Category Archives: Marriage

Marriage counseling at Shoreline Counselor, LLC, involves solution-focused, Marriage and Family Therapy and is offered in the mid-western Michigan region.  The emphasis is upon relational, interpersonal systems within which we all live, work and play.

Areas served include the communities of Muskegon, Muskegon Heights, North Muskegon, Grand Haven, Ferrysburg, Spring Lake, Fruitport, Ravenna, Bridgeton, Twin Lake, Dalton, Whitehall, and beyond.

Rules & Expectations in Marriage and Family Therapy

traffic jamDriving through Detroit over a recent weekend I was impressed by how much we all depend upon everyone else obeying the rules and expectations of traffic.  For example, anyone who has been through driver’s training knows that the rules of the road are to obey the speed limits, use your turn signal when changing lanes, keep proper distance between your car and the one in front of you, slow down in construction zones, etc.

When people obey the rules it is often appreciated by other rule-abiders who are grateful for simple things like predictability, a shared commitment to minimizing dangerous situations, thoughtfulness and consideration on the road.  When accidents occur among rule-abiders, it is easy to believe the best and assume the fault was due to a critical malfunction of the car, an unanticipated road hazard or some health issue such as a heart attack, sudden kidney stone or some other natural, unpredictable event.

Others who appreciate those who obey the rules are those who do not have regard for the rules.  While they share some of the same values such as an aversion to pain from serious accidents, they are also grateful for people who keep a safe distance from the car in front of them so they can weave back and forth through traffic.  Also venerated are law abiding people who choose to obey the speed limit and stay in the right lanes except to pass.  This honorable practice gives freedom to the anarchic motorist allowing wide-open left lanes for traveling at excessive speeds, knowing that if a law abiding person wishes to change lanes he or she will use the turn signal giving the speeder time to quickly accelerate to race by before the car’s lane change begins.

This tongue-in-cheek analysis of traffic behavior provides an intriguing metaphor for relationships as well.  This is one reason why working with newly-weds is so important.

That first year is spent learning what rules each partner brings into the marriage from their respective families.  Sometimes couples decide to jettison some or all of the rules of their families and venture forth on their own to set new standards, traditions and expectations.  In other areas the couple may take time to pick and choose which rules they wish to adopt from their respective families.

There are great benefits to making these understandings explicit because they create the boundaries within which the family’s identity is shaped.  They form the nucleus of the family’s unique norms for behavior and consideration.  Furthermore, when one or the other partner steps out of those agreed-upon controls the other partner is justified in reminding them of the infraction.  Then they can decide  whether it is time to apologize and forgive, re-define or re-negotiate the rules or create altogether new understandings.

When couples choose not to make the governing family guidelines for behavior explicit at the outset the rules often become governed by randomness or moods that can change arbitrarily over time.  Add abuse to the equation–in any form–and families can experience a heady mixture of extreme behaviors, irrational expectations and glaring oversights where rules change and morph at whiplash rates of speed.

Returning to the highway metaphor, the chaos of driving at high rates of speed on roads without rules would make  driving a terrifying experience, even for the highway anarchist.  Without rules predictability and safety evaporate at the whim of each driver.  Now, imagine living in a family system governed in such a way…..

Marriage and family therapists help families clarify family rules and expectations to help people choose to thrive in an atmosphere of predictability, security and stability.

Love & Mind Reading in Marriage

Man and  Woman

There are times when mind reading can be a very helpful communication tool.  People who have been happily married for a while are often very skilled in reading each other’s minds because they have grown accustomed to each other’s patterns of thinking.  Often these thinking patterns are associated with predictable patterns of behavior, readily observed.  Regular, predictable patterns of behavior over a long period of time contribute to building bonds of trust that allow couples to believe the best in each other and, by extension, to read each other’s minds in a mutually beneficial way.

Note the word ‘happily‘ married.

When marital relationships are under pressure and the couple is ‘unhappily’ married, mind reading can be a deadly communication tool. Concerned that their partner may be attempting to assert power and control, one or both partners begin making negative interpretations of each other’s behavior; essentially, believing the worst in the other.  When this becomes part of the mix between people, resolving conflict and working through simple disagreements can become noxious and relationally dangerous.

