Two years ago, Mary and Mark Smith attended a marriage counseling session to lend support to their son and his wife. They found out it was their own marriage that benefited.
The Smiths, who asked that their real names not be used for this story, discovered they needed help communicating, even though they were newlyweds.
"That’s when all the myths of what marriage is going to be like get broken down," said Gary Kriege, executive director of Arizona Interfaith Counseling, which has offices in Mesa and Tempe. "When two people are in love, they always think they have to think alike or have the same goals in life."
This was the third marriage each for Mary, 53, and Mark, 61.
"Third time is the charm," Mary said.
But that was the problem — it wasn’t a charm at all.
Now, the Smiths meet almost weekly with Julian Pickens, a Mesa family and marriage therapist who has been in practice for more than 30 years.
"There are many times I do not listen, and he points that out in a gracious way," Mark Smith said.
"I talk too much," Mary admitted. "I don’t thoroughly listen. I hear part of a question or conversation, and I’m thinking about how I will respond before the other person is through."
Couples seek counseling for many reasons. They may have issues with communication, money, raising children, responsibilities or a feeling of incompleteness about the marriage. Last year, about 900,000 couples worked with marriage therapists, according to the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists.
So when should a couple see a therapist? Marriage therapists suggest different measures for determining when it’s time to see a counselor.
"Ideally, it’s as soon as people realize that they’re missing each other," Kriege said. "They’re not aware enough of what’s going on in each other’s lives. They feel like they’re becoming strangers, especially regarding important concerns in their lives."
Wendy McCord, an East Valley marriage and family therapist, said if a couple argues about the same major issue — kids, money, sex — more than three times without resolution, it may be time to enlist the aid of a third party.
"It would be wonderful if people treated marriage counseling like they treat the dentist. If there’s a pain, they go and get it fixed," she said.
Marriage therapy works best with both couples participate, said Mary Doyle, director of the Marriage and Family Therapy Clinic at Arizona State University. But if you suggest counseling to your partner, and he or she doesn’t agree, then you can still go alone. Make the appointment, then let your partner know.
Most couples see a therapist 10 to 20 times, depending on the number and types of issues. This can be expensive; private practice therapy can cost $80 to $125 per session. But at places such as ASU or Arizona Interfaith Counseling, couples are charged on a sliding scale, depending on income.
During sessions, therapists work on communication skills, teaching couples to share their feelings without hurting one another.
"You give them homework: Have a date or don’t talk to each other for two days, whatever is appropriate to the issues coming up. It helps shift the energy in the relationship," McCord said.
Larry Dumka, marriage and family therapist and an associate professor in the department of family and human development at ASU, said in the course of therapy, partners may be spoken to individually. In some cases, it’s to establish if the whole story is being told or if abuse is present.
When drugs or alcohol affect a relationship, counseling can get more difficult.
"There’s c ontroversy whether therapy can help with those issues," McCord said. "My personal opinion is therapy doesn’t help. Those issues have to be dealt with first."
Pickens requires couples who have drug or alcohol issues to first participate in a 12-step program before he’ll delve into counseling. He also requires the spouses to be involved in a support group.
Despite counseling, some issues will never be resolved, and couples will divorce. That’s more likely when one person is unwilling to try.
If both people are willing to say, "I want to grow and learn from this," then counseling is most beneficial, Kriege said.
If a partner won’t discuss an issue or won’t enter counseling, it’s like saying, "Get over it. Deal with it or it doesn’t matter to me."
"That erodes a good relationship," Kriege said.
Who to call
Some therapists offer marriage counseling on a sliding-scale fee, depending on a family’s income.
• Marriage and Family Therapy Clinic at Arizona State University, (480) 965-9373
• Arizona Interfaith Counseling (offices in Tempe and Mesa), (480) 969-2783
For information or a referral, call the Arizona Association for Marriage and Family Therapists at (800) 772-9379.
The secret of success
In ‘‘For Better or For Worse: Divorce Reconsidered’’ (Norton, 2002), based on almost three decades of researching 1,400 families, certain types of marriage were identified by authors E. Mavis Hetherington and John Kelly as potentially longer-lasting than others. The most divorce-prone: "The Pursuer-Distancer Marriage."
This coupling ‘‘unites two conflicting but widespread male and female styles’’ of communication. Raised to value intimacy, women are usually eager to discuss problems and feelings. Brought up to value stoicism and control, men are more comfortable avoiding confrontation and arguments.
The result: The more she pursues discussions, the more he withdraws. ‘‘In the long run,’’ the authors write, ‘‘the male-female tug-of-war over communication and intimacy eats up so much goodwill that the marital bank account goes into overdraft.’’ The most success-prone: ‘‘the Cohesive/Individuated Marriage,’’ a union characterized by gender equity, a value held dear to baby boomers, and ‘‘the Traditional Marriage.’’ The health of the latter, which was the norm before the sexual revolution, depends on a generations-old interpretation of gender roles.
‘‘The Achilles’ heel of Traditional Marriage is change,’’ Hetherington and Kelly write. But ‘‘traditionalists are reluctant to divorce; they will put up with many irritations in order to maintain the integrity of the family.’’