Love and Marriage - The Practice

Choice Theory: A New Psychology of Personal Freedom - William Glasser M.D. 1998

Love and Marriage
The Practice

WE OFTEN FALL in love when we least expect to. Neither Robert nor Francesca was expecting to fall in love, but they were lonely, and their loneliness left them vulnerable. In that situation, all we have to do is come into contact with a person who is close to our picture of someone we could love, a picture we all carry in our quality worlds. If that person reciprocates, suddenly we are in love. Even if this picture is a fantasy and there can be no reciprocation, we enjoy the fantasy. I, for example, was deeply in love with both Ingrid Bergman and Audrey Hepburn for much of my early life.

Fantasy loves are rarely a problem; it is our tangible loves that often don’t work out. In the beginning it felt so good; we had found a person whom we seemed to be able to get very close to, and it was exciting. The closeness was partly sexual, but it went beyond sex. We had found a person who not only accepted us the way we were but accepted what we were trying to be. Whatever it was, if we wanted it, he or she wanted us to have it.

It felt good to be with someone who, unlike most of the other people in our lives, did not judge us or want to change us. The world took on a rosy hue. With this person we could relax, and we laughed together at everything. It was fun to learn about someone who seemed to care for us without reservation. The more we learned about him or her, the better it felt. We had found someone with whom we could share our quality worlds with no fear of rejection, ridicule, criticism, blame, or complaint.

It is this willingness, even eagerness, to share your hopes and fears that defines love. As long as you can do so, you have a very good chance of staying in love. If you can’t do this freely in the beginning, no matter how much it feels as if you are in love, your love is weak. A weak love may be based more on hormones than freely sharing, and it will not last. Of course, most people who fall in love know nothing about their quality worlds; nevertheless, the experience is the same whether they know about it or not. But if you and the person you fall in love with know choice theory and know about your quality worlds, you can use this knowledge to stay in love with each other. From the beginning, you can make a pact to share a great deal of what is in your quality worlds and never criticize or complain about what has been shared.

Because it is impossible not to fantasize about others, you are not obligated to share your fantasies. To share them might be asking too much of your partner. But if you find that you can’t share what’s real, your love is beginning to fade. Francesca may have had fantasies of a man like Robert, but until he came along there was still a chance for Richard. After she admitted Robert to her quality world, there was no more chance for Richard. But there need not be anyone else for you to fall out of love. When there are differences, as there have to be the longer you know each other, you must work them out to stay in love. When you can’t, you are no longer in love.

Without choice theory, when there is a disagreement early in a relationship, instead of understanding that it is based on a real difference in your quality worlds, you may revert to external control psychology and try to make your partner change. These early attempts to force the other to change are well expressed in the popular saying, The honeymoon is over. But that saying is indicative of the fact that in an external control society, few people expect that marriage is going to stay close to what it was in the beginning. The best that most people expect is that it won’t get much worse.

Choice theory is useful, even vital, well before marriage. To illustrate this belief, let me begin with a conversation I had with Tina a few months ago. Before this time, we had talked a little about choice theory, but it was mostly talk. It had not occurred to Tina to put it to work in her relationship with Kevin. Tina wanted Kevin to propose, but he was unwilling to commit. In a world in which both sex and love are widely available without marriage, what she was experiencing is common.

Tina knew enough of what we talked about to have some awareness that the external control psychology she was using was not working. But knowing it wasn’t working doesn’t mean that it was easy for her to switch to choice theory. To make this change, she would have to admit that the only person’s behavior she could control is her own, that she had no control over what Kevin chose to do. We must be willing to make this difficult admission if we are to use choice theory in our lives.

Tina is twenty-eight and competent in almost all aspects of her life. She is a high school drama teacher who does community theater in the evenings when she is not rehearsing a school production. Kevin, aged thirty, is an up-and-coming assistant principal of a nearby middle school, with an interest in physical fitness. He and Tina have been going together for two years. They seem compatible, have a common interest in education, and think they love each other. She doesn’t mind waiting, but she wants a family and needs some reassurance that marriage is a possibility. She wanted my advice on how to get from where they are to marriage. She didn’t expect me to tell her exactly what to do, but she was becoming more and more frustrated.

“You know the story, I’ve talked to you about Kevin. We’ve spent over a year and a half with each other and enjoy each other’s company both socially and sexually. After the last time you and I talked, I even went through our need strengths with him, and we are very compatible. We have traveled together, but we don’t live together because I don’t want to play at being married. After I give up my apartment, I don’t want to chance being told that what we have isn’t going to work. So how do we get beyond this point? I’m starting to wonder if we should even try. This constant worry about where we’re going is having a bad effect on how I feel about myself. It’s gotten to the point where I’m not even sure I love him anymore.”

“Tina, if you didn’t love him, I don’t think we’d be having this talk. All I can tell you is what I’ve told you before: The only person you can control is yourself. OK, OK, I know I’ve said that a lot, but you can’t make him love you or marry you. You can’t make him do anything. If you try, it will make things worse.”

“So I should just wait. Let him string me along. Doesn’t what I want count?”

“Absolutely it counts. But as unhappy as you are now is nothing compared to how miserable you’ll be if you push him into a marriage and it doesn’t work out.”

“I know that. That’s why I don’t even want to risk moving in with him. So you tell me, where am I?”