It is at times like this that a cognitive resetting of the assumptions we make can be helpful.  Aaron Beck in his book Love is Never Enough outlines 5 Principles of the Cognitive Approach that are good to keep in mind when we become overly sensitive to what we think each other is trying to say instead of taking the time to truly understand.

  1. We can never really know the state of mind–the attitudes, thoughts, and feelings–of other people.
  2. We depend on signals, which are frequently ambiguous, to inform us about the attitudes and wishes of other people.
  3. We use our own coding system, which may be defective, to decipher these signals.
  4. Depending on our own state of mind at a particular time, we may be biased in our method of interpreting other people’s behavior, that is, how we decide.
  5. The degree to which we believe that we are correct in divining another persons motives and attitudes is not related to the actual accuracy of our belief.*

In our daily interactions we naturally assume that the other person understands  what we are trying to say.  For the most part this is fairly accurate when exchanging information or casually making observations.  We often truncate our communications to save time and energy or to keep from overwhelming each other with unnecessary details.  We talk in sound bites and generalities, leaving much unsaid, requiring each other to read between the lines or catch the nuances and implications. .

When communication becomes strained and difficult it is important for someone to become intentional with their listening skills, paraphrasing what the other is saying, attempting to reflect the thoughts that lie behind the words.  This can be a challenge because it takes time, energy and a detachment from one’s own assumptions, expending the effort and allowing time to understand the assumptions of the other person.

Deciding that I don’t know what you mean until you believe that I understand what you are trying to say is the beginning of deep, abiding and meaningful conversation.  The enemy is the time it takes to understand; the currency is the time we take to communicate that we care enough to listen.

Couple Face to Face

 *Beck, Aaron T. Love is Never Enough. 1988, p. 13.

How to Predict a Happy Marriage

In Love

In their pre-marital book entitled Saving Your Marriage Before It Starts (2006), Drs. Les and Leslie Parrott suggest seven key predictors for creating a lasting relationship in a happy marriage.

  1. Healthy expectations of marriage.
  2. A realistic concept of love.
  3. A positive attitude and outlook toward life
  4. The ability to communicate their feelings.
  5. An understanding and acceptance of their gender differences.
  6. The ability to make decisions and settle arguments.
  7. A common spiritual foundation and goal.

These seven characteristics form the outline for the respective chapters of the book.  These qualities are also frequently visited in marital therapy and are worth consideration as a quick check-up on how you are doing in your marriage.

Healthy Expectations

It is not so much the expectations that get us into trouble.  Rather, it is the failure to communicate those expectations to each other that often leaves the other person guessing, hoping to get it right.  This is a real problem when one person repeatedly, innocently violates the other’s expectations without knowing it.

Realistic Love

Many times people form new marital bonds with concepts of love shaped by what they don’t want it to be.  Children who have grown up in unhappy and unhealthy homes will often define love by the opposite of their experiences.  True love is more than the absence of dysfunctional, toxic love.


Faith, hope and love are fundamentally based upon the belief that there is something to enjoy in the present and to anticipate in the future.  An optimistic view in each other that chooses to believe and hope for the best will contribute towards dispelling negative expectations.  By the way, a sure predictor of marital failure is when a couple continually chooses to believe the worst about each other.


In our world of sound bites and text messages, sitting down with the express intention of listening to each other for the simple joy of understanding seems to be a rarity.  Communication of feelings has to be intentional and focused, requiring energy and patience.

Appreciating Our Differences

It is one thing to know that we are different and to acknowledge it to each other.  It can be something quite different when we begin to appreciate those differences and allow them to compliment our relationship as we learn to dovetail our energies together.  Trusting each other enough to allow one’s strengths compensate for the other’s blind sides is a huge accomplishment that goes a long way towards a happy marriage.


Many parents settle their differences privately in order to protect their children.  When conflict is destructive and wounding, this can be a good thing.  The best scenario, it seems to me, is for parents to learn healthy ways of resolving conflict and demonstrating those skills before their kids.  Being too careful to protect our kids from witnessing disagreements may leave them thinking that conflict is always bad, without the necessary tools for learning to resolve differences and formulating win-win solutions to problems.

Spiritual Unity

When we agree that spiritual values are important then, to the extent that they are shared values, marriages can thrive.  If not on the same page spiritually, at least a proper respect for each other’s faith will reinforce appreciation of those elements that are similar as well as a humility towards those areas that are different.

