“In marriage counseling there are three clients. The husband, the wife, and their relationship. The relationship is your primary client.”
Sorry if you were hoping to read about some crazy experience I had counseling polygamists. This is actually a quote from my marriage and family counseling professor that really intrigued me at the beginning of our class. I've come back to this idea several times to try and explain to people what couples counseling is like and why it is helpful, particularly in premarital counseling.
The relationship created in marriage is more than just the sum of the two partners. Over the course of the relationship dynamic patterns develop which often go largely unrecognized by the couple themselves. It's like the old saying about fish not knowing they are wet – there are things that are so normal to you that you just take them for granted and they slip from your awareness almost entirely.
This may sound a little confusing and hard to picture... because it is. It takes a certain kind of person and a lot of practice to get really good at seeing and working with relational dynamics, but let me give an example to try and make it a little more concrete.
One of the most common relational dynamics in marriage is the pursuer/distancer pattern. This occurs when one partner is more withdrawn and hesitant to share their deeper feelings, especially those that feel vulnerable like pain, sadness, or disappointment. This is the distancer in the pattern. The other partner wants their spouse to be more open and pushes them to share and be open and connect in the ways they are looking for. This is the pursuer. Ironically, the pursuer's pursuit often makes the distancer feel more threatened and they respond by closing up more, which makes the pursuer even more desperate to be let in so they redouble their pursuit, which ends up being about as effective as banging on a turtle's shell, and on and on it goes.
I bet that sounds familiar to a lot of you. Of course that's not the only pattern. Some couples have a withdraw-withdraw pattern where one person gets hurt and withdraws, which is hurtful to the other partner who then withdraws, which further hurts the first partner who withdraws more, etc. Or the attack-attack pattern where both partners get angry and have a really hard time backing down or apologizing, so conflicts escalate to extreme heights very quickly (counseling with these couples is never boring).
Whether it's one of the patterns I've described or not, every couple has relational patterns and room to grow in them. I can tell you that my wife Jessi and I had some real tough times during our engagement learning how to deal with my turtle-like tendencies. We've grown so much since then, but sometimes I can't help but wonder how much sooner we would have improved that pattern if someone had helped us see it and change it.