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Mr. and Mrs. Porcupine

by Melissa Martin  
11/13/2011 / Marriage

Bretta and Brian decide to try counseling after their five-year relationship turned prickly. Their sharpened quills are preventing affection and intimacy.

Bretta's sarcasm cuts into her introverted partner. "You're boring and about as fun as road kill!"

Brian grimaces and retorts, "You're frigid and as cold as a polar bear in the bedroom."

Experience in marital counseling has taught me to snatch the reigns without more ado.

Using the "1-10" scaling technique, I ask both to rate their level of communication. Bretta's number is lower than Brian's, but both are under "4." I point to a third empty chair and explain that the marriage is the client. Using gestalt, I discuss the counseling process in the here-and-now but the porcupines want to argue about the there-and-then. "Time-out," I firmly say with emphasis on each word and direct eye contact. I lay the ground rules of communication 101.

I give kudos for the courage to come to marital counseling and I echo the strengths of their relationship. The porcupines leave my office with handouts, homework, and hope.

They return for the second session. I check-in, review homework, then teach more communication skills and conflict resolution techniques. I use some brief solution-focused questioning.

The third session is not pleasant but productive. They insist on examining their love life. We explore nonsexual affection and sexual intimacy. Quills and emotions flare as they circle the wagons. Bretta cries and Brian withdrawals, their usual modus operandi. Ah, a teachable moment about their predictable behavior patterns during conflict. And an opportunity to explore modus vivendi.

I reinstate the here-and-now interactions and the tools of listening; "I" statements instead of "You" statements; awareness of triggers and reactions; observing facial expressions and body language; and so forth. I ask them to exchange roles and then do some exaggeration of role-playing. Laughter pays a visit and tension is dispersed for the moment. Authentic humor is a soothing potion. They leave my office with a list of recommended books and homework activities.

In due course, their quills begin to fall out. A few months later, they attend a weekend get-away for nuptial renewal.

Melissa writes about the God and human connection and condition.

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