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This article on marriage coaching competencies appeared in Christian Coaching Magazine, August 2017
Rick and Jane sat silently in the lawyer’s office staring at the papers that would legally end their marriage. How could a signature on a piece of paper possibly bring an end to 15+ years invested in a home, a nest egg, a future, children, and all the associated feelings? Rick glanced impatiently around the room anxious to get this behind him. The sadness and feelings of failure would certainly disappear once this was over, right? His gaze landed on a brochure—the last one in a little plastic box. He read, “Do you really want a divorce or do you just want to be happy again?” No one had ever asked him that question. It seemed like a no-brainer. Of course he didn’t want to give up half his income, his kids and the entire minutia listed in the papers on the desk, but how could he and Jane ever be happy again? He walked over, picked up the brochure, showed it to Jane and they began a journey into marriage coaching that would change their lives forever.
Our experience is based on the model used by MarriageTeam to train Christian couples as marriage coaches and to provide marriage coaching services. While this article does not address the intricacies of coaching as a couple, the advantages are numerous: two perspectives; an opportunity for the couple being coached to identify and bond with their coaches; another person to share coaching responsibilities and to discuss strategy; and the ability to model a healthy relationship while also normalizing the inevitability of conflict.
We are not suggesting that marriage coaching is the panacea for all troubled marriages. The MarriageTeam model includes a screening process and provides referrals for couples where addictions, untreated mental health issues or abuse inhibit the ability to make and keep agreements.
The purpose of this article is twofold: 1) To illuminate several coaching competencies with unique application to marriage coaching and 2) To create awareness about a very successful option for helping couples restore broken relationships.
Coaching Competencies Unique to Marriage Coaching
Couples like Rick and Jane tend to see each other as adversaries as opposed to teammates. They create win-lose scenarios and the competition to win can become pretty intense. How different their relationship would be if they could see each other as teammates with common goals for happiness, success, financial security, healthy children, etc.
MarriageTeam coaches introduce the concept that each spouse comes from a different team called their family. From their families and life experiences, they create an individual playbook that includes how to communicate, handle anger, respond to conflict, solve problems and other interpersonal skills. When they marry, they create a new team; however, they bring their individual playbooks with them. Any team will have problems if they do not operate from a common playbook, and marriage teams are no exception. Coaches help couples create a common playbook for a winning marriage.
This sounds simple enough, but it can be extremely powerful when Rick and Jane realize that neither of them is right or wrong—they just have different playbooks, and with their coaches’ help, they can create a common playbook.
Teach effective communication skills
While “pure” coaching does not include a teaching component, it is essential that couples have a common language for expressing needs and responding to negative emotions. To expedite productive conversations, it is helpful for marriage coaches to teach these listening and speaking skills during initial coaching sessions.
Example: MarriageTeam coaches teach, and have the couple practice, “I” Statements and Active Listening skills during the first two coaching sessions. Couples become proficient at using these skills throughout future sessions as the coaches guide effective communication.
Guide effective communication
Couples develop intimacy, trust, oneness and love as they speak respectfully, listen empathetically and work to constructively resolve conflict together. Coaches encourage this by ensuring the couple speaks with each other—not to the coaches—the majority of the time.
Examples: “Rick, tell Jane what you hope to achieve during this coaching session…Jane, tell Rick what you understood…Rick tell Jane on a scale of 1 to 5 how important that is to you…Jane, tell Rick which of those options you like best and why.”
It doesn’t take long for the couple to understand this expectation and soon, when the coach asks a question, the couple immediately begins talking with each other.
It is not unusual for couples in a troubled relationship to revert to poor communication when emotions escalate. Because this poor behavior will impede progress, coaches need to maintain control and quickly stop the behavior. During the initial coaching session, coaches can prepare the couple for this type of interruption by explaining reasons why they might interrupt and ask: “If I need to interrupt, how would you like me to do that?”
Ideally, at a future coaching session, the coaches will help the couple develop an agreement between the two of them for stopping destructive behaviors and using constructive behaviors. “Rick, you said you don’t want to shout; when you begin raising your voice, what would you allow Jane to say that will help you talk more quietly?”
Observe and question body language
Marriage coaches must be keen observers of body language. If it appears inconsistent with what is being said or interferes with a discussion, they should bring it to the attention of the couple. If these incongruities are not addressed, they can sabotage agreements which will destroy trust and impede mending the relationship. Because observing body language is vital to marriage coaching, we do not recommend telephone coaching. However, video conferencing has the same success rate as face to face coaching.
Examples: “Jane, while you said you wanted to implement that option, you don’t seem very excited about it. Please tell Rick what’s going on.” “Rick, I noticed when Jane said that, you raised your eyebrows and sighed. Please tell Jane what you’re thinking.”
