Do-It-Yourself Approach to Counseling
By Jody Ewing
April 11, 2002
The problem is obvious; too many marriages fail. And, at least half of those that survive are so seriously troubled that cynics call them “endurance contests.” The cause?
According to James Hassenger, co-author of the new Marriage Enhancement Guide: A Do-It-Yourself Marriage Counseling Manual, “Marriage is by far the most difficult, troublesome and misunderstood interpersonal challenge you’ll ever encounter. Once the marriage ceremony is over and the promises have been made, the couple is ‘not’ suddenly imbued with wisdom and insight. They don’t even know what the problems are.”
Hassenger, founder and executive director of The Center for Marriage Enhancement, penned the self-help manual with the help of his brother, Thomas. Longtime Siouxland business partners and trained mediators, the brothers spent more than four decades counseling thousands of families in the area of money management, which also usually included “family” management. Yet it took a personal crisis to plant the seed that spawned the book.
“The writing of this book came about the way that everything else comes about: the hard way,” Hassenger says. “After 32 years I had to go through a divorce and I couldn’t figure out what went wrong.”
The answer came to him one night while watching the game show Wheel of Fortune.
“I was looking at all these letters,” he says. “They didn’t put up these two words, but my mind saw ‘marriage relationship.'” The idea took root and Hassenger took action.
James and Thomas Hassenger
“I went back and got a masters in counseling, but what I really wanted was the information so I could write this book,” Hassenger says.
Organized into detailed sections, the book establishes 20 basic elements in a marriage relationship and offers a series of possible remedies for each area of potential conflict, including money, relatives, abuse, sex, expectations and negotiation.
“The biggest misconception about marriage is that it’s easy,” Hassenger says. “‘We’re in love, we’re going to get married, everything will be wonderful.’ But how are you going to handle your money? What are you going to do about the relatives?”
Hassenger identifies the three biggest problems in marriage as money, sex, and relatives – all discomforting issues that most couples don’t like to share with outsiders. Running parallel to each issue is anger, a mixed bag of emotions that includes aggressiveness and contempt. Anger ranges from the “silent treatment” to constant bickering, fault-finding and endless criticism. Problems often are compounded by passive/aggressive disorder, where a person strives to achieve goals and demonstrates aggressiveness by assuming a posture of passive submissiveness.
“An example would be the person who, in the course of a heated discussion, would suddenly become silent and sulk,” Hassenger says. “His behavior and perceived disapproval would be obvious, and he quickly dampens the conversation and thereby gains the control he sought. The passive/aggressive personality disorder is all about control.” Though most will rarely acknowledge the disorder, Hassenger says it’s fairly common.
Dr. John Gottmann, author of “Why Marriages Succeed or Fail,” identified what he calls the “Four Horsemen of divorce” – criticism, which leads to contempt, which leads to defensiveness, which leads to withdrawal. Once withdrawal takes place, divorce is almost inevitable.
“When males feel they are being criticized, they are notorious stonewallers,” Hassenger writes. “Have you ever heard a male say ‘whatever’ as the sign-off to an argument or disagreement? The ‘whatever’ equals withdrawal – the ‘Fourth Horseman.’ Adios.”
To resolve these specific problems, couples first must define the “real” bottom line: what are they angry about, and why? Hassenger credits Dr. Harriet Lerner, author of “The Dance of Anger,” for perfectly summing it up.
“It’s like a man and woman dancing together wildly and endlessly in a circle,” he says. “For example, she nags because he drinks, so he drinks because she nags, so she nags because he drinks, and around and around they go.” To correct the problem takes a “misstep,” where the dance is interrupted, at least for a short time. The goal is to not react in the same typical fashion. Once interrupted, progress can be made.
Regardless of the presenting problem, Hassenger says most people don’t want to admit they’re in trouble. Denial plays a major role, which is why most couples are reluctant to seek counseling even when problems affect other parts of their lives.
“When they’re in trouble with the marriage, they’re in trouble with their job,” Hassenger says.
Hassenger hopes the book will be utilized not only by married people but also by employers and those in professions such as clergy, who advise or counsel the public. There’s a value on each one of the letters, he says, and whether at home or in the public sector, communication and conversation are important for marriages to not only survive, but flourish.
Marriage Enhancement Guide is available at online book retailers and at Book People at Marketplace Shopping Centre.
For more information, call the Center for Marriage Enhancement at 712-239-2347.