Early in my psychology career, I recognized the need for parents to be involved in their children’s therapy.  Individual counseling often includes a degree of family counseling.  At times, marital relationship counseling for the parents is also recommended. 

 My recent blogs have illustrated premarital counseling for a couple who are merging their families.  This fictional account focusses on a police family, but many of the issues presented in the series are applicable to all walks of life.

 I’ve successfully used the therapies described below many times, having been trained in workshops presented by Daniel G. Amen, M. D. and extensive IMAGO therapy training developed by Harville Hendrix, Ph.D.  Their books are referenced at the end of this blog.

This is working for us,” Paul began their third premarital session enthusiastically.  “The hardest part was the first time we talked honestly about our feelings.  I’d planned to make dinner for Melody and her children.  I’d made a salad, baked potatoes and the meat was marinating.  I’d expected them at 6:00, and made certain the charcoal would be the perfect temperature for grilling by then.  When they arrived at 6:30, I was able to admit I’d become frustrated and tense.  Meeting deadlines must be a trigger for me because they are so important in my work.  I’ve never handled surprises well.  I could be honest about my need to know of delays in advance.  It is becoming easier to express my feelings instead of avoid talking about them. “

Melody nodded in agreement, “Now that I’m aware of how Paul feels about timeliness, I can be more sensitive to his need and keep him informed when I’m running late.  Being open about our feelings is becoming easier.

Their counselor, Ms. O’Neal, was listening intently.  “Let’s explore this further.  Paul, can you think of a time in your childhood when you felt tense and frustrated because of having to wait for someone?

He thought a moment before responding, “This is strange, I can still recall a time when I was probably six; when I got home from school, no one was home and the door was locked.  I was scared.  Mother arrived soon.  She’d taken longer than she’d intended to shop for groceries. That happened several times, but I never got used to it.  I just felt that I wasn’t important enough for her to be home when I arrived.”

“It’s not strange at all,” Ms. O’Neal responded.  “Our values form early in life.”

Melody’s face had softened in tender empathy, “I had no idea how important timeliness is to you.  I never want you to feel that way again.  I’ll try to always be on time or keep you informed about any delays I have.”

“This is probably a good time to explore and talk about your values.” Ms. O’Neal continued.  “You each need to define what your individual values are so that you can make one another aware of them.  It is a better way to learn about one another than by trial and error.

“I need each of you to think of your personal values as you work on this exercise.  Your values influence the development of your character.  You wouldn’t be the same person without them.”


(List below anything that you perceive contributes/would contribute to your idea of a perfect relationship.  [e.g., go to movies, make time to talk daily, etc.]  Word each value as if it is a

relationship goal that you are already doing, but also include additional activities you would like to do in the future.  Don’t discuss or share them while you complete your forms.)


(1) ________________________________

(2) ________________________________

(3) ________________________________

(4) ________________________________

(5) ________________________________

(6) ________________________________

After each had completed the forms, Ms. O’Neal added additional instructions. “During this exercise, I need for you to practice listening intently to one another speak.  But first, you need to be aware that it may not always a good time to discuss important matters.  People should always check to see if the timing is right, for example, in this instance, Melody, you might say, ‘I would like to discuss my values and vision for our relationship.  Is this a good time?’  Then, Paul, you could respond, ‘This is a good time,’ or ‘I can be available soon, perhaps in an hour.’

Melody and Paul complied.  Ms. O’Neal continued. “Melody, read your first vision goal to Paul.  Then, Paul you are to repeat or mirror what you think she said until she confirms that you got it all. Then ask if there is more.”

Once again, the couple complied.  Ms. O’Neal instructed Melody to continue reading each vision goal in the same manner until her list was complete.  Then Paul was to take his turn reading his vision goals as she had.

Finally, they were to agree on which goals should be merged into a list of one vision for their relationship.  The final vision for their relationship looked as follows:



  1. Treat one another with respect.
  2. Try to accept and understand one another.
  3. Are loving to one another.
  4. Look for the good in one another
  5. Take time to enjoy conversations with one another each day.
  6. Take time to laugh together.
  7. Touch and love one another.
  8. Have patience with one another.
  9. Have date regular date nights.
  10. Important decisions are made after mutual discussion and agreement.
  11. Treat one another as we wish to be treated.

Both Paul and Melody were happy with their progress during the exercise.  Ms. O’Neal commented, “This vision for your relationship is important for you as a couple and as parents.  Your children need to see that you are happy together.”