As the couple becomes better at communicating and has less animosity, coaches help them observe body language and learn to question it themselves.
Example: The coach observes that Jane is looking down and appears “tuned out” and asks Rick, “How engaged does Jane appear to be in your conversation?” Rick observes Jane and replies that she doesn’t look at all interested. The coaches ask, “How will it affect the outcome, if Jane isn’t involved?” Rick replies, “Nothing will be resolved—as usual.” The coaches ask, “How can you invite her to rejoin the conversation?” Rick says he doesn’t have a clue. The coaches persist by asking, “How will you find out?” Rick asks Jane and she expresses why she “tuned out” and the coaches help them create an agreement about what they will do to maintain productive conversations in the future.
Designing actions and agreements
Marriage coaching is often more complex than individual coaching because it requires that two individuals create and agree on actions that will move their relationship forward. To ensure that actions have the highest probability of success, coaches must include both husband and wife in every action plan.
Example 1: Jane says that Rick doesn’t listen to her—that he immediately wants to fix a problem while she usually wants to talk about it. Rick, with good intentions, says that from now on, he will ask Jane what she expects from him—to listen or to offer advice—and he will modify his behavior accordingly. This may sound like a reasonable action; however, wise marriage coaches understand the high probability of failure if Jane does not agree with this action and will ask for her input: “Tell Rick how that sounds to you…What ideas do you have…What would you like Rick to do…What could you both do?”
When both husband and wife take responsibility for designing and agreeing on actions, they are more invested and motivated to implement them. However, there may still be potential dangers as illustrated in the following example.
Example 2: Rick is annoyed because Jane never seems to be on time. After much discussion, they both agree that Rick will remind Jane of the time at certain intervals and he will ask what he can do to help her get ready. Even though they both agree with these actions, a wise coach will raise awareness to possible problems: “How will this work if Rick is not home…It sounds as if Rick has all the responsibility; how will that work for you…What happens if you implement this plan and Jane is still late?”
Coaches must be aware of their own biases and remember that each couple is unique. Just because their solution wouldn’t work for the coaches, it doesn’t mean it won’t work for the couple.
Managing progress and accountability
Even if a couple designs the best actions and are both wholeheartedly committed to following through with them, it is inevitable that one or both will forget to do what they agreed to. Marriage coaches will increase the likelihood of success if they prepare the couple by explaining that behavior change is difficult and relapse into old behaviors will likely occur. However, if they plan for relapse, they will be less likely to blame each other and will be able to quickly get back on track with their new actions. Every action plan or agreement should have a relapse plan.
Example 1: A couple has decided they want to spend quality time with each other and have an action plan that defines quality time, identifies the schedule and clarifies each person’s responsibility for making it happen. A wise coach will address the possibility of failure: “It’s Tuesday night at 8:00, the kids are in bed and Rick is the person responsible for initiating ‘quality time.’ Jane is getting angry because it’s not happening. How do the two of you want to handle this situation?”
Example 2: A couple has decided that the husband can have 20 minutes of “down time” when he gets home from work before he engages with the family. They have defined “down time” and determined each person’s responsibility for making it happen. Again, a wise coach prepares them for relapse: “It’s been 30 minutes since Rick got home and Jane is not happy. What will the two of you do in this situation…Rick, what can Jane say to you that will remind you of your agreement without making you mad?”
It seems incongruous that a couple like Rick and Jane, on the verge of divorce, could ever reach a point where they agree to be accountable to each other for maintaining a healthy marriage. Nevertheless, we have seen hundreds of couples transformed as the Holy Spirit breathed life into their dead relationships through the application of the coaching process and these coaching competencies. One such couple shares:
Coaching was our last hope. If it hadn’t worked, we would be divorced. Before coaching, I was stressed out and burned out. Our marriage was unhealthy and dysfunctional and I often thought it would be better if we divorced. Coaching was truly an answer to prayer–not easy at times, but very valuable and worth the time and effort to follow through with the whole thing. We now have hope. My husband is not my enemy. We are communicating better, respecting more, working as a team and are dating again. This program is rock solid. I can’t think of anything to make it better. Just get it out there for others to hear about. Wife, Eugene, OR
As for Rick and Jane, they have completed marriage coach training and are currently coaching another couple who were considering divorce as their only option.
Alan and Autumn Ray
were married in 1970 and are the founding directors of MarriageTeam, a non-profit that trains Christian couples as marriage coaches and provides marriage coaching services. Together they authored Rick and Jane Learn to Listen and Talk describing the marriage coaching process and the soon to be published Radically Restoring Marriages in Your Church – The MarriageTeam Solution