I paused here to think. That was a difficult question. I’m not sure even Kevin knows where they are. There is no sense trying to answer it. Instead I decided to focus on what she can control. That’s the only sensible place for me to be.

“Let’s let that question go for a while. I wonder if you could tell me what marriage means to you. What’s your idea of marriage?”

“It’s us living together; committed to each other; enjoying each other; and having a family, a home, a life together.”

“I don’t think anyone would disagree with that perfectly reasonable picture of marriage. Now this may seem to be a silly question, but it isn’t. How is that picture different from being single, I mean being single right now, with what you have with Kevin?”

“How is it different? It’s way different. I don’t have him. I want him and I don’t have him. He’s kind, he’s loving, he tells me he loves me, we have good sex together. But there’s this thing. The way he behaves. It’s like most of the time when we reach out to each other only the tips of our fingers touch. I’m never sure of him. I want to be married. I think I’d feel sure of him if we got married.”

“Is he sure of you?”

“I think he’s more sure of me than I am of him. He knows I want to marry him; he knows I don’t have anyone else. It’s different for a man; he can wait, he can wait for ten years, more maybe, but I can’t. You’re a reality therapist; his reality is different from mine. He can wait and still have a family. I know a man sixty who is starting a family with a young woman.”

“You’re right, reality is not the same for any of us. His and yours are different. But you have to go with yours; you have no control over his. And your reality is that right now you’re very unsure of him. If that doesn’t change, the future won’t make much difference.”

“But that’s what I’ve been telling you. What are you trying to tell me?”

“I’m trying to tell you that you shouldn’t even think about marrying him until you are convinced he wants you for a wife, so you can say, ’He and I feel very sure of each other.’ You can’t predict the future, but if you can get that far, you have a chance for a future with him.”

“But that’s what I’ve just told you. I don’t see how this is helping me.”

“No, it’s not exactly what you’ve told me. You’ve told me that if he’d marry you, which right now he won’t, you’d be more sure of him. Like marriage sort of guarantees the future. But nothing guarantees the future. Certainly marriage doesn’t. You know a lot of divorced people; they had no guaranteed future. But Tina, listen, the way you are with Kevin, you don’t even have a good present; you’re not enjoying him very much right now. I think that’s your problem—the present, not the future.”

“But I’m doing all I can. I love him, I go places with him, I told you I don’t want to move in with him. What more can I do?”

“I think you can stop talking about the future, stop implying there’s even going to be a future. All this talk about the future is killing what you have now. Focus on getting along with him much better than you ever have, maybe better than it was in the beginning. You have no control over the future. He knows you want to marry him; you don’t have to keep reminding him.”

“OK, I stop mentioning marriage and our future and we get along great. How long am I supposed to play this role?”

“What role? Is it a role?”

“Of course, it’s a role. I want to get married or get a commitment from him. I don’t want to be loving, forget-about-the-future friends. That’s not enough for me.”

“I know it’s not enough, but right now it’s where you are. And there is nothing you can do to change it. You can’t make him do anything. Even if you could, I don’t think you’d want to force him into marriage if he doesn’t want it. If you want a future with him, all you can do now is improve what you have. Get rid of all this future tension. To hang on trying to make him do what he doesn’t want to do makes no sense. Like I said, you can’t predict the future even if you get married. All you have any control over is what you do right now. Life is like auditioning for a part in a play. All you can control is what you do. That’s all you can do with Kevin. If you want the part, do the best you can. You keep trying to force him to think about the future, and you’re both uncomfortable. A good present has a chance to lead to a good future. A lousy present has a very good chance to lead to a lousy future or no future.”

“But I feel so frustrated. I know what you’re saying makes sense, but I want him to make a commitment now.”

“Tina, you don’t know what I’m saying makes sense. You’re stuck in external control psychology, in wanting him to change. If you knew what I’m saying makes sense, you wouldn’t be frustrated. Choice theory people don’t get so frustrated. They focus on doing what’s best now and know that the only people they can control are themselves. You keep thinking, What can I do that will change him? You’ve given yourself an impossible task. That’s why you’re frustrated.”

“Are you telling me that even though I’m in love with Kevin and he acts like he loves me, I can’t do anything about what he does? He can just go his merry way and I have to put up with it?”

“No, not at all. You can do a lot of things. You can choose to depress, anger, rant, rave, threaten, see other guys, drop him, get sick, do the Ophelia thing and go crazy. I explained all this to you months ago when we were talking about how people mess up their lives. And if you choose any of these things, you’ll mess up yours. Do you want to do that? Or do you want to take a good look at where he and you as a couple stand in your quality world right now? You know about the quality world; here’s a good chance to use what you know. What is your picture of you and Kevin?”

“I told you. I see us happily married. I see a home, a little family, the things I’ve wanted all my life.”

“That’s a wonderful picture, but it’s a future picture. I’d like you to take another look. Where are you and Kevin right now, today, in your quality world? Try to forget marriage for a moment and tell me what’s your present picture, the picture that tells you right now you love him.”

“I see us loving each other, having a good time, getting along well. Laughing, talking, sharing what we feel with each other. All the things we used to do.”

“Used to do?”

“No, not used to do, I don’t know why I said that. We still do; that hasn’t changed.”

“Good, those are great pictures. When are you going to see him again?”

“We’re planning to spend this weekend together.”

“Are you looking forward to it? Honestly?”

“To be honest, yes and no. We get along great, but then there’s always some tension. He says something or I say something.”