She gave each of them an additional handout and explained, “Because you are both parents, can you see how important it will be to decide in advance what your values pertaining to your children are?  They need to know what is expected of them and that you stand together on your goals for them.  Family goals are more positive than family rules.  So now make individual lists of your values about your children.  You are to read your lists to one another and agree upon a mutual vision for your family.  Use your vision to develop  goals  for your family.  Show them to your children in a family meeting.  Listen to their opinions about the goal; discuss so that all understand them.  Then post your family goals where all members (including you) can see them daily.  It will be important to recognize that there may be times when each of you fail to meet a goal.  But with encouragement, you will all become more successful.

“Ideally, a home should be a safe harbor that promotes healthy growth, communication, listening and values.  It should be a place where each individual feels recognized and a sense of belonging.  At home family members, should be able to relax, release tension, repair, reorganize and re-energize.”

After following a similar process to the first, Melody and Paul created the following list:


  1. We tell the truth.
  2. We treat each other with respect.   (This means no yelling, hitting, kicking, name calling, or put downs, or blaming others)
  3. We take responsibility for things we do (accidents, doing things before thinking, forgetting to do things, or not doing them on time) and apologize, accepting consequences when necessary.  We know that everyone makes mistakes.
  4. We don’t argue with parents (as parents we want and value your input and ideas, but arguing means you have made your point more than one time – and expressing your opinion more than twice is arguing.)
  5. We respect each other’s property (which means we ask permission to use something that does not belong to us)
  6. We do what our parent(s) say the first time, without complaining or throwing a fit.
  7. We ask permission before we go somewhere.
  8. We put away things that we take out.
  9. We leave the bathroom clean. 
  10. We look for ways to be kind and helpful to each other



Amen, Daniel G., M.D. (2001) Healing ADD, New York:  The Berkley Publishing Group.

Hendrix, Harville, Ph.D. (1988).  Getting The Love You Want, New York:  Harper & Row.

Watts, Carolyn Ferrell (2013). Magical Years to Learn With Me:  A gentle guide for children, parents, teachers and counselors.

Watts, Carolyn Ferrell (2013).  Magical Power of Choice:  Parenting Magic Key III, Read-Play-Learn-Together Activity Book for Children From Birth to Eight And Parents too.


Paul and Melody were looking forward to their second counseling session.  Both were aware of the high divorce rate of 75% in law enforcement marriages and were committed to beat the odds.   Melodys’ first marriage had been to a police officer.  After it failed, she had idealized a criteria for the type of man she might allow in her life.  Law enforcement officers had not been on that list.  During their first session with Ms. O’Neal, she had familiarized them with a list of problems typically faced by  police families as well as helpful strategies for resolving such issues.

As they waited in their counselor’s reception area, both agreed that the awareness gained in their premarital counseling helped them feel more positive about merging their families. Both felt that becoming aware of problems typically faced by law enforcement families had enabled them to gain a sense of control over dealing with the hurdles successfully. The success of every kind of relationship (marital, parent, intimate, friendship, business) requires mutual commitment.  We tend to make commitments to causes that we want to succeed in.  Melody and Paul were wisely seeking premarital counseling before entering a second marriage for each, blending their families.

Their counselor wasn’t surprised that despite Melody’s experiences and criteria, she was considering marriage with a police officer.  People tend to be attracted to what is familiar to them.  Our subconscious minds recognize situations (good or bad) that coping behaviors with corresponding neurological pathways have developed for.   (The neurological pathways strengthen with repetitive application of the behaviors.  The tendency to behave in the same manner increases.)  Changes to unknown situations can stimulate releases of neurochemicals that cause discomfort while our defense systems determine safe responses.

Both Paul and Melody told of recovering from painful marital situations and divorces.  Ms. O’Neil began their relationship counseling with helping them look at their individual communication patterns during conflict situations.  (Our first natural tool for bonding with another involves communication.  It is the foundation for relationships, especially marriage.)

She asked each to complete a copy of the following questionnaire.  They were not to discuss their responses with one another until she led the discussion at the end of the exercise.

Melody’s responses indicated that during stressful disagreements she tends to hold her feelings in.  She preferred to make peace by accepting and complying with the instructions or requests of others.  At times she would try to make herself feel better by listening to music or taking a warm bath.  She reported that Paul seldom criticized or demanded much, but she could read his feelings by his facial expressions. “His jaw tightens and his eyes actually feel distant,” Melody explained.  “When that happens, he usually recalls an errand he needs to take care of.”

Paul agreed with her statements.  “It seems we both try to distract ourselves until we are calmer and in better moods.  When Ms. O’Neal asked if they talk about the disturbing issue at that time, both shook their heads.  Paul volunteered, “No, we just try to have more good times than bad times.  I see enough bad attitudes on the street.  I don’t want that in our home.”  The counselor smiled, and handed them a second page to the activity.

