Awhile back, my husband and I spent two days coaching a couple once so in love, now on the brink of divorce. We had already been working with them individually, with my husband coaching the husband and I coaching the wife. We were managing to help each one cope with the stress of a dissolving marriage and the changes that would be needed, but no major breakthroughs had occurred that made them really want to fight for it. Though they had gone through plenty of therapy for hurt feelings, lies and betrayals, there was very little resolution. They were both in pain and both thought they were right. As their coaches, we decided that the best way to potentially come to some resolution was to all sit together in a private room and do some deep work, together, and they needed us as coaches, examples, guides, mediators, interpreters and witnesses. Are therapists even allowed to wear all those hats?
We spent time convincing the couple they’d be safe in that room and that they’d be coached to some satisfactory resolution. At our direction they prepared for this weekend of work, but likely that preparation was driven as much by the recognition that they’d hit rock bottom and felt they’d run out of options to save their marriage. Now, weeks later, I am still re-living the triumphs we experienced in that room. I already knew our method worked, but I didn’t really understand how well, or how fast, or how powerfully, when embarked upon by two people, simultaneously. My hope is that sharing the experience will help you work on a relationship and help distinguish coaching from therapy, something people ask me about all the time. The couple has given me permission to share many aspects of their story as well as their testimonials. They both feel that coaching saved not only their marriage, but also their relationships with others including their children.
It turns out that not only were we able to bring resolution to a long list of hurts and disagreements, we were able also to help each individual come to terms with their own patterns and life lessons, brought to them courtesy of their lineage. Mini-lesson: Every human being has traits that they get from their parents, whether they like it or not. Right now, think of your parents’ worst traits (cold-hearted, superficial, negative defensive, argumentative, vain, disconnected, addictive, violent, moody, morose, critical, overly-analytical, martyr, selfish, etc.). You probably don’t think you have those same traits. But, not only do you have them (your own version) but you’ve probably found the perfect mate (or if you’re single: date, friend, boss, employee) to trigger these traits. Both the husband and wife, when they actually saw this phenomenon in their marriage, had cathartic experiences that allowed them to see and feel the fears, bad traits and habits they each had brought, albeit unknowingly, to the relationship. With that recognition they were able to own the damage they had done and start the work of changing immediately.
The man in this relationship, an extremely intelligent, stoic surgeon, who loves quiet and order, married a free-spirited, boisterous, outdoorsy woman who brought with her three young kids. (He also had two older children; later, they had a child together.) The different opinions each held about how quiet the home “should be” by itself could have been enough to break them up. Of course, when they married, she loved his sense of order, control, integrity and how he played with the young kids. He loved her laughter, spontaneity and openness and her love of him. As anyone who has had a relationship can predict, what was once what they loved about each other turned into what chafed the most and what resulted in growing more distant. They both wanted love, but had stopped feeling it and had managed to push the other’s love away, justifying it all with fear and blame. Over time, they stopped working at all the practices that had kept love and sex hot and exciting, simple things like being honest, making time for each other, laughing together, gift giving, apologizing and forgiving.
Our comprehensive process with the couple included a review of every complaint, each betrayal, each trait and each unspoken, broken rule. Each of these was questioned, explained and debated until all could agree on how to see it. It was a rigorous process. In the most critical moments, feelings were unleashed. So often people seek resolution to betrayals through the mind (asking and seeking explanation) as opposed to truly feeling the hurt so it can be expressed and felt by the other person. To do this effectively one may need a coach and a cheerleader to facilitate. It may be next to impossible for a couple to do this effectively by themselves. With therapy, the focus on how it feels may begin the process, but it is the rare therapist, if any, that would demand she sit on his lap while she is crying and that he respond in a particular way. It was a risky, bossy coaching move, but it paid off. For that, I thank god I am a coach, not a therapist, because being bossy, pushy, vulnerable and completely available, including after the session, are what made the weekend successful.
