Brandon and Nikole Scheaffer sat on an overstuffed couch in a counselor's office last week, spilling the beans on communication problems they're experiencing in their marriage.
Not too unusual, right? Well, now guess their ages and how long they've been married.
BEEP! You're probably wrong!
Brandon, age 22, married Nikole, 20, on June 20, 2000. Glance at your calendar and you'll see that wasn't too long ago. Talk to any couple that's been married for less than 60 days and you'll realize it's not overly normal for a bride and groom to seek counseling a few days after their honeymoon.
You're probably thinking the Scheaffers made a monumental mistake in getting married. Think again. They love each other very much, and that's why they're seeking help.
Jon Scheffres and Elizabeth Williams, both of whom are licensed counselors at Dynamic Touch Healing Arts Center in Salt Lake City, see it this way: Why not learn to get it right before you learn to get it wrong?
For the past five years, Scheffres and Williams have been "coaching" couples who were just married or those about to get married. A few of their clients, such as the Scheaffers, engage them for private sessions. Others attend a six-week class with other couples that Williams describes as "a lot of fun. Couples see that other couples also have problems — everyone does. The class is playful and has a lot of role playing."
During a recent private session with the Scheaffers, Williams and Scheffres led the newlyweds through a discussion centered on a recent incident involving a routine activity — buying groceries.
The store was closing in 15 minutes and Nikole wanted to hurry and get some of the groceries they needed. Brandon knew they wouldn't be able to complete their shopping and would end up returning the next day anyhow, so he wanted to leave immediately and not waste time.
Brandon got upset, said "whatever" to his wife, dropped her hand and walked away.
At this point in the discussion, Scheffres stepped in. "The word 'whatever' is a code word," he said. "It's one guys use a lot. It's their way of saying, 'I'm going to do what I want, and she's going to do what she wants.'"
Scheffres and Williams explained to the couple that men become individuals if things aren't going their way. Women, on the other hand, are still thinking of it as a relationship. For men, space gives them time to think and rid themselves of anxiety. Women, however, dislike separation because it makes them more nervous. This is why women have less of a problem approaching men after an incident.
"Men aren't born knowing how to care about women," Scheffres said. "Part of what men and women do for each other in marriage is teach each other about the other gender."
During the session, Nikole realized that when arguments arise, it was more about her wanting Brandon to take her feelings into consideration than about her getting her own way. "As long as he feels and knows what I want, I'm OK with whatever we decide," she said.
Scheffres told Brandon he was dealing with his wife like she was one of his guy-friends, and that she wasn't going to attack him if he approached her. "If you think she's upset about something — go to her and ask, 'Are you doing OK?' then rub her back and tell her that you love her."
Nikole agreed that this would work, and Brandon said he is willing to give it a try. "I don't think we'll ever fight in (a grocery store) again," he said.
Maybe not. But Brandon and Nikole, along with thousands of other engaged or newlywed couples, must realize that marriage isn't always a walk in the park.
"Life and love are filled with conflicts," Williams said. "The key is to use the conflict to move love further."
"People enter into intimate relationships and expect to know everything," Scheffres said. "No one does that with a car or a profession; why do it with a lifelong commitment? I guess at some point people just have to decide what's more important to them."
Scheffres and Williams put an emphasis on the word "coaching." It's not a therapy or counseling session, they say, but a preparatory session of things to come. "People are afraid of counseling," Williams said. "They feel like they're going to get splayed open and all their deep dark secrets are going to be revealed. It's not like that."
And age doesn't matter. Whether couples seeking advice are 65 or 20, the duo just wants to make a difference and stop relationship problems before they become unsolvable.
"It's like when you feel a rock in your shoe," said Scheffres. "You know it won't hurt you at first, but you have to get it out before it turns into a sore."
Brandon and Nikole Scheaffer were feeling pebble-size rocks in their tennis shoes, so they decided to give a coaching session with Williams and Scheffres a try.
The Scheaffers met while working at R.C. Willey last November. They started dating in December, were engaged by March and married in June. They are very much in love but have been concerned with the lack of communication they experience when they hit a bump in the road.
"I'll go one way and she'll go another," Brandon said during the couple's session. "There's probably too much pride on both our parts. But I'm more stubborn."
When the couple has a minor argument, Brandon tends to pull away from Nikole and won't talk to her unless she approaches him first. Nikole doesn't think it should always be her responsibility to apologize first and feels like Brandon doesn't care about her feelings.
"People fear what's going to happen when this part of their relationship (conflict) comes up," Scheffres added. "How can we get people to understand that doing this sooner than later is better?"
Most counseling, Scheffres said, is divorce counseling. Either the husband or wife already has it in his or her head that the marriage is over, and by the time they seek help, it is usually too late — the damage has already been done.
Overall, Nikole and Brandon thought the session helped them open communication lines and understand the roles each person takes in doing so. They both agreed that it wasn't the conflicts themselves that were bogging them down but the way the were handling them.
"It's not like when you have a boyfriend and can say, "OK, this isn't working, let's break up,' " Nikole said. "It's amazing how simple things are when you're dating compared to when you're married."
Williams and Scheffres want people to know they're not alone. They said you should seek help if you're feeling lost in any aspect of your relationship — and like the pebble in your shoe, do it before it becomes a permanent sore.
"I hear people all the time say, 'We can do this on our own,' " Williams said. "But what is your marriage worth to you? People need to think of (counseling) as an investment in their marriage."