What is Marriage Coaching?


Willard F. Harley, Jr., Ph.D.


I was raised in a Germanic tradition of "no pain, no gain." Many, if not most, of my childhood achievements were accomplished through personal sacrifice and hard work. During my adolescence and then later as an adult, I applied the same rule of personal sacrifice to almost every goal I had. Without a doubt, if I had not forced myself to work long and hard, I would not have amounted to much. And that's the story of most people who have achieved their personal objectives -- they must work for it.

My approach to achievement made me a natural coach. From my high school days right up to the present, I have been coaching people to do whatever it takes to be successful. Whether the goal is mastery of academic subjects, physical conditioning, career development or ... marriage, I have tried to help people understand that they can have what they want, if they are willing to work for it.

In my ten years of teaching psychology and statistics (1967-1977), I gave every student a chance to earn an A, but they had to earn it. Tests were given on every lecture and reading assignment, and students could retake them until they had a perfect score (a different test was given on each retake). Free tutoring was available to students who were having trouble learning the material. My goal was for each student to learn all of the material I presented. I did not want students to be satisfied with a B grade, because it meant that they had missed something that I felt was important.

Students usually reported that they spent more time studying for my classes than they did studying for all their other classes combined. For many of them, the A grade they earned from me was the only one they had received in college up to that point. But after learning how to study for an A, from then on, they earned A's in many other classes. They discovered that the time and effort they spent studying was proportional to the grades they received, and so their grades improved as their overall commitment to study improved.

The approach I used to help students succeed in my psychology courses proved successful in achieving other personal objectives, as well. I helped scores of overweight people lose weight and keep it off. I helped hundreds of alcoholics stop drinking and smokers stop smoking. I did it all with plans that were proven to be successful if people were willing to follow them. My job, as their coach, was to provide the plan, and then motivate them to follow it. And in most cases I was motivating people to follow a plan they really didn't want to follow.

Whether it's getting an A in a psychology course, losing weight, giving up smoking, or having a great marriage, the plan that achieves your personal objectives is usually something that you would rather not do, and that's why a coach can be so important. The coach's job is "getting players to do what they don't want to do so they can be the kind of players they always wanted to be" (Tom Landry, former coach of the Dallas Cowboys).

Marital fulfillment was one of the many personal objectives I tried to help people achieve in my earlier days as a psychologist. Once in a while a couple would come to me on the verge of divorce, and I would try to steer them toward a happy marriage. My problem, at first, was that I did not have an effective plan to offer -- even when they did what I suggested, almost all the couples I tried to help eventually divorced! So I took courses and read existing books and articles about strategies for improving marriage. I even hired a well-respected marital therapist to guide me toward an effective counseling procedure.

But much to my disappointment, the courses, books, articles and even the mentor did not offer me a plan that even tried to improve marriages. Much of what I learned was to help couples make the most of their upcoming and inevitable divorce! There was almost a deliberate effort to demonstrate that the couple should never have married in the first place, and that divorce was their best choice for future happiness and fulfillment.

At that time, the devastating effects of divorce on children were not understood, and counselors were telling couples that their children would do better after their divorce because they would not be subjected to all of the fighting that was going on. No one seemed interested in teaching the couple to STOP FIGHTING!

In fact, teaching the couple anything was frowned upon by my mentor. It was his opinion that the role of a counselor was to help couples gain insight, make their own decisions, and take responsibility for those decisions. That way, the counselor was off the hook for failing to do what he was hired to do -- save the marriage. He couldn't be held responsible for being ill-equipped to do what he was being paid to do.

Of course, since counselors in those days really didn't have any effective plans to save a marriage, their fall-back position of having couples do all their own planning made sense. But they should have told clients that they didn't really know what they were doing. Instead, to justify their fee, they rested on the belief that a counselor was incredibly arrogant to suggest a plan to a couple, and then coach the couple through that plan. They deceived themselves into believing that the moral way to counsel was to let the innate wisdom of the couple come to the rescue. No one was rescued, but at least the counselor felt morally justified in charging a fee.

When I finally came to the realization that marriages could not be saved by this popular approach to marriage counseling, I broke ranks and started to create my own plan based on my marriage counseling experience. Much of what I learned about saving marriages came right from the mouths of the couples whose marriages I was trying to save. I would tell them in advance that I had not yet figured out how to save marriages, and wouldn't charge them for my help. But if they were willing to work with me, maybe we could figure it out together. Then we would create a plan and try it out to see if it would work. The most effective plans were fine-tuned, and what you see today on this Marriage Builders? site is the result of all that trial and error.

There is still plenty of fine-tuning ahead, but the basic concepts that helped create these effective plans are proven to be true every day. Now it's only a matter of motivating couples to follow the plans. And that's where marriage coaching can become an important part of saving marriages.