“About the future?”

“Sort of. I guess it’s what he doesn’t say. And then I say something, you know. And then I get a little dissatisfied and I sulk a little and then he withdraws a little. It doesn’t ruin the weekend, but I’d rather it didn’t happen.”

“It doesn’t have to happen. You don’t have to say what you say.”

“Of course, it doesn’t have to happen. But how can I help it? I keep thinking, Here we are, but where are we? I get all bottled up and it happens. My God, I’m a human being, do you want me to stop feeling?”

“I don’t want you to do anything. I want you to be aware of what you’re choosing to do.”

“I knew it; I knew you’d harp on that choosing crap. What about him?”

“You know you can control only what you do. You said you love him.”

“I do love him, but we’re not going anywhere.”

“OK, say you’re an actress in a play. You love a guy who says he loves you but he can’t marry you. A while ago he promised to marry someone else, but he doesn’t love her. And there are complications; the family business is tied up with her father’s business. If he backs out now, her father will ruin his family’s business. And ruin not only his future, but also his father’s, his brother’s, and a lot of other people’s. Her father is a ruthless man. Your lover can see you secretly, but in six months he has to marry the one he doesn’t love. He says, ’Let’s keep seeing each other, I can’t live without you. If things don’t change, we’ll kill ourselves.’ The play has you killing yourselves with pills, but in the end as her father gets the news, the audience sees the stricken look on his face as the curtain falls. It’s so tragic; the audience is in tears. They applaud. What do you think of that part?”

“I love it. I’d love to play it.”

“You don’t mind giving up the future for love in a play, so why do you mind it so much in real life?”

“Because it’s stupid. I don’t want to be dead, I wouldn’t even want him to be dead. If he loved me, he’d kiss her good-bye and take a chance. He doesn’t owe his family his happiness, his future.”

“So what would you do in real life if Kevin told you, ’I don’t know if I’m ever going to be ready to marry you?’”

“I’d be miserable, I’d cry, I’d be devastated.”


“But I certainly wouldn’t kill myself if that’s what you’re worried about.”

“Is there anything to stop you from dropping him now, this weekend? To have a beautiful, totally loving weekend and then say good-bye when he drops you off at your apartment.”

“If I had a beautiful loving weekend, why would I say goodbye?”

“Because you’re scared that’s all there’s ever going to be. That’s what you’ve been telling me since we started to talk.”

“But I don’t know, it might still work out.”

“That’s right, that’s exactly right. You can’t predict the future. But if you had a beautiful, loving weekend or you had a tense weekend, which weekend would give you the best chance for a future together?”

“But what if after a great six months, I come to the conclusion there isn’t going to be any future?”

“Then tell him. Tell him the truth. Tell him, ’Things have been great, but now I want more.’ It will be the truth. But here’s the hard part. Make sure you are ready to drop him if he can’t give you some kind of a commitment. He has no right to try to control your life any more than you have to try to control his. Six months you can deal with, especially if you know that’s your limit. Let it go longer, and you’ll make yourself into a basket case.”

“It’s up to me, isn’t it?”

“It always is. That’s choice theory—it’s up to you. He knows how you feel; you’ve made that clear to him. If he loves you enough and you stop bugging him and try to get closer than you ever have, it may work out. The more you pout, the more you try to force him, the more he’ll wonder, I’m not sure I want to marry a woman who tries to control me. Show him you are in control of yourself. He knows what you want. If he can’t deal with it, he’s not for you. If he’s so weak you can force him into marriage, it’s not going to work anyway. It might last long enough for you to have a child or two to raise on your own.”

“I know you’re right. But I don’t think I can do it.” “What can you do that’s better? This is one of those times in your life when, as much as you want something, maybe you’re not going to get it. But at least you’ll know that you did the best thing. You didn’t nag him or try to force him. You gave him time. I can’t see that there is anything more you can do. Do you want to keep hanging on and nagging or waiting until he asks, knowing he may never ask? It’s tough. Choice theory is tough. But you have a much better chance with it than just nagging and waiting. You’ll hate yourself if you wait too long and nothing happens. If anything is going to happen, doing what I suggest has the best chance. There has to be a cap on this thing. And you have to put it on.”

Our conversation helped Tina to see that she had some control, and she made a plan. There is a lot of security in a plan; there’s a sense of control, it’s what you can do, not what he can do. She stopped sending the promise-to-marry-me message. They got along great for the next three months. She concentrated on having a good time with him, did not try to force him into anything; she let the future go, and the tension stopped. He had a chance to see what life with her could be all about. After about three months, they had the following conversation.

“You haven’t said a word about marriage. Have you changed your mind about it?”

“I’ve decided not to talk about marriage anymore. Is that all right with you?”

“Aren’t you interested in marriage anymore?”

“Kevin, I don’t plan to talk about it. I certainly don’t ever plan to ask you to marry me if that’s what you’re waiting for.”

“What if I don’t ask you?”

“Then I guess we’ll never get married.”

“It’s great the way you’ve been, but I can’t believe you’re just going to keep being this way.”

“I’m not going to keep being any way. I’m enjoying the way we are now. I’ll tell you when I don’t want to see you anymore.”

“When will that be?”

“I don’t know, but as soon as I know I’ll tell you.”

