educated woman with a lot of drive and she realized that staying home all day with the kids wasn’t stimulating enough for her. She was feeling bored and frustrated, which contributed to her feelings of powerlessness and led her to get worked up when her husband came home. Bonnie decided to go back to work part-time. She found she was excited to see the kids again after her morning’s work and less frantic about seeing her husband when he came home. Also, the extra income she brought in allowed her husband to be more assertive about setting limits for his hours at work.

Power imbalances in marriage can come from one spouse dominating through aggressive behavior. In the worst case scenario this domination comes from violence and insults. At other times, as in Bonnie’s case, the imbalance lies more in one spouse deferring and “giving up” (this becomes easier the more depressed he or she already is). Usually the situation has aspects of both dynamics.

Just as both spouses contribute to the depression of one, both must be part of finding a solution. Whether or not your answer to “am I depressed?” directly involves marriage problems, it is imperative that you go to joint counseling as part of the treatment. It may surprise you that getting individual counseling for depression leads to a higher chance of divorce.  This is because as one spouse may make progress they other may be left behind. Both spouses should progress together.

Your counseling sessions should give you the tools to find the root of depression and work through it while providing skills to face similar problems down the road. Remember, you and your spouse are a team! That is a huge strength. Working through depression in marriage will leave your marriage stronger, wiser, and closer.

Should I get a divorce? 5 reasons to go and 5 reasons to stay.

Have you ever wondered, “Should I get a divorce?” Sometimes it’s hard to tell if your marriage problems spell doom for your union, or, if it is possible—and worth it—to salvage your marriage. Power of Two is founded on the principle that most divorces can be prevented by learning the skills for strong, healthy marriages. At the same time, some relationships have toxic and dangerous elements that make divorce the best option for everyone involved. These behaviors can be hard to face, and they should never be ignored.

The following are Dr. Heitler’s “Top Five reasons to Divorce”:

  1. Your spouse is controlling. He/she attempts to manipulate you and/or control your friends, activity, behavior or money by the use of threats, put-downs, criticism, excessive guilt or anger.
  2. Your spouse has cheated repeatedly. One infidelity does not necessarily spell doom—with lots of work, your marriage can recover and be stronger than ever. However, repeated affairs mean your spouse unlikely to change his ways no matter what.
  3. There are unaddressed addictions. You should consider leaving if your spouse has damaging problems with gambling, drugs, alcohol, or other behavior and refuses or continues to avoid getting treatment.
  4. There is an unaddressed mental disorder. Many couples live with mental disorders and have strong marriages. At the same time, if your spouse refuses to get treatment for a damaging or dangerous disorder, you should consider ending your marriage. It is the best for both of you.
  5. Your spouse is violent with you or others, or mistreats children. This is the most resounding “YES” to the question “Should I get a divorce?” Remove yourself and your children from this situation immediately and seek professional help.

The good news is the most common reasons for divorce these days are not the ones above—and this means they are fixable!

“Should I get a divorce?…“ Consider couples counseling over divorce if the following sounds like you:

  1. We just don’t communicate very well and can’t seem to resolve our conflicts. Communication and conflict resolution difficulties are the most common complaints of divorcing couples.  Luckily, they are also simplest to change. You can learn the skills to handle these problems at any time and they will help you in all areas of life, from your spouse to in-laws to the office.
  2. I just don’t love him anymore. Love is a cornerstone of marriage and feeling “out of love” can be frustrating and confusing. At the same time, the quality of love is constantly changing; sometimes hot and passionate, other times a cool, subtle bond. Do you really not love each other at all? Passion, intimacy and positivity can be revived!
  3. Because it’ll be better for the kids. It’s true that having fighting parents is hard on kids. At the same time, so is divorce. Also, if you keep fighting while you’re divorced, it’s still bad. The solution? Learn to stop the fighting. Marriage education can help you replace your arguments with positive dialogue and win-win problem solving!
  4. He/she’s just not the same person I married. We all change and grow as we go through life together.  What’s important is knowing how to support each other on our personal journeys. Counseling can teach couples how to turn differences into powerful tools instead of a source of marriage problems.
  5. I don’t trust him/her anymore. He lied and made a stupid deal, she gambled or cheated… Sometimes people do make mistakes.  At the same time, most mistakes are repairable. Get the skills to analyze your errors and prevent future repeats. Sometimes the sourer the lemon, the sweeter the lemonade.

