Rev. Dr. Josh Noblitt is a licensed marriage and family therapist and sex therapist. He also specializes in work around a variety of presenting issues, including communication, conflict resolution, depression, anxiety, grief, anger management. Dr. Noblitt discusses the importance of therapy in various stages of marriage with publisher Kimberlee Jones.
I definitely recommend some premarital counseling. In fact, I have a five session premarital counseling package that I offer. In the state of Georgia, you can get a discount on your marriage license if you do premarital counseling for a certain number of hours.
In the five sessions, I get couples to share the story of how they met, what the glue was, and what the initial spark was that brought them together and sustained the interest over the long haul. I then examine previous relationship history to see what, if any, patterns exist, and how things were functional or not functional in previous relationships, and to have each other sit and listen as the other shares that relationship history.
I then spend a whole session focused on one partner, and then a whole session focused on the other partner, learning about their family of origin. I have this tool, which looks like a family tree, and I map out all the family members for maybe the past two or three generations. Then I use different marker colors to show different family patterns of communication. Often, we’ll see family secrets are a powerful force in family dynamics. Cut-offs can also be prevalent. If you cut somebody off, you actually psychologically draw that person closer, because there’s more effort needed to maintain the wall than if we just depart ways.
I examine all those different family dynamics and see what are some ways that there’s been functionality around communication, conflict resolution, relationship to money and finances, touch, public displays of affection, how all that has been modeled in the family of origin, and then specifically naming, what are some of the dynamics that were functional that we as a couple want to bring forward into our new chapter that we’re forming in marriage, and what are some things about each other’s family of origin that we want to name as dysfunctional and intentionally leave behind?
I think about premarital counseling as being snorkeling as opposed to scuba diving. In my psychotherapy practice, we’re kind of scuba diving. We’re going deep into the issues. Whereas premarital counseling is planting seeds for a lot of future conversations.
Then after I do the geneogram for each person, we focus a lot on finances, sexual and nonsexual intimacy and communication, conflict resolution. Interestingly, I see a lot of times that finances and sexuality sort of parallel each other. The dynamics around both oftentimes mirror each other in the relationship.
MONEY AND RELATIONSHIPS
I have some couples that I work with who keep all of their finances completely separate. They both have separate accounts for everything. A lot of times I like to substitute the word money for the word energy when we’re talking about finances. So what does it look like? Instead of saying, “I bring this money into the relationship, you bring this money in,” thinking of it in terms of energy. Like, “I bring this kind of energy in.” Then what happens to that energy when it gets incorporated into our household, into our relationship, how we decide how money is appropriated, how that energy is sort of mixed in together and then re-appropriated back out.
I think a lot of times we’ll see the same thing around communication and sexual intimacy, is that how are we communicating about kind of what we’re bringing to the table from an intimacy standpoint? Are we on the same page about that? Are we communicating about that? What is the functionality around that? Is it causing anxiety?
A lot of times folks will have different perspectives on how to spend money. Is there a perspective of abundance or a perspective of scar-city around finances? I think the same thing can be true for trust and sexuality, is like, am I not sure when I’m going to get the next sexual intimacy, because the other partner has either been withholding or not communicating and that kind of thing. So there can be a mentality of scarcity around that. Or, do we have open communication about that, and is there a sense of abundance, that I’m not worried about having those needs met in the relationship?
IMPORTANCE OF MARITAL COUNSELING
When I have a married couple that comes in because they’re having a presenting issue, which is usually around sex because I’m a sex therapist, there’s usually some sexual presenting issue that’s problematic. Although, almost always the sexuality issues can be connected to a deeper issue of anxiety, trust, previous trauma, belief system a lot of times, religious belief system, shame, those kinds of things.
Those become the real issues that are behind the sexual dysfunction. Unfortunately, a lot of times when I see, particularly a hetero couple, and the wife is wanting a divorce or is putting that word in, oftentimes what I see is that she has already grieved the relationship by the time that those words are spoken. Sometimes it comes out of nowhere for the guy, who’s been oblivious to some of the changes that have happened or the pleas for needs to be met, and then she’s grieved the relationship already and has checked out, and it’s too late at that point. And then so the process becomes how do we dissolve this relationship with dignity. There’s therapeutic value in both either trying to work on saving the relationship, or trying to dissolve with dignity.
I would advocate coming in for therapy sooner than later, just to get another pair of eyes on the situation. Sometimes that alone can disrupt whatever patterns might be in place, the dysfunctional patterns, because you’re having to disclose a lot of things to somebody who’s completely outside, objective, doesn’t have a dog in the fight as far as whether you stay together or whether you part ways, and can just bring that objective sort of safe space, convene that safe space to be able to talk about something, and ask formative questions that oftentimes might be painful to face. So getting into therapy sooner rather than later is a great idea.
I have a ton of gay folks that I see, lesbian clients as well, transgender clients, but when I’m working with heterosexual marriages, a lot of times there’s this toxic masculinity, sometimes, or things that get in the way of men paying attention to what’s going on in their relationship. I think a lot of it has to do with the perception of being weak, or being a failure, or sometimes that emoting is not masculine, things like that. We’ve got to push through that and be able to open up and be vulnerable in the relationship, and listen.
One of the things I noticed with guys particularly, is that there’s this jump to try to fix things. Like, “I want to do, I want to fix, I want to check something off the list and take action.” A lot of times, that’s not necessarily what’s the most helpful in a conflict situation. A lot of times, there’s need for solidarity. I just need somebody to hear what I’m saying and offer some empathy, as opposed to immediately jumping to take action to kind of fix things or whatever.