This is how Tina began to learn to use choice theory in her life. Kevin wondered why she had stopped nagging, and she taught him some choice theory. He was very interested, especially in the idea that she had no intention of ever trying to force him to do anything he didn’t want to do. There was to be as little nagging, criticizing, blaming, or complaining as she could manage. It was hard, and she would have relapses, as do all recovering external control psychology people. She said that she could not control his behavior, only her own, but if they were to have a future, she wanted it to be a choice theory future. She reminded him how much happier they were since she gave up external control. Obviously, this is the time to give up external control psychology, not after an unhappy marriage and, perhaps, a divorce. Kevin and Tina got married and, with the help of choice theory, their relationship continues strong.

What they are doing now, which is the core of a choice theory marriage, is thinking before they do anything that may lead the other to choose to move away. There are only two ways people move away from each other: They resist or withdraw, fight or flee. To prevent fight or flight, which is the beginning of the end of any relationship, whenever they have a problem, they ask themselves, If I say or do this right now, will it bring us closer together or will we end up further apart? And they do not engage in nagging, criticizing, complaining, or put-downs to try to control the other person. Even those who have used external control psychology all their lives are well aware that these all-too-common behaviors harm any relationship. If we want to stay close, we do not have the luxury of using them.

What Tina and Kevin have done is form a solving circle. Inside that circle, described in chapter 5, they no longer try to change the other; everything they choose to do is based on how it will affect their marriage. They talk everything over, and if something has any chance of harming their marriage, they don’t do it. As a married couple, they now know that it is no longer how what one spouse says affects the other, it is how it will or could affect the marriage.

This doesn’t mean Tina and Kevin have no disagreements. It means that they have a tool to deal with disagreements before they escalate into separating them from each other. They understand that when they make a choice in favor of the marriage, it may not necessarily be the choice either of them would make for himself or herself if they were not married. But they are married, it is a reality, and it is not the same as being single. But they also work hard to understand each other’s need for a life outside the marriage. There are obvious sexual and social restrictions on that life, but within those restrictions they do not have to be Siamese twins. Each will bend over backward not to restrict the other from having a life separate from the marriage to the point of encouraging each other to do so.

For example, Kevin is an avid runner; every day, rain or shine, he needs to run. Tina is interested in the theater; she needs time to do her community theater work. They have agreed to give each other that time, and it works fine. He runs, she acts, and neither has to fear that the other disapproves. Since success in life is dependent on good relationships, they have learned to apply choice theory to their lives outside the marriage, and it has been effective there, too. Kevin is much more successful as the school disciplinarian using choice theory, and Tina is more successful using it with the students in her drama classes. With choice theory and the solving circle, they feel free to talk to each other about anything anytime because they have agreed that the marriage takes precedence over what each wants individually.

I am sure that many of you may have a few Yes buts to add to the rosy picture I have painted of this marriage. You may think it is too ideal, that with no conflict they will soon get bored and fall out of love. If much of the joy of an external control marriage is making up after a fight, a choice theory marriage lacks that pleasure. Choice theory does not guarantee a wonderful marriage; it guarantees a way to deal with the problems that will come up in the best marriages. If a good marriage goes sour, it is much more often because one or both partners have reverted to external control psychology than because getting along well together is so boring.

We should never forget creativity. It is the best antidote to boredom that humans have yet discovered. Most of us fear being creative because we are afraid that something new will be criticized, a common practice in an external control relationship in which one or the other partner is always looking to find fault. Couples who have moved to choice theory have no such fears. Because of the freedom in the relationship, they are always willing to try to enlist their creative systems anytime things begin to get stale or predictable. They are not afraid to talk about doing new things both together and separately. The circle provides a safe place to be creative.

To keep long-term sex satisfying, the couple must have the freedom to communicate without fear. If they can’t talk, how can they solve the usual sexual problem of a lasting marriage, which is always some variation of Let’s do something a little different the next time we make love? Even in a good marriage, sex, like any other repetitive behavior, easily gets stale. If the couple does it when they are tired, without consideration of what the other wants, and without agreeing on the preliminaries or if they believe that married sex can’t be exciting, sex starts to fade away. Our genes have provided us with one of the most enjoyable of all opportunities, but many couples are unable or unwilling—it’s really the same thing—to take advantage of this opportunity.

They are unwilling partly because, in the beginning when sex is new, we don’t have to worry about being creative. But as time goes on, to keep it exciting, we all have to infuse it with a little creativity. If not, one or both partners may grow disinterested and start to take sex with each other out of their quality worlds. As they do so, they often start fantasizing about someone else when, with a little creativity, each could still satisfy the other. The idea of sexual excitement with a new partner is the reason for all the sexual banter that frequently goes on between men and women. They want to reexperience the fantasies they had when they were starting out, and a lot of the flirty banter is creative.

Remember, creativity that helps you get closer to another person feels good no matter what it is attached to. In a good marriage you can attach it to sex with your mate and heighten the hormonal pleasure. Creative couples who follow choice theory are not afraid to do or say something different; do it in a different place; and be willing to use some kind of sexual aids, such as games, videotapes, and toys, to keep each other interested in sex. But a further problem may be that sex is simply not enough on their minds or is on the mind of one but not the other. They may not realize that in this hectic world, it is necessary for both to make an effort to have sex with each other on their minds to get the most out of it. Thinking a lot about sex need not be restricted to the unmarried or to someone besides your spouse.