In the old days, and in many places still, divorce is a difficult, lengthy process that is highly stigmatized. This has the potential to trap spouses, especially women, into dangerous and unhappy marriages that fall into the category of good reasons to divorce, listed above. So, in many ways, it’s a good thing that we can quickly leave marriages we are uncomfortable in.

At the same time, this gives us the responsibility to think about our choices very carefully. And I don’t mean to imply that anyone takes divorce lightly! It’s just that marriage isn’t easy, and divorce is not necessarily the answer to your marriage problems. Consider this: If you don’t learn the skills for a healthy relationship now, you are likely to find yourself in the same situation with simply a different person in the future.

If you feel your marriage getting rocky, don’t hesitate to talk to a therapist or try a program like Power of Two. Problems are solved most easily when they’re caught early. And it certainly never hurts!


From an interview with Dr. Heitler, 10/11

Materialism and your marriage are not compatable

Two noteworthy things happened today regarding marriage and money. One made me smile, the other made me think. The two are connected in a wonderful way.

First, today was the wedding of Bhutan’s charming young king Wangchuck to his longtime girlfriend, Jetsun Pema, a commoner. Not much was said about the bride in the SF Chronicle article, except that the king desired a queen who was “a good human being as well as unwavering in her commitment to the people and the country.” He found all that in his sweet fiance.

In addition to this being a heartwarming union, the following caught my eye:

Wangchuck’s father, the country’s revered fourth king, introduced to the world the philosophy of Gross National Happiness, the idea that spiritual and mental well-being matter as much as money, and that material gain should not come at the expense of the environment or culture.

I started thinking about how Gross National Happiness could be connected to marriage. The plot began to thicken after I read today’s Second Noteworthy Thing….

Today reported that couples who are focused on earning and spending money tend to have significantly less happy marriages. A Brigham Young University study found that “materialism was associated with spouses having lower levels of responsiveness and less emotional maturity. Materialism was also linked to less effective communication, higher levels of negative conflict, lower relationship satisfaction, and less marriage stability.”

There are several possible explanations for the findings. Firstly, materialism may be the indicator of a slew of other problems, such as childhood neglect, low self-esteem, or compulsions, that are the real root of marriage problems. Materialistic traits have also been found to go hand-in-hand with a whole host of problematic  behaviors. “People who are materialistic tend to be narcissistic and concerned with impressing people,” said Dr. Heitler, interviewed for the article.”They have a tendency to be anxious, depressed, have relatively poor relationship skills and have low self-esteem. These qualities in turn can cause marital problems.”

On the other hand, it could simply be that an individual’s obsession with keeping up with the Joneses leaves him little time to work on his marriage.

Financial stability is important in keeping a marriage strong and happy. However, studies have shown that once individuals get beyond the amount of money needed to keep them secure and free, happiness does not continue to increase with higher income or more “stuff”. In fact, more assets and belongings actually increase stress. So back to Bhutan and the idea of Gross National Happiness. I agree that happiness and wellbeing are far more important than what you spend. I challenge you to start thinking about your Gross Domestic Happiness just like any other asset. It is just as–if not more– important as your finances. Check in on the account once an a while. Do you need to invest a little more? Knowing how to communicate in a relationship is essential for this.

I wish King Wangchuck and Queen Jetsun Pema a long and happy marriage. I hope the national values instilled by Wangchuck’s father will help keep the destructiveness of materialism far from their home and the homes of Bhutan’s citizens.