Ms. O’Neal explained, “Both of you are using avoidance strategies.  Melody is trying to hide her feelings from Paul and herself as well.  And Paul, you may be trying to hide your feelings as well, but your body won’t allow that.  I wonder if that is because you’re used to having the authority to control situations.  Both of you may be trying to do so for good reasons, perhaps to not hurt one another and to keep peace between you.  But in reality, feelings than are held in and not addressed will remain in each of you, festering and getting worse.  Leaving with no intention of discussing and resolving issues can damage relationships and make it easier to walk away from them.”

Enlightenment was obvious on each of her client’s faces.  Both wanted to improve their communication.  To fit the session time frame, their counselor chose I-MESSAGES, a simple communication method developed by Dr. Gordon Thomas for improving all relationships.  Ms. O’Neal explained, “I-Messages get rid of blaming, criticizing, judging, threatening and demanding.  They allow you to express what you want or need done to resolve conflict.  The process is a key that opens the door to effective communication for couples.  However, you may find it useful when talking with your children, friends and at work.

“Let’s practice this with a scenario:  Paul, picture yourself driving the two of you to a restaurant.  It’s raining hard and the traffic is heavy.  How does your body feel in that situation?”

“Probably tense.  Driving in heavy traffic is bad enough.  I’m always watching for idiot drivers who cut in and out of traffic.  Bad weather makes it even worse.”

“Melody, Paul’s mood reminds you of an earlier event.  You are unhappy about his response to the behaviors of one of your children.  You initiate a discussion about it.

“Paul, do you think it would be a good time for her to open such a topic?”

“Probably not.  Just thinking about it makes the muscles in my neck and shoulders ache.”

“So here is how the process should go:

  1. Calm yourself before trying to communicate. Breathe deeply five times; recall a happier time together. Calming enables better ability to express your thoughts.  The listener can focus on your words rather than on a response.  Emotionality can promote defensiveness, hindering communication for both the speaker and listener.
  2. Acknowledge your partner’s feelings, ‘I know you’re concerned and we need to talk about it.  I imagine you may even be hurt, because I talked with our daughter before discussing the circumstances with you.’  (When you begin by noticing how your partner feels, it helps her feel heard, understood and cared for.  The brain floods the body with joy juice, endorphins, rather than fight or flight juices, adrenalin and cortisol.  This enables less defensiveness and more openness for communication.)
  3. Tell how you feel in that particular situation without using the word YOU,  ‘But any time I drive in bad weather and traffic, I feel stressed and worried that I might make a mistake, causing a wreck.”   (When you say that your feelings are caused by situations (not people), the normal response is sympathy, not argument.  You make me feel is like a red flag waved in front of a bull.  It activates a body’s fight/flight system, releasing cortisol and triggering an automatic defensive response such as arguing, blaming, etc.)
  4. Tell what you need, I need for us to wait and discuss it once we arrive safely at the restaurant so I can give the matter my full attention.’ (Be specific to clarify misunderstanding and steps to be taken.)
  5. Rewards are optional, “It will be nice to sit and enjoy being with you in our favorite restaurant again.  The food will be good and the music soft.  It should be a nice place to work together, looking for the best qualities in our children and deciding how to handle things in a way that will help them.  Later, we can probably work in a desert and maybe a dance or two.’  (Rewards can put incidents into perspective.  It’s not the end of the world.)

After guiding Melody and Paul through the exercise a couple of times and giving them a copy of the instructions for I-Messages, Ms. O’Neal encouraged them to refer to the handout as a homework assignment.   An appointment was made to continue their therapy the next week.

This has been the second of a short series of blogs about the journey of two people preparing for marriage, blending two families.  Along the way, they learn to appreciate and love one another better.  Melody and Paul are fictional characters, not actual clients of mine. I developed their story to help illustrate some of the frustrations families face.  I learned early in my psychology career that couples’ therapy is critical to family therapy.  The blending of two families can be helped with family therapy.  Good communication skills set a foundation for future sessions.

The focus of this article is on law enforcement families. However, many of the problems described above are prevalent in families from all walks of life.  It is my hope that this story encourages them to seek counseling that is helpful from the beginning, non-blaming, educational, and interesting to the clients.

The counseling exercises included in the story have been successfully used many times in my office.  A form for I-MESSAGES for communicating with children is available in my book MAGICAL YEARS TO LEARN WITH ME:  A GENTLE GUIDE FOR CHILDREN, PARENTS, TEACHERS AND COUNSELORS.  It is available on this website, on and through Barnes and Noble Books.