In my experience, couples counseling is fraught with danger. Often it is just a formality before a breakup or divorce. The counselor is there to be an objective observer that can help us see though the emotional clouds of our conflicts. They will be the one to help us examine and correct our own contributions to the relational problems.
That is the ideal. But what if one partner has already given up on the relationship and is just going through the obligation of counseling? What about the situation where one party wants the relationship to work and proposes counseling—but the other person doesn’t see the need and attends reluctantly?
The natural consequence is that we each seek an ally in the counselor. We want them to help us “straighten out” our partner. Certainly, they are the problem, or at least most of the problem. So we lose the benefit of the counselor’s observations and objectivity and focus on our partner’s part of the blame.
Let’s explore this with a hypothetical example in a marriage. Let’s say your part of the problem is 5% and your spouse’s is 95% (hypothetical and very unlikely). It might seem reasonable that most of the counseling focus should be on your spouse’s issues; after all, she has most of the blame for the mess you are in. Why mess with your measly 5 percent?
Here is the problem: when that relationship ends and the other person is mostly out of the picture, the 5% suddenly becomes your 100%. Your unresolved issues are all yours to deal with. You know longer have the other person’s issues to distract you from your own. How much pain and sorrow could have been prevented by dealing with them before the relationship ended!
I came to this realization as I sat alone in my apartment after my divorce was final. I still had the same pride, denial, and selfishness that I had when we were in couples counseling. I had the same addiction, narcissism, and negative relational patterns that I had in my marriage. My contribution to the marital problems—which were much more than our hypothetical 5 percent—were now 100 percent my own to deal with. Except I no longer had a loving, faithful partner to be with me and help me through it.
The truth is that relational problems are really just problems that each individual is bringing to the partnership. Dealing with our own issues will go a long way to solving the relationship conflict. It takes humility, resolve, and a blind eye to the other person’s character defects. It takes a positive kind of selfishness to say to the counselor, Thank you for showing me my crap; let me take it and deal with it, while my partner deals with theirs. Otherwise, you are just wasting your money and the counselor’s time.
Being a panhandler has a negative connotation in our society today. We think of the guy at the expressway exit with a cardboard “will work for food” sign. But let’s think of someone panning for gold, which may actually be the origin of the word. Let’s do this to flip the 5/95 percent idea around to the positive side. When you pan for gold, you have to sift through a lot of dirt and debris before you discover gold chips or nuggets. But you only find the gold because you are looking for it. Is your focus on the dirt and grime of your situation, or are you looking for the gold of wisdom and answers that will solve your problems?
My 12-step home group’s meeting is 90 minutes on Saturday mornings. To be honest, facing a ninety-minute meeting on a Saturday morning is not always very appealing. But in the midst of the ritual and duty of the meeting I almost always find some precious nuggets of wisdom that I need for my recovery and healing.
For example, a member is sharing something about his recovery. He is 20 years younger than I am, is still married, has a different spiritual tradition, and has recently relapsed. His personality and demeanor get on my nerves too.
Then he says something that strikes deep into my soul. It somehow relates to something I have been wrestling with or pondering. I may not be able to verbalize it, but something has touched my spirit and made me better. One of the missing pieces in my own recovery and healing has been supplied. It is a bit of pure gold in the midst of the routine and mundane. It is not everything I need, but it is a valuable part of the whole.
But I need to be looking for it. I need to be listening and aware that the gold may show up anytime and maybe in an unexpected person or place. In fact, my experience shows me that wisdom often shows up in the ugliest packages. It may only be 5 percent of the whole, but it is 100 percent of what I need right now. If I go in looking for 95 percent, I will usually be disappointed.
Whether the situation is positive or negative, look for the 5 percent and make it 100. You will save yourself a lot of unecessary heartache. And it may save your marriage.
How much better is it to get wisdom than gold! and to get understanding rather to be chosen than silver! (Proverbs 16:16).
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