UNDERSTANDING THE UNDERLYING ISSUES
I do work around opening up and working on listening skills, empathizing skills, and also being able to articulate, what are the things that I’m feeling, as well. Sometimes folks have a hard time identifying what their emotions are, and it’s funny. I have a little xerox page that just has about four columns worth of emotional adjectives. Sometimes when folks are having a hard time articulating what their emotions are, I’ll just hand them that piece of paper and just say, “Scan down there and call out whatever words feel relevant or that resonate with you about this issue.”
I keep track and write them all down. Then I’ll ask, “Do these emotions remind you of anything else from your previous experience, in your family of origin and maybe some formative relationships that you had years and years ago? Are there things that are being triggered and that are now in the room?”
So we’re arguing about who’s going to take out the trash, but it’s not really about who’s taking out the trash. It’s about being heard, being respected, feeling loved, feeling seen, feeling valued in the relationship. Those are a lot of triggers, oftentimes, that are developed over time from previous dysfunctional relationships.
DIVORCING WITH DIGNITY
I think there’s real value in dissolving the relationship with dignity. It is a painful thing, especially if there’s one partner that does not want to get divorced and one that does. But it’s so much healthier to try to really face those feelings of pain and vulnerability, so that the divorce proceedings are not some game, and the kids and the stuff and the finances don’t all become pawns in this power struggle.
That’s just not healthy, and it’s very expensive, and it’s very detrimental to all involved, emotionally speaking. We want to try to avoid that as much as possible. When the relationship has ended, I’ll talk my clients through, how do we communicate what we resent about the relationship, which are action or inaction on behalf of the other person? What do I regret about the relationship, which is action or in-action on my part, or the individual’s part? And then most importantly, I think, what am I grateful for about this relationship? How have I grown? What have I learned? What can I show as far as gratitude about the time that we have had together, even though it’s painful that we’re parting ways? In that order.
I think in these painful situations it’s real easy to lose sight of the gratitude, because it’s like grieving the loss of a person. It’s a death in a lot of ways.
People sometimes have difficulty admitting what they have done wrong in the relationship. Conversely, they’ll be somebody who is just consumed with their own guilt and shame about the relationship, and it’s almost groveling. We want to try to help folks sort of name the things that they need to apologize for and take steps to make amends, but also once an apology has been issued, that it’s been asked and answered. That we don’t need to apologize 500 times for the same thing over and over to find forgiveness.
IMPORTANCE OF FORGIVENESS
I will often put forgiveness on the table early in the conversation, so that at least our minds can start to wrap around that concept and what that might look and feel like in the relationship. I think forgiveness often gets a bad rap in our culture. It’s perceived as letting somebody get away with something,
I try to reframe forgiveness so that it’s not perceived as, “You’re getting away with something.” Or, “I’m letting you off the hook.” But rather, it’s more about setting one’s-self free from the emotional baggage of the situation. It’s costly, and it should be costly, because otherwise it wouldn’t mean anything. I just start to talk them through, “What does life look like without this emotional baggage? If you were to start to conceive that in your mind, what would it look like not to have to devote so much energy into hating this person because of what they said or did? Or holding that resentment. Or just retaliating and just all that goes along with that in some of these messy divorces we see. What does it look like to let some of that go? What do you really give up by not holding onto these things?” I try to introduce that conversation so that we can identify what some specific things are that we need to forgive? Even if I’m not quite ready to forgive yet, at least we know what those thing are.
If we need to take one at a time and work through it, make peace with it, we can do that. What I find also is that we may name 15 things that need forgiveness, but if we can make progress on one of those things, often times there’s a breakthrough in understanding. That’s sort of a domino effect, it has an effect on these other things and we don’t have to hash out these other things, because we now have a new understanding and peace is made that can flow into some of these other issues.
Sometimes it takes the threat of divorce to really force some of these issues into the spotlight so that it can be taken seriously. Sometimes maybe there’s one partner that doesn’t take the complaints of the other that seriously until all of a sudden there’s divorce papers sitting on the table. It’s like, “Oh, maybe I need to take this a little more seriously.” Yeah, I’ve had couples that have been right up on the edge, and maybe even filed the papers, and then had to go back and through the legal process, withdraw all those papers and cancel it out. Especially if the presenting issue and the reason for the divorce is around community issues, well then we start to communicate then things change.
THE AFTERMATH OF DIVORCE
Post-divorce the priority needs to be on the health and well-being of the kids. That has to be the number one priority. The divorce has been settled. We’ve moved, on, even if there are raw feelings about it, now we’ve got to focus on making sure these kids get raised in a way that is healthy, that supports their growth and minimized their trauma around this. It is cru-cial that both parents not bad mouth the other parent in front of the kids. That is important. I’ve seen it so many times where a parent just can’t help themselves because they’re so frustrated and in their own feelings that they will ventilate to the other kid or try to poison the water a little bit.
That may feel good to you in the moment as the parent, but that feels rotten to the kid, because these are their parents. These are the folks that gave them life, that are supposed to be these formative relationships. I just think that’s really important to not bad mouth each other. Also, some-times it isn’t possible but to the extent that it is possible to be able to do some things together as a family and do it in a functional way. Attending graduations together, celebrating birthdays, if there are some important traditions around the holidays to try to make something happen around those so that there is a bit of continuity and a sense of family for the kids moving forward.
Sometimes that’s not possible, depending on the high level of conflict or geographical distances, or geographical barriers, but to the extent that it is possible, and sometimes therapy can help in providing a little lubrication for those kinds of situations to where we’re able to sit and be functional in the same room in the interest of the kids and not be fighting and not be taking digs at each other, but to actually really try to look for the good and try to celebrate achievements and advances in each other’s lives all in the interest of helping the kids make it though in a healthy and positive way.