So, how did you do?  These areas…and so much more…are the realm in which Marriage and Family Therapists practice daily.  If you need assistance in helping your relationship grow in satisfaction and longevity we offer free first-time consultations to see if Marriage and Family Therapy is right for you.

It Was A Merry Christmas!

Christmas Morning 2012
Christmas Morning 2012

Christmas morning, as Pamela and I waited for the girls to come down the stairs for breakfast, we realized that this was our 33rd Merry Christmas spent together.  I guess that would make sense since we have been married 33 years!  Some personal reflections….

This is a time of rich traditions that Pamela brings from her family and I, also, from mine combined with those we have initiated ourselves over the years.  For example, the CD in the stereo this morning has been played every year since our first trip to Europe as newly-weds.  We loved the German Christmas Markets beginning with Nurenberg and listening to this CD reminds us of a time shared…just the two of us.

Now that our girls are both in college we are beginning to contemplate returning to those early days as the nest begins to empty…another normal stage in the Family Life Cycle.  After more than 30 years in ministry I have returned to my first-love as a Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice and I have continued to travel to Tampere, Finland several times each year since mom and dad’s last trip in 2008.

I suppose one of the greatest things we have learned over these years has been to entrust our lives to our God.  From the beginning, I have proactively moved my family from one job in ministry to the next, looking for that perfect time and place to participate in a church that finally fit my template for how things are supposed to be.  In 2009 a cataclysm of events finally persuaded me that I needed to give it up, realign my focus and learn to rest in God’s leading.

So, we enjoyed our 33rd Christmas with each other waiting for our girls to come down the stairs Christmas morning, appreciating the simple things, grateful for our blessings and resting in the Lord’s leading, knowing that He is faithful.

Merry Christmas to all and God’s blessings to you!

<>< steve

Marriage, Holiness & Spiritual Growth

In his book, Sacred Marriage, Gary Thomas asks a powerful question: “What if God designed marriage to make us holy more than to make us happy?”  Holiness is one of those things we want to leave in church buildings. Rarely do we attribute the marital contract between two people as a holy, spiritual covenant.

In our world today these kinds of assertions bring a sobriety to life that is humbling.  Happiness is such an important goal to which we aspire that we often feel betrayed and burdened when it is hard and painful.  The hope that we will find a clearing in our marital relationships where we can run freely, hand-in-hand into the sunset, just like in the movies, eludes many marriages from beginning to end.

Does that mean that those relationships that do not achieve a romantic nirvana are of no value?  Of course not.  As I watch my own parents move closer to the margins of life I see their love and care for each other during their ‘Golden Years.’  For them, it truly is the golden years but with a very other-worldly quality that transcends their struggles and suffering, leading them to a place where their undying love for each other is deep, strong, vibrant and as youthful as ever.

Tony Reinke on John Piper’s Desiring God blog site made some similar oservations in a recent article about the marriage of Abraham Lincoln, inspired by the realistc depiction of the struggles of his marriage to Mary Todd in the most recent movie by Steven Spielberg.  The article is entitled, “Learning from Lincoln’s Flawed Marriage.”  He attributes the steadfast leadership of Lincoln to the fact that he and his wife chose to embrace their pain.  They chose to wrestle with it in their own unique ways in the face of the temptation to walk away when the tough parts of their marriage seemed never ending..

But embracing the pain of marriage is only one portion of the overwhelming drama that unfolds in the context of this most intimate of relationships.  In every corner of our mariages are hidden eternal truths that can lead us to a deeper understanding of the God we strive to know and to imitate.  Why not give Thomas’ book a read as you seek out the joy  of finding God in the midst of the multi-faceted complexities of your life-long commitment to that other person at your side.


Forever, Marriage Communication & Counseling

What does marital communication have to do with the word ‘forever’: a popular word on YouTube with more than 1 million hits.  A quick scan suggests that it is most often associated with music across a broad range of genres.  My suspicion is that most of those songs  relate to one person’s love for another and that the word that comes to mind is the word “forever.”

So, when we marry we say things like “till death do we part” and “through sickness and health, for richer or poorer” and more.  The words forever, love, marriage, family have traditionally been bound together.

Yet, we now live in a culture where the words are broken out into conditional sentences.  Often words like ‘forever’ are rendered emotional sentiments that have little basis in reality.

