Relationship Skills Transformed My Counseling

Bob and Sandy (not their real names) sat in my office for their initial appointment.  Both looked helpless and hopeless.  I would be their third counselor.  Bob was tired of counseling as he felt it had made things worse.

“I know all the reasons why we are where we are, Dr. Rick.  But we still can’t seem to make things work.  I am frustrated.  The other counselors have blamed us saying its our fault that we do not make the changes.  I don’t feel that they are right, but now I am second guessing myself.”

Sandy nods in agreement.

I ask, “Bob, did any of your counselors show you and Sandy what to do different?  Did they show you how to communicate, how to listen and how to emotionally regulate yourselves?”

“No, Doc.  Just kept pointing out to us our feelings and providing input.  I have so much insight into myself and my family history and my marriage I am sick of it.  It has not changed a thing.”

I could hear his frustration emerging again.  So, I intervened.  “Bob, it sounds like you feel stuck; like you do not know how to create the relationship you both want, and I sense you both want.  Yet, no one has shown you how to do it and to make what you want possible.  Would that be accurate?”

“Dr. Rick, we don’t know what to do!  And we heard you can show us how to make our marriage strong and healthy.”  Sandy nods her head in agreement.  She then speaks up.

“Dr. Rick, we love each other.  We both have felt trapped.  One counselor told us to divorce since we could not get along.  I was so angry at her.  We go to counseling to save a marriage and then get told to divorce!  We just need help from someone who can help us make our marriage work.  We have the love.  We need the help.”

“I can help Sandy.  And Bob, I can show you the how.  What we have learned is that many couples do not know how to create the marriage that they desire.  We will teach you the skills necessary for a loving, vibrant, and caring relationship and the skills to emotionally regulate your brain, so that in conflict, you do not hurt each other or your relationship.  How does that sound?”

“When do we begin?” Sandy asks with relief.  Six months later Bob and Sandy created the marriage they wanted because they were given the skills for bonding, attachment, communication and problem solving, emotional regulation and the skills for forgiveness and caring.  With these skills, they created the marriage they wanted.

This scenario is something we have seen countless times over the past two decades.  We have couples come to us from around the country to save their marriage, most with years of counseling and multiple counselors.  How do we do it?  We learned that what most couples really need is  relationship education (the skills and tools to make healthy marriages) as a key component of their counseling process.

My professional background is a PhD in Counseling and two Master’s degrees; one in marriage and family therapy and one in education.  I was prepared very well academically.  But one thing I  learned over 25 years of counseling couples is that theory only takes couples so far, and really, in the long run, is not enough to save a marriage.  So, I sought to find the things that do work, that empower couples to create for themselves the marriages they seek.  This journey took me to the leaders such as Scott Stanley, PhD, Howard Markman, PhD, Lori Gordon, PhD, Michelle Weiner-Davis, Bernard Guerney, PhD to name a few.  I sat under their teaching and leadership.  All would share the same themes about helping couples: if you do not provide couples with  tools and relationship skills, they will find it quite difficult to create the marriage they seek.

In 2002, I wrote a faith-based version to Dr. Lori Gordon’s work, PAIRS (Practical Application of Intimate Relationship Skills).  I also started working for her in 2004 through 2009 and became a PAIRS master teacher of their semester course.  I learned from Dr. Gordon that through incorporating relationship education into therapy, I would find greater success, happier couples, , and couples empowered to develop and create the love and intimacy they sought.  And I could do it much quicker than traditional marriage counseling.  Through teaching couple’s skills, they discovered the ability to get unstuck for themselves.  What I learned is that couples may get insights into the problems they have through therapists, but still do not have the skills for love and intimacy.  By teaching them these skills, they knew what to do different, and that difference made all the difference.

I got involved in the yearly annual Smartmarriage conferences from 1998 until they ended in the mid-2000s.  I taught workshops and was invited to be a Plenary speaker one year.  The focus of the Smartmarriage movement was the integration of relationship skills education into organizations and communities.  It also encouraged incorporating relationship skills education into marriage and family therapy.  I took this thinking seriously and began to teach couples skills as a regular part of my marriage therapy.  I was amazed at the results.

In 2005, I stared a three-day, relationship skills intensive for highly disconnected couples who were separated or divorcing.  From our internal follow up with couples from 2005 through 2010, 85% of the couples that attended our HOPE Weekend intensives that were divorcing or separated stayed together even after two years.  Today, HOPE Weekends  are a monthly relational repair intensive that is both an educational process and  highly therapeutic.  I learned from my teachers and mentors in the educational skills section of the marriage therapy field, that we empower couples when we teach them the skills for success.  The outcomes speak for themselves.

Today, I strongly encourage marriage and family therapists to get trained in research-based relationship skills programs and integrate these programs into their clinical practice.  I have also learned that marriage mentor couples in faith-based organizations, trained in these programs, help numerous couples before they get to me.  If that sounds troubling, it can be if we think of ourselves as the only ones who can save marriages.  Yet, if we are so adept at saving marriages, why do most couples who attend marriage therapy end up divorced?  You can learn more about this from Bill Doherty, PhD and his research on what he terms, “therapist assisted marital suicide.”  I admit, I was at first angered by this title.  Yet, thinking about it logically and according to the data, it is true.  So, I began the journey to get certified in PAIRS, PREP, Family Wellness, Couples Connection, and the Compassion programs by Steve Stosney, PhD. To name a few.  These researchers and leaders in the marriage education and therapy field, empowered me towards greater results and much happier couples.  Finally, we created our own research-based relationship curriculum, partnered with Lori Gordon, PhD, titled Adventures in Marriage.  This nine-hour relationship skills program has wonderful results based on the research by Florida State University’s Dr. Frank Fincham, the independent researcher who evaluated   this program over a 5 year period.

The Smartmarriage annual conferences ceased in 2010.  But the good news!

The National Association for Relationship and Marriage Education (NARME) picked up that mantle and now is the leader in providing the premier annual conference whereby we can learn from leaders in the field and get certified in some of the leading relationship and marriage education programs.  I have been at each NARME conference and teach workshops and network and get my CEUs for my LPC. I get to network with others and learn best practices to integrate into my marriage counseling and coaching of couples.  This year the annual conference for NARME will be held in Florida!  NARME is coming to Orlando July 18-20 with presummit certification trainings from July 15-18.  Yes, you too can get certified in one of these leading programs to incorporate into your clinical practice.  NARME brings in leading researchers from around the country to speak in the plenary sessions and best practices from those in the field to teach the breakout workshops that you can choose from.  Tailor your NARME training experience to your needs like I do.  Plan now to join me at NARME.  I hope to see you there.  And yes, I will be teaching our Adventures in Marriage program for those that are wondering.  But remember, there are many other wonderful research based programs to train in as well.  To learn more about the NARME Summit in Orlando, go to

2 thoughts on “Relationship Skills Transformed My Counseling

Leave a Reply to Relationship Skills Transformed My Counseling | Matthews' Blog Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s