I have spent so many hours with couples or individuals who come for counseling because they say they want to save or improve their marriage only to find that what they really wanted was some justification to get out of the marriage. They were hoping I would be so convinced their marriage was beyond repair that I would encourage them to end it. I would have to admit, I have encountered some seriously damaged marriages, but I have not found one beyond repair if both people are willing to try to make the marriage work.
I have learned one thing about life and it applies very well to marriage relationships. You cannot take people where they do not want to go. If someone is convinced their marriage is over, they will either have to change their mind or God will have to intervene. I have seen both happen, but if it doesn’t, the time in counseling is often wasted. With that in mind, I begin quickly in the counseling process to ask couples three powerful questions. These questions kind of “cut to the chase” and help all parties determine how serious the couple is about saving or improving the marriage. Here are the questions:
Where do you want this marriage to go?
You have to know where you want to go before you can make a plan to get there. So many couples have never talked about what they want out of a marriage. One person may think living two separate lives within the same house is enough while the other person wants to share everything. Many people, especially men, think that if there isn’t much fighting in the marriage, then the marriage must be doing well. The other person in the relationship wants deeper intimacy.
When a marriage is in trouble one person may have already decided they want out of the marriage. Until this question is answered any attempt to help the couple is not going to be very effective. Getting people to be truly honest in answering this question is critical. I usually ask people to take a few days to answer this one; to search their heart and pray about their true feelings. (Just so you know, I don’t write the marriage off if one of the couple is not ready to make this commitment. It just alters the counseling process. Instead of couple counseling, individual counseling with the party that wants out may be more effective.) If they say they want the marriage to work we go to question number two.
How are you going to get there?
Once a couple knows where they want to go in the marriage the next step is developing a plan to get there. This step is where the meat of help for the marriage is realized, but those plans cannot be implemented until all three questions are answered. Sometimes couples want to jump straight into the solutions, but if each person’s heart is not into the changes they will be short-lived.
Taking the goals each person has for the marriage and where the couple says they want to go as a marriage, the couple then thinks through what must occur in the marriage in order for that goal to be realized. If the couple wants their relationship with each other to be continually growing closer, for example, then the couple might need to plan more time to be alone with each other. It’s difficult to grow closer to someone you never see. After these first two questions are answered, it’s time for question number three.
Are you truly willing to do whatever it takes to get to the place you want to be in your marriage?
This is by far the most important question, but it cannot be answered until the other two questions have been answered. I have had people say to me when I ask them this question, “Well, of course I am willing to do what it takes. Would I be here if I wasn’t?” That’s a fair question, but the fact is that if most of us were willing to do what we say we are willing to do, our marriage wouldn’t get into a desperate enough place to be seeking help.
People are usually willing to do things they want to do and, likewise, they aren’t willing to do things they don’t want to do. That may sound like common sense, but it is so important to understand. This third question helps to shake out the truth of the other two questions. Sometimes it is easy to answer the first two questions, but this third question forces the person to take another serious look inside their heart.
These questions are not a shortcut to professional counseling. Many couples need counseling to work through deeper or more serious issues. Answering them in a way other than you want the couple to answer them is not a reason to give up on the marriage. These questions will, however, provide couples with a basic understanding of the current condition of their marriage. These questions can be helpful at any stage of marriage and regardless of the condition of the marriage they can assist in encouraging the marriage to grow in strength and intimacy.