What compounds this problem is that in many marriages, one or both feel that sexual aids should not be necessary—If he or she really loved me, we wouldn’t need these aids. They fail to understand that it is not the aids themselves, whatever they are, that are important. It is that when you use them, or even consider using them, they get sex on the minds of both participants. Once sex is on your minds, the aids become less important. Just thinking about them accomplishes a lot of what needs to be done.

Good sex is like planning to go to a great restaurant. To begin, it helps to make a reservation and to keep it. If you have to wait a week to get one, the interest may increase. When you finally sit down to eat, good food is on your mind, and you are in the mood to enjoy it fully. Do the same for sex. Enjoy it spontaneously, of course, but don’t be hesitant to make a reservation. Reserve the time and the place. Don’t be any more in a hurry than to finish a good meal and you will find that you can keep sex with each other active in your quality worlds for much longer than many of you think is possible now.

Long-term marriages that have used external control psychology for years and are not very satisfying to either partner can also be helped if one or both partners are willing to take a look at their need strengths. In any long-term marriage, there is usually enough compatibility. Rarely do the differences in need strengths make the marriage impossible, but checking them out shows clearly where there may be difficulty.

When a difficulty is found, if both partners are willing to stop using external control psychology—willing to get in the circle and talk about what each is willing to give, not take—they may be able to stop the drift apart that has been eroding their marriage. When sex starts to go, it should be a wake-up call that you need to talk and plan. Just getting in the circle feels so good that it can lead to what has been put off for too long. Once you get started, you are setting the stage for more. But you have to start. It may be that your external control marriage is beyond repair, but there is no predicting. No matter how rancorous the couple has been, the solving circle may work. As I have said many times in this book, there is no downside to choice theory, really nothing to lose.

In marriage, as in all human relationship problems, someone has to take the initiative and stop using external control. This was Tina’s problem and, to her, it seemed to be unfair. He’s making me unhappy, why should I change if he won’t? was her refrain for months before we had that talk. But trying to implement choice theory can be a trap if the willing partner tries to make the other move to his or her choice theory way of thinking. Even with the best intentions, this is external control to the hilt. Besides, whenever we try to do anything to force anyone, we run headlong into The harder you try to make me, the more I will resist. Control begets control. To resist pressure is the norm in an external control world, especially for the underdogs.


In an abusive marriage, the husband is following the most destructive external control practice: He believes he owns his wife. And to a great extent, the legal system of the external control society we live in supports that belief. Men can beat, abuse, rape, or exploit their wives and get away with it because the men who run our present society are, for the most part, afraid they will lose power if wives are legitimately protected by the law. If a man beats or abuses anyone except his wife or a long-term partner, the law steps in immediately and protects whoever suffered the abuse. This acceptance of spousal brutality needs to be changed, and teaching all people, including abusive men, choice theory may be a way to do it.

Wives are not chattel. No one has the right to beat anyone, and people who are beaten need legal protection. In some, but not enough, jurisdictions, this protection is being enforced. The abused woman’s testimony is no longer needed; the bruises are allowed to speak for themselves. It does little good if all we do is punish the men. That again is using control to deal with control, and too many men use the excuse She got me punished to be even more abusive. What is needed is a court-ordered diversion program that offers husbands and wives the chance to choose to learn choice theory and reality therapy together in a group setting with others who have the same domestic violence problem.

This diversion from traditional court-ordered punishment or even worse, court neglect, is being successfully pioneered in the First Step Program in Fostoria, Ohio.* There, a community application of choice theory and reality therapy is made available to all who want it, regardless of whether they can pay. The program’s research shows that only 17 percent of the wives who participated with their husbands in the Passages Part of the First Step Program reported threats of or actual violence since they finished the program, and half the men reported increased self-control.


Destroying marriages is the crowning achievement of external control psychology. Once this psychology has taken over a marriage, the best hope to overcome it is the kind of counseling that offers the couple a chance to move their marriage from where it is into the solving circle. Once the marriage is safely inside this protective circle, it is immune to the cancer of external control. But to be effective, the marriage counseling must be tailored specifically to the needs of the relationship, rather than to the individual needs of each partner.

In most instances, the partners in a failing marriage are not themselves failures. We all have friends and relatives who have divorced but who, individually, are competent. A large number of these people are even competent enough to succeed in a subsequent marriage. When they do, it is because, unknowingly, most of them have learned enough choice theory to avoid the mistakes of their previous marriage. But this is a haphazard process, and many continue the same control and ownership and fail again. If these competent people had been offered the structured marriage counseling I will now explain while they were still married, I believe many of these marriages could have been saved.

In this choice theory-based marriage counseling, the counselor takes an active role and asks specific questions or makes requests that each partner, in turn, responds to, or the counseling will fail.

1. Are you here because you really want help? Or are you here because you have already made up your mind to divorce but want to be able to say you tried to get help?

2. Very briefly, what do you believe is wrong with the marriage?

3. Whose behavior can you control?

4. Tell me one good thing about the marriage as it exists right now.

5. Think of and then tell me something that you are willing to do this coming week that you believe will help your marriage. Whatever it is, it must be something you can do yourself. It must not depend, in any way, on what your partner should or should not do.

6. During this coming week, are you willing to try to think of an additional thing besides what you thought of here? And then do it following the same I-can-control-only-what-I-do conditions as in the previous question?