Part of this is anchored in our experience.  “Nothing lasts forever” is not only a colloquial phrase; it is the truth.  Then, there are the things that were supposed to last forever, meaning, a person’s lifetime.  When those lifetime things end through death we all understand that the phrase is true: nothing does last forever.

On the other hand, when children see their parents divorce the sense of permanence and stability engendered by lifelong commitments is challenged to reorient itself to words like disposable, temporary, and transient.  So, we do what we can to assure each other that our commitment to each other is ‘forever’ while we work out the pre-nuptual agreements…just in case.  So many couples, now, are foregoing the forever commitment of marriage and opting to live in the same house to enjoy the sweetness of commitment without having made ‘the’ commitment to each other.

Of course, the fear of any forever commitment to someone else entails an acceptance of responsibility that can be severely tested by a car accident, an unfortunate diagnosis, or a mid-life wanderlust.  Perhaps one reason for not wanting to make those kinds of forever commitments is that we have seen too many failures coupled with our desire to avoid the pain of disappointment and regret.

The reality is that there are no risk-free commitments, nor is there an insurance policy to protect us from emotional and psychological pain.  At the same time there are ways to increase the probabilities for success and preventive measures that can be taken to reduce the likelihood of dissolution when the times get tough…and those times will come.  The pain that will come in interpersonal relationships can provide the impetus for doing the things that will deepen and enrich our appreciation and love for each other if we take advantage of the tools that will open the door to healing and growth.

Among the most useful predictors of success or failure can be found in the basics of communication.  If we can refine and develop the skills needed to talk about tough issues we can navigate our ways through other potential trouble-spots such as financial management, religious beliefs, familial relationships, and parenting philosophies.  Conversely, if the art of good communication and conflict resolution skills are not built into a fledgling relationship early in a couple’s life together, these areas will predictably become problem areas later on.

So, while there are no guarantees for success in relationships it is still possible to make ‘forever’ promises when you know you have taken care of  increasing the probabilities for success.  Coaching in basic communication skills can help and there are wonderful resources available to help people along the way to understanding and appreciation of our similarities and differences so that the whole becomes greater than just the sum of its parts.

Language of Love & Marriage and Family Therapy

Gary Chapman authored a book entitled The Five Love Languages: How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate.  Originally published in 1992, the book’s relevance to enhancing relationships is timeless.  Marriage and Family Therapists are specially trained to help couples and families learn how to speak to one another.

When being “in love” moves from becoming a temporary emotional high to a longstanding, enduring commitment the rules change.  When we are ‘in love’ our partner can do no wrong and our desire is to make the relationship last forever.

As we come to know each other over time, however, being in love becomes more of a choice–a decision–than a state of being.  A key ingredient to lasting love is the decision to learn what pleases the other as well as one’s self.

Chapman identifies five languages of love that can be helpful for building and maintaining enduring relationships.  They are:

  • Love Language #1: Words of Affirmation
  • Love Language #2: Quality Time
  • Love Language #3: Receiving Gifts
  • Love Language #4: Acts of Service
  • Love Language #5: Physical Touch

What is needed is for each person to know the expressions of love according to (1) their own preferred language and (2) their partner’s own preferences. Over time many couples learn these languages without enumerating them as we have done here.  For others of us it is an important aid to shorten the learning time needed and to help relationships get off to a good start.

When we don’t know each other’s language we begin the process of elimination that can be rather painful at times.  For example, Sam loves to get gifts for his birthday more than anything else.  His wife, Mary, on the other hand loves to have people do works of service for her.  Over the years Sam keeps giving Mary more and more expensive gifts but he never gets the response from her that he was anticipating.  At the same time Sam never remembers to pick up his socks off of the bedroom floor, forgets to take out the garbage and never helps with the housework.

Conversely, Mary loves helping Sam with various projects such as painting a room or changing the oil of the car.  She always wonders why Sam–who prefers to work alone–always seems short tempered and agitated when she helps.  She thinks she is showing him her enduring love by giving him the gift that she appreciates the most; yet, he repays her with ingratitude.

The key for the couple is to understand that they are speaking the wrong languages to each other.  Assuming that Sam really wants to please Mary, he would expend more energy in picking up after himself, helping with chores without being asked and join Mary when she engages in housecleaning projects.  Sam would benefit with a double benefit.  First, he would be giving Mary exactly what says “I love you!” to her and, second, he would save a lot of money by giving more modest gifts.