When a couple first came to my office, one of my goals was to help them identify and meet each other's most important emotional needs so that they could deposit enough love units to fall in love with each other. But my goal and their goal was very different.

When I first started encouraging couples to meet each other's emotional needs, at least one spouse was usually in the state of withdrawal, which meant that he or she did not want their emotional needs to be met, and they certainly did not want to meet their spouse's emotional needs. Even if both spouses were in the state of conflict where they were willing to have their own needs met, they were not willing to meet the other spouse's emotional needs (unless it was also their own need that was being met). Since almost all the spouses I saw were either in the state of withdrawal or in the state of conflict, most were not interested in following my plan.

That's where my job as a marriage coach began -- to motivate couples to do what they didn't want to do so they could have the kind of marriage they wanted to have. I coached them into meeting each other's emotional needs at a time that they didn't feel like doing it. Granted, it often required a bit of house cleaning first to remove some of the biggest obstacles to following the rule, such as angry outbursts, disrespectful judgments and selfish demands. But in the end, if my coaching was successful, they would actually meet each other's emotional needs, and that usually started them on the road to marital recovery.

I had similar problems motivating couples to follow the Policy of Joint Agreement (never do anything without an enthusiastic agreement between you and your spouse). When a couple considers each other's feelings before making decisions, the end result is thoughtfulness which protects the feelings of both spouse. The alternative, of course, is thoughtlessness, where one spouse gains at the other spouse's expense.

As a marriage coach, I tried to motivate couples to take each other's feelings into account with every decision they would make. But for many of the couples I saw, it was as if I was trying to take away their "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." They felt that freedom meant freedom to trample over the life, liberty and pursuit of happiness of their spouses. Even couples who finally agreed with me on the wisdom of my plan, found following it to be one of the greatest challenges of their lives. Asking their spouses how they felt about something before the decision was made seemed foreign and out of place. Yet, as they practiced following the Policy of Joint Agreement, it became increasingly natural and spontaneous. Eventually they learned to protect each other from their selfish behavior, because they forced themselves to get into the habit of being considerate.

The Policy of Radical Honesty and the Policy of Undivided Attention, are also rules that most couple do not feel like following when they have lost their love for each other. When love is lost, it's extremely difficult to do what's right in marriage.

Historically, marriage counseling doesn't begin with a plan, nor does it try to motivate couples do what they don't want to do. But marriage coaching does. That's why it succeeds where marriage counseling fails.

Can you resolve your conflicts and restore love to your marriage without a coach?

I created the Marriage Builders® website to help couples who don't need a coach as much as they need an effective plan. The plan I offer saves marriages if couples will simply follow it. There are many who lose weight, stop smoking, improve their career skills, get out of debt, and achieve a host of other personal objectives without the encouragement of a coach. All they need is a plan that works. Similarly, there are many couples who restore love to their marriages without a coach -- they simply follow my plan.

But there is a big difference between achieving personal objectives and achieving marital objectives. Personal objectives require only one person to be in agreement with the plan, while marital objectives require the agreement of two people. If you want a successful marriage, both you and your spouse must agree on the plan, and then you must both follow it.

Most of the couples I've seen consist of one spouse who is willing to do what's necessary to improve the marriage, and the other who isn't. This is especially true for a couple going through the tragedy of an affair. For these couples, an effective plan is not enough. These couples need a coach -- someone who will motivate them to do something they should do, but do not want to do.

You can be the judge whether or not you need a coach for your marriage. I have created a plan for your marriage that will work if you both follow it. But if one or both of you are not willing to follow the plan, then you may need a coach to achieve what will be one of the most important objectives of your life -- to have a fulfilling marriage.

In the last newsletter, my article was entitled, "How to create your own plan to resolve conflicts and restore love to your marriage." I encourage you to read that article and create that plan. Then try to follow the plan until you and your spouse are in love with each other. But if you cannot agree on a plan, or if you can't motivate yourselves to follow the plan, then you may need a coach to help you do what you don't feel like doing.

In selecting a coach, be sure that you choose someone who is familiar with my approach to restoring love in marriage, and someone who will help you follow the plan. A simple telephone call to local marriage counselors will help you determine who is a marriage coach and who is merely a marriage counselor. If you cannot find anyone locally that passes the test, I suggest that you try the coaching we provide by telephone. Appointments can be made by calling our toll-free number, 1-888-639-1639, or visiting the Marriage Builders® Counseling Center section of our web site

I've found that the majority of couples do not need a marriage coach. They can learn to resolve their conflicts and restore love to their marriages without any outside help as long as they have a plan that works and motivation to follow the plan. I've provided you with that plan, now all you need is the motivation. But if either you or your spouse lack that motivation, don't go through the rest or your life with a loveless marriage, or worse yet, end it with divorce. Instead, get the help you need to do the right thing when you don't feel like doing it.

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