In answer to question 1, if both partners are able to say they really want help, then the counseling has a chance. If they are not able to convince the counselor that they want help, the counseling has no chance. Counselors should not try to help couples when both are not committed to seeking help. Individual partners seeking help for themselves is not marriage counseling.

The purpose of question z, in which one or both partners invariably blame the other, is to be able to point out later in the counseling that this is external control and it is always destructive to the marriage. If only one partner blames the other—a situation I’ve never seen—the counseling will be even easier than if both blame the other. In this situation, the counselor must monitor each partner’s responses to prevent this Pandora’s box from opening into a rancorous outpouring of accusing, blaming, criticizing, and threatening because that is what most people who come for marriage counseling expect to do and want to do. Following external control psychology, they both think they are right and both are looking for the counselor to support their positions. Their answers should be restricted to a few short sentences. If their answers are left to run unchecked, they will destroy the counseling effort.

The purpose of question 3 (Whose behavior can you control?) is to lay the groundwork for the essential requests, 5 and 6 (to do something positive at home). This is not a hard question. After the outbursts that are the answers to question 2 (What’s wrong with the marriage?) it should be obvious that each partner can control only his or her own behavior.

Request 4 (Tell me one good thing about the marriage) is difficult. Both partners are so into external control psychology that this request comes as a complete surprise. The counselor should be patient here and keep fending off their initial statements, which will be what the other needs to do if the marriage is to become better. In the end, most couples will come up with quite a few things that are still good about the marriage. If they couldn’t do so, they would not have come for counseling. As they talk about some good things, much of the anger and blaming will drain out of the session, and it should be smoother sailing from then on. They will be surprised by what they say, but these are all positive surprises.

Request 5 is just an extension of request 4, but it gives the partners something new to think about and build on and thus is very important. Again, the counselor should be patient, and they will come up with something positive and be pleased that they have. They will now leave the counseling session with something specific to focus on instead of the bad marriage. It gives them a little hope and, because it is so different from external control psychology, it is very powerful.

Request 6, asking the partners to come up with an additional helpful task during the week, gives them another positive focus to look forward to. If they do it, fine. If they just do request 5, the marriage is still well on its way to getting a lot of help. Both 5 and 6 give them a lot to talk about when they come in for the next session a week later.

If, toward the end of the first session, the partners are much more amicable and their interest in what has been going on has replaced the anger that they came in with, this is the time for the counselor to explain the solving circle and to point out that they are now in it. And to point out further that whenever they talk about their marriage, they should make sure they are in the circle or else what they talk about has a chance of becoming external control and destructive.

Now I would like to demonstrate how this structured marriage counseling is actually done. Ed and Karen came to me for marriage counseling. Karen called, told me that she was very dissatisfied with their marriage and that Ed had agreed to come. Before I saw them, I knew that their quality world pictures of each other as husband and wife were very shaky, but as long as they still had each other in their quality worlds at all, there was a good chance that this structured approach could help them. If one or both had taken the other out, there probably would be nothing anyone could do to save the marriage. I assumed that they are both practicing external control psychology and that each believed that to help the marriage, the other had to change.

Ed and Karen are in their early forties, it is their first marriage, both work, and they have two children ten and twelve. As long as they are reasonable in handling their money, there are no major financial problems. They came in to my office and sat down opposite me, but before they said anything, I started with question 1. I include it in a prepared introduction that I use with all couples in this situation.

“I assume you are both here to try to help your marriage. By this I mean that neither of you has made up your mind that the marriage is beyond repair or that what you really want is a divorce. Is that a fair assumption?”

They both agreed that this statement was true, so I went ahead with my next prepared question. I use this question to make sure that the partners hear themselves blaming the other for what is wrong with the marriage. I do my best to restrict the answer to a few sentences; I don’t want a diatribe. I just want short examples from their own mouths so that later they can clearly see how they have changed, or how they haven’t changed if the counseling is unsuccessful.

“I need each of you to give me a short answer to this question. Please don’t go on at length, or I will have to interrupt you and I hate to be seen as impolite. Just a sentence or two will be enough. I want each of you to tell me what you believe is wrong with the marriage. To avoid arguing over who goes first, I will ask one of you to respond and then the other. Karen, you called, so please go first.”

“It’s him, he’s what’s wrong. It’s like being married to Ebenezer Scrooge. He watches every cent I spend. I work, but it’s all his money. You can’t believe what I have to put up with. He makes me—”

I tried to interrupt but, before I could, Ed jumped in, “Me. I’m what’s wrong? If you didn’t spend every goddamned cent we have. Doctor, we’re up to the max on all our cards. We’re paying a fortune in interest we can’t deduct.”

“See, Doctor, see what I have to put up with all day long.”

“Look, please, we have to stick to the rules. Just answer the question, no arguing or pointing fingers. Ed, what do you think is wrong.”

“I’ll tell you. Doctor. I hate to say this, but I don’t think she loves me anymore. All she does is complain. Calls me a tightwad. It’s got to the point where I don’t know what to do that will satisfy her—”

Again before I could say anything, Karen jumped in, “Oh, he’s right about that; he doesn’t know what to do that will satisfy me. Him talking about love, that’s the joke of the century. He treats our dog better than he treats me. That dog—”

This time I was able to get in a word before she could go further, “If you just keep fighting and sniping at each other, I can’t help you. Please don’t do here what you have been doing at home. It hasn’t helped there, and it won’t help here. You’ve answered my questions very well; I get the picture. This is a critical time in your marriage. Please try to follow my directions and let me try to help you.”