These people, like most, could not see their role or the roles of their worst traits and how they contributed to the deterioration of their marriage, but they theatrically displayed them for us as they spoke about their lives in front of each other. As a coach, I was able to point out emphatically how unacceptable their behavior was. Just like a sports coach, I was not helping them figure out how they felt so much as telling them a new way to think and act, after showing them how their current behaviors failed them. The wife ultimately discovered a mannerism of defensiveness as well as dismissiveness that she was completely unaware was ruining their relationship. Ironically, she sees and dislikes both of these traits in her own mother. The husband discovered that coldness and negativity were absolutely his go-to modes and this recognition gave him the tools to shift them. Though these might not be your traits, everyone has their set of negative traits that work to destroy or diminish relationships.
Had I been a therapist, I would not have been able to lay out exactly what a creep I myself had been with my husband when we nearly divorced six years ago. As a coach, having “been there” was incredibly valuable. I could “feel their pain” and their trust in me steadily grew because of this. I also knew both the effort it would take to overcome ego and righteousness and the enormous pay off that would ensue. It was almost as if I was standing at the finish line shrieking at them to keep running, no matter how labored their breathing became. At times they wanted to stop and turn back. They couldn’t initially see that there was still so much love between them and that they both wanted the same thing, but I could.
As a therapist, I would not have invited communication with my husband and me between Day 1 and Day 2; boundaries, you know? As a coach, I knew I needed to be available at all stages and thank goodness I was, because around 10pm after the first day, the wife “freaked out.” She had not been ready to take responsibility for her part of their marriage and she was scared and angry about it. Thankfully, the husband reached out to me and I was able to spend an hour on the phone with her that night, just listening, feeling her, getting her and then after all that, knocking some sense into her!
Her thinking and her perceptions were just plain wrong. For example, she thought her husband hadn’t been emotionally engaged that day. She was shocked when I pointed out that he had been crying continuously throughout the day. (Based on the angle of her chair, she hadn’t seen any of it, telling in and of itself.) For a therapist, I fear it would have been a slow process of figuring out errors in thinking. As a coach, I am allowed to argue and teach and I do, as quickly as possible, while right in the midst of the turmoil. Most of what our minds feed us is based on our history and some really bad and faulty theories. We expect things to go a certain way, not understanding we have within us the power to change outcomes. When you learn how better to discern your pattern, where it really comes from, you learn how it holds you back and how to change it. This is what Will and I were able to accomplish with this couple in two days’ time.
Coaching is about challenging you to look at what you fear most and to see and admit how you are stuck. It asks you to be brave and face your worst traits without judgment or censure. We guide you to see yourself through an objective lens. And when you do, we are there to continue to guide you into a new paradigm. Coaching asks you to DO things differently: to speak in a new way, to think in a new way and to take certain new actions every day.
In therapy, you examine and ultimately, if successful, come to your own conclusions. In coaching, we push a bit harder; we act as witnesses and guides and assert opinions that may, at times, be difficult to swallow. Yet it’s the only way to create a definitive shift in that very moment, not sometime far in the future.
This couple came to see and own the harm of their body language, how they spoke, what they assumed of each other and what they held against each other. They had never seen or understood this in therapy, which had only focused on who did what to whom. With us, they came to see the silent negative messages they were constantly sending, which they neither recognized nor meant to send. For them, there was total, dawning enlightenment. They learned how to stop and reverse the pattern of negative messages and conversely to give each other what they each really needed.
Our coaching process is not about blame. We start with the premise that all of us may be a bit messed up from our legacy or childhood, but evolution beyond that legacy is possible. We all go about sabotaging ourselves without thinking. In the end, we all want simply to be loved and to love despite our fear. So we must be taught or re-taught how to do this. That’s what we do in coaching. We teach the precise actions and steps you need to take every single day of your life in order to have this. We give you a roadmap, something that therapy is neither designed nor intended to do.
Coaching shifts consciousness in real time and promises results because of promised actions. The light at the end of the tunnel is planned actions, also known as promises. (You know, like the ones you make in front of everyone when you get married? But these are even more specific.)
Listed below are some of the promises made by this couple during our session.
