Friday, May 05, 2006

The Nearly Wed's Fight Club

"For our next session I'd like you to come with something to fight about. I won' t take sides. I just like to watch people talk, and then I'll offer some feedback."

That usually gets the couple's attention. It makes for lively, interesting premarital counseling. It's also effective.

I have been doing this "come-and-have-a-fight" technique for seven years. It started when I moved to a new pastorate on the coast of Maine. Our picturesque, high-steepled church sits on the village green. It's the focal point of our town. Locals drive by every day, and vacationers pass by on their way to the beach. Through the years many young women have apparently said to themselves, "When I get married, I want it to be in that church." So, we do a lot of weddings, 40 to 70 each year.

I don't want to be a pastor-for-hire. It's important that I minister to each couple before performing their wedding ceremony. In my last parish, a small country church, I did far fewer weddings, four to eight a year. I would meet with each couple for five or six counseling sessions prior to their wedding. I would toss out topics over the weeks, hoping to hit on something I could help with.

"Have you talked about children?"

"Will you both work outside the home?"

"Have you come up with a workable budget?"

"How do you handle differences?"

"How were anger, affection, and gender roles handled in your families growing up?"

The most meaningful sessions were when the couple disagreed on something and started talking about it with each other in front of me. I got to see a slice of their relationship and could offer them some feedback and coaching. Best of all, it felt like ministry—pastoral counseling even!

Now I simply do not have time to toss out topic after topic. How a couple fights tells me how they will handle most of the problems of married life. So I decided to cut to the chase, or should I say, the fight.

I now do three sessions with each couple I marry. The first is to get to know them, learn their story, and share our wedding-planning notebook; the second, to watch them fight; and, a third session to plan the ceremony (assuming the fight goes okay). I have done this with approximately 200 couples, and I'm not bored with it yet. Couples often tell me that they find it helpful.

Ready to rumble

Here's how a typical fight session goes: I ask the couple if they have something to "discuss." It could be an issue between the two of them, or I suggest they could each come with one thing they would like to discuss with their partner in my presence.

Usually they laugh a little nervously and say, "Well, one thing." Occasionally a couple objects. "We don't have anything to fight about." These couples worry me most.

"Isn't there something you could tweak a little in your relationship?" I'll say. "Or, if you could ask one thing of your partner that would make your relationship a bit better, what might it be?" If they're still resistant, I gently say, "Tell me about your style of handling differences. When you do have talks that get off the track, even just a bit, what happens?" One of them usually jumps in at that point, and we're off.

I always ask couples to turn their chairs toward each other, so they are sitting face to face. I sit in a third chair, centered approximately five feet away. If they have something good to discuss, they usually forget I am in the room after about a minute. This is especially true if I avoid looking directly at them.

This sounds strange, but it works. I look down at the floor between them. For some reason this puts couples at ease. They are not as nervous as they would be if I were looking right at them. Occasionally I glance up to observe body posture and nonverbal communication, but usually I look into the area between them or down at my notepad, where I take a few notes for feedback time.

On my notepad I chart some of the crucial exchanges, key sentences, or phrases ("I don't see why you had to buy that!"). Then I jot down the response, either the exact words or things like "defensive response," or "apology," or "counter attack" ("You buy a lot more things than I do!"). I keep a list of positive and negative things that I see and may wish to share at the end.

Some couples take my invitation to fight quite literally. They let it all hang out: anger, put-downs, defensiveness, and shouts of frustration ("I can't believe you're saying that!").

The one who brought up the issue goes first. If they have trouble getting started, I tell them, "Pretend you're around a kitchen table, and you've just said to your partner, 'I'd like to discuss something with you.' Take it from there."

I pay close attention to how the talk begins. Researcher John Gottman, who studies couples' communication, reports that discussions usually end the way they began. If couples get off to a good start, without personal attacks, accusations, or put-downs, they usually end the conversation feeling closer together. Gottman calls this avoiding a "harsh start-up."

If I see a harsh start-up, I do not interrupt. In fact, I try not to jump in at all until discussion has come to a natural conclusion or a dead end. Often partners will get defensive, interrupt each other, or tell each other they're just plain wrong. They go back and forth. And I, like a spectator at a tennis match, watch as each side tries to score points and hit winners.

When to break it up

Often the talk is a rehash of a dead-end argument they've already had. When they run out of gas, I ask if they feel they have made any progress. Usually the answer is "No, this is where we're stuck."

At that point I use one of two interventions.

1. The Banner Technique. This is designed to move couples to the feeling level and to promote empathy between them. I ask each of them to picture themselves making a banner with a slogan that expresses how they feel about the issue. It also might state their bottom line position. Their banners might say things like, "I feel left out" or "It's our money now, isn't it?"

This exercise clarifies succinctly what they are asking of their partner. It can also be helpful for the combatants to guess what is on the other's banner: "What I think yours says is, 'Don't forget me!'"


Once they have come up with their slogans, I ask them to respond to each other's banners. This is a critical moment.

Do they respond defensively or empathetically? Does he say, "I'm sorry I left you out of that decision. I can see how that would hurt"? Does she say, "We agreed that I would handle all the finances!"?

The goal is to hear them respond to each other in a gentle, understanding, and empathetic way. When this happens it is magical and grace-filled.

2. The Expresser-Listener Technique. The idea here is to go one at a time. Again, the person who brought the issue goes first. That one is the Expresser and the other becomes the Listener.

The Expresser's job is to "speak the truth in love," to state his or her side of things clearly but respectfully. I urge them to say it so that it lands between them and not in the other's mid-section.

The job of the Listener is to say, "Tell me more. Is there more?" This person is to avoid offering rebuttal (until later), ask only neutral, clarifying questions, and keep saying, "Tell me more."

Once there is no more, I ask the Listener to respond empathetically. I say, "Is there anything there you can agree with, validate, or affirm?" Often the Expresser has done such a nice job expressing the issues without personal attacks that the Listener naturally responds empathetically.

Scoring the match

Once I have tried an intervention or two and watched them try it, I again say to them, "How are you feeling now?" Most of the time they feel better because they have been heard by their partner. Often the answer is in their body language. Are they leaning back exasperated or with arms crossed in frustration? Or are they open and leaning in toward each other?

Before we close the session, I share with them a few of the things I've jotted down. It is important to affirm them in as many ways as I can. My goal is not to make them feel bad about their communication.

On the contrary, I want them to feel good about the skills they have and the ways their love for each other shows through, even when they disagree.

I always affirm evidences of their kindness and respect for each other, and what Gottman calls "repair attempts." These are things one partner does in the midst of the discussion to soothe the other—a touch, a smile, an apology, or a light-hearted joke. Repair attempts keep the fight from escalating and remind the couple of their love and affection for each other.

When I do offer some coaching, I want to keep it balanced. If I urge one partner to try and do something a little differently, I always balance it with something for the other one to keep in mind.

I affirm them for having the courage to let me see inside their relationship, for trusting each other and me enough to do that.

There are a number of advantages to my planned-fight technique. For me, it saves time. For the couple, it gives them a safe place to address a big issue, if they choose. It's honest. Several weddings have been wisely postponed or called off based on this session.

And the couple gets a taste of marriage counseling, taking some of the fear out of it should they need it later, after they've gone a few years and a few rounds.

Rich Knight is pastor of First Parish Church in York, Maine.

Copyright © 2002 by the author or Christianity Today International/Leadership Journal.

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