You can see that external control psychology was in full flower. As I expected, they didn’t listen to my request for a brief answer and jumped in, blaming each other and trying to get me to take their side. But I was not worried. I could get this situation under control if I didn’t make the mistake of appearing interested in their sniping. Also, while it may seem as if they were doing badly, actually I’ve heard a lot worse in the first few minutes. I thought that they did care for each other and that I could help. The next question was not difficult, and it got them started in the right direction, beginning to accept that they could control only their own behavior.

“Tell me, whose behavior can you control?”

I used this question to attempt to get them out of their habit of focusing on the other person instead of on themselves. It took a while, and then Karen spoke. They were already into it, so I no longer had to worry about whose turn it was. To be fair, I directed question 4 to Ed, but I also wanted to hear what Karen had to say.

“I guess it’s pretty clear I can’t control his behavior. But God knows he’s tried to control mine.”

I said, “Has he succeeded?”

“He’s succeeded in making me miserable and wrecking our marriage.”

Ed spoke up, “C’mon Karen. If I could control your goddamned spending, we wouldn’t be here.”

I started to end it by saying, “OK, I think it’s pretty clear that you’ve tried but you haven’t been able to control the other. It may be redundant, but please tell me, who is the only person you can control.”

Ed confirmed what I said, and Karen seemed satisfied. He said, “I think what you’re driving at is we can only control ourselves. I know about that; I tell the salesmen who work for me that all the time.”

This seemed to settle them down. They were quiet and were waiting for request 4, which is crucial in directed counseling. If they could deal well with this totally unexpected request, it might change the whole mood and help them settle down further.

“OK, Ed, it’s your turn. This is the most important question I am going to ask. Take your time and think about it. I want each of you to tell me something good about your marriage right now. There has to be something good, or there is little hope. If there weren’t, you wouldn’t be here; you’d have gone to see a lawyer.”

As I expected, request 4 floored each of them temporarily. They looked at each other and then at me. This is the request that had the potential to get them away from all the blaming and complaining. If I allowed them to stick with the negative, I’d help kill what little they still had that was positive. In my experience, once couples start thinking positively, they find there is more good than they realize. Even though I asked Ed, Karen jumped right in.

“This isn’t at all what I expected. I came here to tell you what’s really wrong with our marriage. I didn’t expect you to shut me up. What kind of counseling is this anyway?”

“It’s the way I counsel. Give it a chance. Don’t waste your time and money asking me to take sides. I’m not interested in whose fault it is. You’d never agree on that in a million years. Please Ed, take your time but answer the question. What’s good about your marriage right now?”

“That’s a hard one. I can’t think of anything that’s good.”

“Go ahead, try, there must be something good.”

There is always a little impasse here. He knew more than one good thing but thought that to admit it wouldn’t be cool. I decided to be patient and supportive. He would come up with something. She was thinking, too. I could see that she was very interested in what he might say.

“OK, I’ll say this for her. She’s loyal. When I hear her sister tell her I’m a jerk she doesn’t agree. I like that a lot. I just wish she’d do more than tell it to her sister, tell it to me once in a while.”

Karen liked this, but still she burst in, “Of course, I support you to my sister. Compared to the goofball she’s married to, you are pretty good. But you’re going to have to be a lot better if you want me to tell you that.”

“Please Karen, Ed did his part. Now it’s your turn. Tell me what’s good about the marriage right now. It’s important that you say something; take your time.”

She had something in mind, but I could see that she hated to say it. It was as if by saying it, she’d be more vulnerable, as if it was almost wrong to say there was something good about the marriage. But she wanted to. I could see her softening. This question was getting to her.

“Look, it’s like I’m married to two men. Most of the time he’s Mr. Hyde. Criticizing all I do. Complaining—”

I interrupted, “We know about Mr. Hyde. Tell me about Dr. Jekyll?”

“It’s when we go on vacation. He takes three weeks, we plan it together, and he’s great. It’s usually two weeks with the kids and then one week by ourselves. But that’s what pisses me off. Why is that all there is that’s good? I’m not willing to settle for a three-weeks-a-year marriage. It’s been eight months since that week in Hawaii.”

Ed broke in, “For Chrissake, Karen. Hawaii was good because you couldn’t find anything to buy except that fucking muumuu you never wear. If you’d stop your compulsive shopping, we’d get along great.”

“If you’d pay attention to me the way you do on vacation, I wouldn’t shop so much.”

So far so good. It sounded bad, but they could both see that there was some substance in the marriage. This last exchange was positive even if they were still into blaming. I followed up with a little confirmation of the fact there was some good in the marriage.

“See Karen, there are some good things. Believe me, I counsel people who don’t have one good day a year in their marriages, let alone three weeks. It’s not enough, but it shows that you and Ed can get along. All we have to do is figure out how to get more. No, no, please don’t say anything right now. Let’s go on to another question. It’s another hard one, but if you can concentrate, I think you can come up with something.”

I was being very supportive, and their thinking was starting to turn around. They could see what I was doing. It was obvious, but it was grabbing them and it seemed to be what they wanted. I decided to be very patient with the next question. I projected a kind supportiveness, sending them the message that answering this request might take a while, but they could do it.

“I’d like you to take your time and be very serious. Please no snide remarks. Think of something that you are willing to do this week that you believe will help the marriage. This is for each of you to do on your own. Not for the other guy to do.”