Conversely, how differently Sam might respond if Mary would listen carefully and take notes when Sam ‘accidentally’ shares with her his desire for a special tool or accessory while walking through the mall.  Sam might respond very differently to her acts of love when what he merely mentioned 8 months ago suddenly shows up on the kitchen counter for his birthday, set next to his favorite chocolate cake and surrounded by his closest friends.

Outside of our romantic relationships, imagine how listening for each other’s languages could help in relationships in general.  The possibilities are endless.

For more information check out Gary Chapman’s book and surprise your mate as you observe his or her preferences, ask questions that pique their interest and you suddenly start wowing them with unsolicited behaviors that speak directly to their language of love.  To help each of you in your marriage there is a workbook that goes with the material as well that can re-set the love meter in your life as you start speaking each other’s language.


Marriage: Commitment

The value of commitment at the most fundamental level of marriage to a society cannot be overstated, even though it may be sometimes underrated.  When a man and woman come together and pledge “‘Till death do us part” they make this vow before God, anchoring their relationship in their Creator who instituted the sacred bond at the beginning of man’s history.  The pledge is also made before witnesses, proclaiming their fidelity to each other and their determination to stick together through thick and thin.  With that commitment, a promise is made to the children that will enter their home through birth or adoption, assuring them that they will have as predictable, stable and loving environment in which to grow and mature.

The ripple effects of this kind of commitment throughout society…as each family is launched…provides the basis for the values that govern a culture from the neighborhoods in which they live to the nation.  It is these individual commitments gathered together with thousands of others that keep civilizations thriving.

May God richly bless those who have made the commitment of marriage to each other and may they use those blessings to better the world in which they live.

Marriage: Conflict Resolution Skills


Arriving at mutually gratifying solutions to problems can be a challenging experience for couples.

Even simple conversations can become problems when the skills for listening carefully are not developed adequately.  Learning to value understanding over insistence upon being understood can be  huge but necessary step.

When things begin to go wrong, communications become win/lose battles for power and control.  The danger for this pattern of communication means one person believes that they have convinced the other of their argument.  Just because the other person has stopped arguing for their position, however, it does not necessarily mean that they have been persuaded; they just stopped arguing.

Sometimes the negotiations lead to each partner agreeing to compromise where each person giving up something in order to end the  struggle.  There are times when agreeing to disagree helps life go forward.  The hope is that we will return to the topic to flesh out more details and come to a point of resolution.  Too much compromise in a relationship, however, keeps couples from experiencing the joy that comes with getting on the same page together.

Enough win/lose and compromise over time can lead to ‘the silent treatment’ because the goal becomes the cessation of hostilities instead of working through conflict.  The silent, conflict-avoiding ‘resolution’ patterns can lead to ticking time bombs.

The goal is to learn the needed skills for developing win/win scenarios and being willing to expend the energy to make it happen.  Marriage and Family Therapists are specially trained to help couples learn, practice and implement these special skills.  This is one of those aspects of relating that, when practiced as a lifestyle, can generalize to satisfying scenarios in other relationships as well.

Marriage: Expectations

We all have expectations for how husbands and wives are supposed to function in marriage relationships.  One of the goals of pre-marital counseling is to clarify those expectations that are mutually compatible in contrast to those that are not.  Hopefully, a couple will negotiate through those contrasting expectations before the knot is tied.

When those expectations are not addressed before the marriage then the couple must negotiate through those contrasting points as they go.  Unfortunately, sometimes these expectations are never verbalized.  The other partner is supposed to know what to do intuitively, without being told.  The belief is that once I tell my mate what I expect he or she will now fulfill my expectation out of duty, not out of love.

Contrasting, unverbalized expectations combined with the normal stressors of marriage and family life is not good.  Sometimes they can lead to unresolved conflict that simmers below the surface until one partner finally explodes.  When that happens those expectations are often expressed in  hurtful resentments and angry words that make it hard for the other partner to listen without reacting in kind.

Marriage and Family Therapists are equipped to help couples surface those hidden expectations and work through the tangled web of unresolved conflict.  While it is much easier to address them in pre-marital counseling, before the resentment and anger sets in, it is still possible to find hope when nothing else seems to be working.