Counseling is one way to pursue personal and relational growth in a focused, structured and supported way. It’s not unlike other growth experiences in life, in that the more investment made, the more likely positive change results.
In counseling, couples can receive insight into each one’s thinking, background, and emotional worlds. Tools can be learned, connections experienced, and God can show up to surprise, encourage, heal, and move you and others in your life forward.
But counseling alone is usually insufficient to sustain change. Perseverance in new practices, new perspectives, and experiences is often needed to make continuing progress. That’s where ‘homework’ comes in. Often a counselor will assign homework which is designed to establish new habits and practices to deepen a couple’s connections.
The following are three assignments which I’ve used and found to help reinforce the gains made in therapy sessions:
1) Emotional check-ins
Focused attention has been demonstrated to be a powerful bonding experience for individuals and couples. When we are attended to, when others communicate and demonstrate that they are attuned to our emotional state, we experience such attention as love.
Called variously ‘emotional check ins,’ ‘heart check-ins,’ or ‘connection times,’ the practice of setting aside time and place regularly to focus on one’s spouse’s inner world and feelings and to be heard, understood, and mirrored by one’s spouse regarding one’s own inner world, is vital for couples to feel emotionally close.
I will often assign a couple the task of dedicating uninterrupted time to share with and listen to one another’s heart. The couple is instructed to choose a time, day, and place to check in, set a time limit (20-30 minutes to start), and take turns talking about their own feelings and any resulting needs in the relationship.
One person shares their emotional condition while the other listens, interjecting if necessary to ask clarifying questions or to summarize what has been heard. When the first person is finished, the spouse who was listening reflects back the feelings and emotions heard, and asks, “Is there anything you need from me regarding those feelings?”
Opportunity is given for the sharing spouse to identify and ask for associated needs to be addressed. When the first person feels heard and understood, they then become the listener for their spouse who had been listening to them. The process is repeated with sharing and reflecting back feelings and needs. This practice promotes personal awareness of one’s own feelings and needs, and empathy for one’s spouse. The experience is a vital way to feel loved, understood, and emotionally close. Sometimes the use of a feelings word list facilitates sharing.
Healthy emotional regulation is often a therapeutic goal of one or both spouses. Self-soothing practices are often learned in therapy. To enact and acquire these practices, the institution of the time out tool is learned in therapy and established outside the therapeutic setting.
Sometimes in the course of sharing and listening as couples check-in with each other, or at other times, frustrations can arise in either party. In such a instances, couples need a way to de-escalate anger and gain clarity over the sources and reasons for their frustrations.
Practicing time-outs is one way to de-escalate and to acquire clarity in the course of conversations with one’s spouse (or with anyone else). Physical distance is sought and granted to cool down and get clear with the reassurance that one’s spouse and the conversation is still important. This reassurance is spoken by a promise to physically return and re-engage the conversation at a certain time is given. The proper use of time outs can be a powerful tool to benefit both spouses.
When one of the spouses is aware of milder frustration or the beginnings of escalation, the initiating of a time out can be crucial to avoiding or minimizing hurtful interactions. The time out tool is a trust-building practice, which accomplishes this in two ways. First, trust is built when one takes ownership of their own anger and is proactive to de-escalate and seek clarity about the reasons behind one’s anger in healthy, non-destructive ways. Secondly, trust is built when one’s word to return as promised is kept. Healthy emotional regulation, reassurance to one’s spouse of their importance and fostering emotional closeness are all outcomes addressed in this practice. This practice is strengthened and established the more it is initiated.
3) Praying together
Praying for one’s spouse and marriage in the presence of one’s spouse can be a powerful bonding practice and it is assigned as homework for those couples who want to deepen a shared spiritual connection.
Prayer, by its nature of crying out and seeking God for help, promotes humility. It is a practice that, though the God of the Bible urges and encourages, is nonetheless difficult because of human pride, past perceived negative outcomes of praying, feelings of inadequacy in the practice of prayer, and according to the Bible, possible spiritual opposition.
Those couples who do pray together tend to stay together.
These are just some of the kinds of practices a Christian counselor might assign to couples in therapy. All homework is voluntary and only effective with the clients’ buy-in. If you and your spouse have any interest in couples counseling, I encourage you to contact me or one of my colleagues.
“Watching the Birds,” courtesy of mrhyata, Flickr Creative Commons (CC 2.0); “Love and Tenderness,” courtesy of Pedro Ribeiro Simões, Flickr CreativeCommons (CC BY 2.0); “Last Rays of the Sun,” courtesy of Pedro Ribeiro Simões, Flickr CreativeCommons (CC BY 2.0)