There was a long pause during which each looked sheepishly at the other. I could see a little affection in their eyes, a very positive sign.

Ed said, “I can go a whole week and not mention money once. I may as well, I can’t stop her from spending it anyway.”

A good comment spoiled a little by the last dig he threw at her. But it didn’t seem to bother her. I guessed that she was past the point where digs even registered.

She responded, “I’d like that Ed, I really would. But who’re you kidding? You’ll be all over the bills as soon as they come in.”

“Why don’t you stop putting me down and wait and see. What I want to hear is what you’re going to do.”

There was a very long pause. I could see that Karen was struggling with something that she wanted to say but she had a hard time getting it out.

Finally, in a kind of coy way, she said, “I could be a little more affectionate.”

As soon as she said these unspoken-since-who-knows-when words, I could see that Ed was pleased. I think she was expecting some sort of wisecrack like, “It’s about time,” but Ed just continued to look pleased. I didn’t ask how long it had been since they had sex, much less made love, but my guess was that it might have been in Hawaii eight months before. I now wanted to bring up the last request. If they would agree to do it, it would give me a way to segue into mentioning the solving circle.

“I wonder, now that you are thinking this way, if during the week, one or both of you could figure out another thing you might do to improve the marriage—kind of a homework assignment—and then next week when you come in, tell me about it. During the week, each of you do something more than what you just said would help the marriage. If you are able to do so, next week is the last time I’ll want to see you for a month unless you want to see me. But look, we’ve got a few more minutes. Do you have any questions or comments?”

If a marriage needs extended counseling, I don’t think it can be saved. Marital problems are not individual problems. Most of the couples I’ve counseled are like Ed and Karen, individually competent. What they can’t figure out is how to get along with each other. But here, in this brief time, Ed and Karen actually entered the solving circle, and I wanted to explain it to them before they left. I thought they would be able to use this information, and by the following week, we would know.

Ed had a comment, “I feel better. I came prepared to fight, but I guess I really don’t want to fight anymore. What do you think, Karen?”

“It’s weird. It’s not at all what I expected. I’m not sure what happened, but I feel better, too.”

What happened was that these two supposedly confirmed external control psychology partners had encountered choice theory, but I didn’t explain it to them then. I could begin that next week. But as long as they were in this receptive mood and essentially in the solving circle, this was a good opportunity to explain the solving circle to them. If they could use it in the coming week, they would definitely make progress.

“Karen, I’d like to delay answering your question until next week. But here’s part of what happened. Look, I have a big piece of imaginary chalk in my hand and watch what I do with it. I am drawing a circle on the floor around you and Ed. There you are, in the solving circle. Tell me, what do you think the solving circle is? It has to do with what you are both feeling and that you don’t feel like fighting right now.”

Karen said, “That’s what’s so weird; it’s like Ed said, I don’t feel like fighting anymore. And that’s all I’ve felt like for so long. But what does this imaginary chalk line have to do with it?”

Ed ventured a guess, “We’re not fighting. I don’t even feel like fighting—”

Karen finished the sentence, “We’re solving something, is that it?”

“That’s part of it. But it’s more. In the circle, the marriage takes precedence over what each of you wants. Right now you’re in it. Were you in it when you came here?”

Karen said, “It’s like that guy wrote about Venus and Mars. I don’t even think we were on the same planet when we came in here.”

Ed nodded in agreement.

I said, “That’s right. Not only don’t you fight as long as you’re in the circle, it’s safe to talk about what you want from the marriage without worrying that you’re going to be put down. But, of course, in the circle, it’s up to you to add to the marriage, not wait for the other person. All you do in this circle is what we’ve started to do here. There are no shoulds and musts in the solving circle. No you-do-its. Only I’ll-do-its. If you get into the circle whenever you talk about anything to do with your marriage, you’ll be fine. Here, I’ll give both of you a piece of this imaginary chalk; use it. And one last question, whose behavior can you control?”

Ed and Karen came back in a week and had a lot to say. Things were better. I had no illusion that money was their only problem. I’m not sure there is an only problem. In a failing relationship, everything’s the problem. The beauty of the solving circle is not that it’s good for this or that problem, but that it’s a powerful tool that any couple can use at any time. But when a problem comes up, don’t take for granted you’re in the circle because you have been getting along. Get out the chalk and actually go through the motions of drawing it every time you want to use it. Don’t say anything until you have drawn the circle and are inside. This is a purposeful and focused activity.

When Karen and Ed came in, they told me they thought the solving circle was a gimmick, anything that simple could not possibly work. But when they tried it and it worked, they found themselves using it more and more and were surprised at how effective it was. They asked me to tell them what was going on. This request gave me the opening that I wanted to begin to explain choice theory to them. I gave them a copy of my 1995 relationship book, Staying Together.* It explains how any couple can apply choice theory to a relationship.

* The First Step Program is directed by Terri L. Mercer, who can be reached at Box 1103, Fostoria, OH 44830; phone (419) 435-7300. Its logo is: A program for victims of domestic violence.

In a detailed report that quotes many statistics, the statement that only 17 percent of the wives reported further violence after they and their husbands participated in the program seemed very significant. The report was sent to me by Terri Mercer, director of First Step, in a letter dated March 25, 1997.

* William Glasser, Staying Together (New York: HarperCollins, 1995).