Couples Heal In School

The Oregonian

They've mastered contempt. They're proficient at shouting, sulking or nagging. But most who land in Sher Ireland's relationship school are there to unlearn bad habits and heal their marriages.

In September, the longtime Lake Oswego therapist opened A Beautiful Marriage Education Center in Tigard. Since then, couples and singles hoping to become less critical and angry or more loving and patient have filled her classrooms to learn about compassion, understanding and forgiveness.

On Saturday morning, a group of couples and singles gathered around a conference table to listen to Ireland, take notes and flip through communication diagrams. At the front of the class, Ireland -- who, yes, is happily married -- paced and whipped out more diagrams on a white board. People can take on many roles to sabotage their relationship, she noted.

"The Blaster," for example, powers through confrontations with sheer will power. "The Doormat" avoids conflict, but that doesn't help solve problems. "The Stonewaller" simply withdraws. "These are the behaviors that wind up pushing away the very people we want to draw close," Ireland said.

Students who want more trust and good will in their partnerships should adopt what she calls the "win-win" approach, she said, in which both partners feel respected and cared for. Ireland's school, housed in the Hilltop Business Center, draws on the expertise of many marriage experts, including John Gottman, a University of Washington professor and relationship guru, and Harville Hendricks, author of "Getting the Love You Want: A Guide for Couples."


Metro Area Counselor

The school is the latest incarnation of similar courses that Ireland has taught during 23 years of work as a licensed professional counselor of couples and singles from all over the metro area. In that time, Ireland said, she's seen many who think that partnerships should be easy and that their beloved is the only one with issues.

"They'll say, 'My partner is the only person I ever have the problem with,' "Ireland said in an interview after class. "A marriage is the most complex relationship we ever have. Eating, sleeping, raising a family or having a spiritual life -- you have all these things with the other person. We demand more of a partner than we ever do of anyone else in our life."

Couples or singles who enroll in her school begin by going through a screening process designed to pinpoint their problems. Students then take all or some of the 23 two-hour classes over a semester. Doug Key, who has separated from his wife, Heather, but was taking the course with her Saturday in an effort to save their marriage, said after class that he's seen progress in the relationship since beginning classes.

"We'd gotten to the point that we were like enemies," said Doug Key, who is living the Scappoose home they once shared while his wife is staying in Portland. "You could say I was 'The Blaster' and she was 'The Stonewaller.'

There was so much resentment." After several classes, he said, the two are using new tools to listen to each another. During a recent argument about the meaning of commitment, for example, they were less defensive than usual.

The classes have worked better than a giant weekend seminar they tried with another teacher, Heather Key said Monday. "Those really aren't that helpful.

They're not personalized, and they cram all these topics into the weekend," she said. The classes work better than counseling, in her opinion, "because you're in this learning environment and there's an agenda, something to learn. You don't spend the whole time bickering back and forth."


The "Big Six" SUbjects

As part of the class, Ireland often presents "The Big Six" -- prime subjects that couples fight about: Money. In-laws. Child rearing. Chores.

Religious or spiritual values. Sex. When couples enter these areas of conversation, Ireland said, they should take extra care. "Raising kids was a hot spot for us," said Denise Beard of Gresham, who took a similar course with her husband that Ireland offered several years ago. In time, tension over child rearing spilled into other areas of their life together.

"Despite both of our commitments to the relationship, we didn't have the skills to be what the other needed us to be," said Denise Beard, who has four children with her husband, John Beard. "We kept getting into a pattern of me getting angry and him not knowing what to do. It was a constant source of strife."

After a 10-week course, the couple learned a whole new way to communicate, she said. "We learned empathy for each other," she said. "It took us two years to get over how fast it worked. . . . Now and then one of the kids will say, 'I remember when (they had bad fights). . . . That was what was most valuable. Our kids learning that you can work something through. And the power of forgiveness."

When Doreen Chesnut-Gresh and Wayne Gresh of Beaverton enrolled in a similar class before their June wedding, they were trying to avoid problems that contributed to the end of their first marriages to other people. "We're not young things, and we wanted to learn as much as we could before going forward," Chesnut-Gresh said. When they did marry, she said, she was able to be "more confident, more secure in the choice that I was making. And more hopeful that there are resources out there that we can gain wisdom from if we ever need them."

For information about the marriage education center, call 503-620-1500.

Kate Taylor: 503-294-5116;

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