– Nightly ritual in which they review successes from the day, open issues, own up to traits and deeply appreciate each other
– Go to bed/sleep together at least once a week
– Weekly family dinner
– Bedtime is enforced by husband
– All complaints about the house go in a special book to be discussed at weekly meeting, no other time
– Both spouses get accountant statements
– Expenditures over a certain amount need to be signed off by the other
– Weekly meeting to discuss goals, progress and big financial decisions
– All visits to the home must be pre-approved by both spouses. Once a “yes” is given, it’s all about hospitality and honoring the “yes.”
It’s amazing how much of a difference rules make. It’s what keeps us all alive (mostly) on the highway while we’re driving so fast. Because partnerships usually dissolve slowly over time, we can’t feel the true consequences of our ongoing bad (un-loving?) choices. Rules remind us what we are committed to, of our dreams. Naturally we do not stay present to our dreams! We can barely stay present to the speed limit and our lane and that’s literally life and death. This is nothing to sigh over; it’s the human condition and it provides an amazing opportunity for US to hone OUR power to create exactly what we want.
I’ll end with the letters the couple wrote to us after the weekend, so you can hear it in their words, though they also helped me write the article.
From the Wife:
Dear Laurie and Will,
I want to tell you what this past weekend feels like and what it has meant. You have given us a gift that is beyond explaining. For me personally, I have thought very hard about what Friday night meant. What I can best describe it as, is an unwilling birth. Knowing the searing pain of it, while not yet having enough experience to imagine the relief and knowledge that, when it’s done, there’s love at the other end of it. You can’t imagine that outcome while you’re in the middle of it.
Holding on so tight I refused to see, not only my part, but my own fear and my complete refusal to take the hand that was being offered. Absolute refusal. I have said that LK couldn’t receive, not recognizing that I couldn’t. I am blown away by what I have learned of me and of him and the ways in which I blinded myself.
Friday was the last shred of my safety net being torn away and I was unwilling to place that somewhere without a guarantee. I didn’t get that that was MY job. So, Saturday morning comes with LK whispering “you are safe” and I finally couldn’t do anything other than fall……instead of on the rocks as I’d imagined, once I let go, (once I acknowledge I want to need him and that I do) I hit a soft pile of sand. No loud, breaking reverberations at the bottom, just a quiet, soft thud. And a sense of “oh, that wasn’t so horrible after all.” I never knew how much I feared needing someone, but more, I didn’t have a clue to the extent I had lost my ability to trust. From way back. From my earliest experiences. I stomped around the streets after Day 1 trying to pinpoint my anger until Laurie called. I had to see through another set of eyes because I didn’t have the vision. I was truly shocked into wakefulness.
I actually had wanted to believe my own story too. Man, was I pissed that I was not the “evolved being” I liked to think of myself. Me choosing not to believe in love when all I’ve ever done is shout my belief in it? So, Laurie says “how are you not seeing this?” and then I saw. I think back on what LK has told me over the last year and he’s actually been utterly consistent. I would not listen and my expectation of his turning away prompted me to keep enough distance so we couldn’t get close again. Peas in a pod, just like you taught us. And all I wanted was his love.
I see LK, open and willing and sincere and I am amazed by it. And pissed that I didn’t believe him. And very, very sorry for that. Amazing we all want safety and do everything we can to keep ourselves unsafe.
I see how this process does so impact each individual that the possibility for any couple like us is staggering. While we have to do the work for ourselves, there is no way we can do this without you, your guidance, your method. Mostly, it is your compassion that pulls us out of scary places and wakes us up to what life and love is supposed to really be.
I feel braver and I see how brave LK actually has been and is now. I am so happy we are in this together. I can’t imagine walking this road alone without him.
I am grateful for all of you.
This may be a bit weird, but you two feel like family.
I am very happy. And what’s more, I’m happy to see the joy and love in LK that I have missed seeing for so long.
From the Husband:
It is hard to put into words how meaningful I found this weekend and how much the two of you have helped LS and me find the path back. It has been a long time since I have felt this good, and for that I thank the two of you. I truly believe I can do anything when LS and I are together. She truly is the love of my life and the thought of losing that was devastating to me. Thanks to you we have the tools to really make a difference. I will be forever grateful to both of you. (just as long as you don’t let anyone know that I cried or that I actually need affirmation). All kidding aside, this goes down as one of the greatest weekends I’ve ever spent. Thank you, thank you.
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