When Steve and Holly Hale's marriage ended in 1999, they strove for a "good divorce" for the sake of their children — their son, Jaret, 9, and Holly's kids Brittney, 18, and Shawn, 17. Although the family no longer lived under one roof, they went to movies and concerts together and shared meals. All too often, though, these gatherings were punctuated — as the marriage had been — by bickering and hostility.
"Our fighting was hard on the kids, and we both hated that," recalls Holly, 37, a receptionist. Wanting to maintain an amicable relationship, she and Steve, 42, a general contractor, sought therapy with Roy Anderson, a pastoral counselor at their Everett, Washington, church. He urged them to attend his marital workshops. In four two-hour sessions, the Hales not only discovered techniques for preventing arguments but fell in love all over again. One year ago they retied the knot, with Anderson officiating.
So what does the couple know now that they never knew before?
Steve: What it boils down to is that we spent a lot of time blaming each other. I was always trying to prove I was right and Holly was wrong, and she was doing the same in reverse.
Holly: Also, our fighting styles were hurtful. We excelled at "spite talk": I'd say something mean; he'd respond in kind. These workshops taught us to express our feelings in a healthy way.
Steve: It's about listening and empathizing rather than convincing or being right. We learned a system of communication replete with tools that help us stick with it. For instance, we have two floor mats — one for listening, one for talking. The mats are divided into zones: thoughts, feelings, wants, actions.
Holly: Now, whenever we're upset, we stand on these floor mats. As we step into each zone, we share information related to that area. The process forces us to slow down and truly listen.
Steve: It sounds hokey, but it gives us a structure. It helped me own up to what I was doing that made conflicts worse. Recently we were quarreling about my home office…
Holly: …which looked like a tornado hit it.
Steve: There is a method to my madness, but the piles of paper drive Holly nuts. When I asked her to help me straighten up, she refused. I didn't know why.
Holly: So out came the mats. As we took turns talking and listening, I explained that I was afraid to clean for fear I'd throw out something important. So I was insisting that he use my system to organize things. But that was silly because it's his office, not mine.
Steve: And I understood for the first time that she was concerned, not unhelpful. It sounds obvious, but when you consistently get stuck on small issues like that, logic gets turned upside down. When we finally set aside time to go through the mess together, it was easier than either of us expected.
Holly: The mat technique really works! For us, it provides a safe way to talk about tough issues.