Putting In The Work
“It’s so meaningful to see a couple go from wanting to call it quits to being connected and sometimes stronger than they ever were before.”
That might sound like a fairy tale, but George James ’16 Psy.D., a licensed marriage and family therapist, has worked with dozens of couples who do the work to rebuild their relationships after difficult times.
By the time a couple comes to his office, the relationship might be on its last leg. But something has caused the partners not to split up yet, and instead to ask themselves whether they can still make it work.
So James rolls up his sleeves, and they get to work. He listens to them describe the pain they have endured in their relationship—the pain of growing apart, of being rejected, or of being unfaithful. But underneath this pain, James often recognizes a deep commitment that each partner has to the other.
“I try to support and challenge at the same time,” he says. During therapy sessions, he asks questions and makes suggestions about how each of them can communicate more, be vulnerable, and learn to connect better. He tries to challenge both partners equally so neither one feels like he is on the other’s side.
Week by week, the partners work at their relationship, and things begin to improve. They learn to forgive each other, and James notices a glimmer of the “spark” return between them. After about six to nine months of counseling, some couples begin having regular date nights again. They come to a clearer understanding of what went wrong in their relationship, and they talk about what they want their future to be like. Because of the work James has done with them, many of the couples he counsels choose to stay together.
Some couples still decide to end their relationships, of course. James worked hard over several months with a husband and wife who eventually decided to get divorced. But they told him they were still grateful that they had gone to therapy. It was painful to end their relationship, but they wouldn’t have been able to do it as peacefully as they had without going through counseling. They valued the time they had spent working with James.
James says some people ask his wife, Candace, “What’s it like being married to a marriage therapist?” He laughs at the question and says, “Just like anything else—we have problems and ups and downs. But I think what is beneficial for us is that we also have a focus on trying to work on it.”
James and his wife began learning how to work on their relationship even before they got married, because they got involved in leading a couple’s ministry at their church. About 15 other couples were on the leadership team, some of whom had been married for up to 35 years. These couples provided some perspective on the inevitable conflicts that arise in relationships.
James mimics what could have been his thought process after one of these conflicts: “Oh, we got in an argument. That means it’s over.” “No. We got in an argument!” he says, laughing. “We’ll be okay tomorrow.” He lists several common causes of arguments: how to raise the kids, how to spend money, how to have an appropriate work-life balance. “These things are important, but they’re not deal-breakers. We learned that from these couples that modeled that for us.”
James also learned from the couples ministry how important it is to keep connecting and not drift away from each other. He and his wife have regular date nights on Fridays, and their two kids know this—it’s a part of the household routine that they maintain even when things are hectic.
During his last year in Immaculata’s Psy.D. program, James was especially busy. He and his wife were raising two young children and taking care of his aging parents who had dementia. He was working as a marriage and family therapist at Council for Relationships, teaching classes and finishing his American Psychological Association clinical internship at Temple University, and he was writing his dissertation.
“But we still had date night. In what could have been the most chaotic year, when we could have really ended the year further apart, we were still connected.” James adds, “I try as much as possible to practice what I say. It’s not always easy, but I do try!”
On his website, GeorgeTalks.com, James offers a free e-book called “61 Simple Ways to Reignite Your Marriage,” which includes date night ideas. Here are just a few: Write love letters to each other, hide them around the house, and go on a scavenger hunt to find them. Drive to a scenic location and watch a sunset together. Put on some music and have a dance party in the living room.
“I just want people to have fun!” James says.
Fun can be a powerful way to nurture a relationship. “It is impossible to have a vibrant, successful, happy relationship without maintaining a dating component,” James writes in his e-book. “At any point, someone should be able to ask you when is your next date and you should be able to answer them with a specific time within the next two weeks…Having a date night routine can be preventative and can help to restore broken parts of your relationship.”
James also recommends surprises as a helpful ingredient for relationships. He and his wife get a little competitive about surprising each other, and he was thrilled to be able to take her to the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro last year for her birthday. He had to work hard over the course of a year to plan that trip. Surprising your partner can create a “reservoir of goodwill,” he says, demonstrating your underlying care for that person, even though you will inevitably make some mistakes now and then.
In addition to providing couples therapy, James is a frequent public speaker, workshop leader, and contributor to various publications, including Ebony magazine. He has led a men’s group for the past 16 years that gives men, predominantly men of color, opportunities to discuss their questions, feelings, and experiences. He describes the group’s purpose as “giving more men of color an opportunity to speak, have fun, to share, to feel safe, to have an outlet.”
In his dissertation, “Deciding to Say I Do: African-American Men’s Journey Toward Marriage,” James interviewed 10 African-American men to explore the role that race played in their decisions to get married. One man told James that he sometimes felt that the majority white culture did not see him, a black man, as human. But when this man got married, he felt that society’s perception of him shifted, helping him gain some respect as someone who was capable of loving a spouse and a family.
Although he believes this trend is changing, James says people of color tend to be reluctant to go to therapy. He cites a study that found that African-Americans often describe therapy as invasive, impersonal, and intimidating because of unclear goals, duration, and benefits. Some white therapists may have difficulty understanding clients’ diverse cultural backgrounds, and people of color may have difficulty trusting some white therapists.
“I want to bridge that gap in any way that I can,” James says. “Being a man of color helps to build a level of confidence and trust with clients of color.” Similar to shopping for clothes, he says, people may have to shop around and try out a few therapists to find a good fit.
“Going to counseling is not a lifetime commitment, and it does not mean you are crazy,” James says. He points out that we seek out professional help when we have problems with our cars, our health, or our houses. So why not also seek help with our relationships and our mental health? “Adding a therapist to the list of people you are willing to get help from, especially when we are struggling emotionally, could make a meaningful difference in your life.”