Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

Marriage Coaches – Help a Couple Recognize Their Progress


According to Wikipedia, this phrase comes from an anecdote about a frog climbing out of a well. For every two leaps forward, the frog falls back one step, making for slow progress.

One of the benefits of coaching couples over several weeks is that we get a chance to observe the changes in their interactions as they apply new skills. A pattern that we’ve observed is when a couple celebrates a great success one week, but then comes in the following week discouraged because they fell back into old patterns.

Martha and Ben were one of those couples. During our fourth meeting with them, they reported a breakthrough the week before when Martha was able to express feelings to Ben that she hadn’t been able to before. We celebrated the success and asked them what they’d done differently and what they would keep doing.

The next week they reported it had been a miserable week. Their attempts at applying the new skills had failed and their arguments escalated. They felt discouraged and distanced from each other again.

It’s naïve to think, “Ah, now that I get it, I’ll never make that mistake again.” Unfortunately, the path of change from A to B isn’t one direction. More commonly, the results of applying a new skill are erratic and inconsistent.

We succeed and we fail, but with every attempt we learn something. The new skill will feel awkward and maybe even forced initially, but with practice, it becomes easier and more natural. Eventually, our successes increase and the failures happen less often and with less impact. When we’re learning a new skill, it’s unrealistic to believe you will perform without failure.

After Martha exclaimed, “We haven’t made any progress at all!” I reminded her, “Last week you had great success. What did you this week that worked?” They went on to explain that they tried some of the new skills and it sort of worked, but then they reverted back to old habits and that’s when things started escalating again. We kept probing and eventually learned that the fight didn’t last as long as it would have in the past and that they could see they’d made some progress.

When a couple experiences a setback it brings a lot of fear with it. “It is working?” “Is our marriage doomed?” “Will the effort pay off?” As marriage coaches we need to acknowledge the fear and help the couples we’re coaching to see their progress. Walking a new way, frequently involves stumbles and progress can feel slow, but it’s still progress.

When a couple you’re working with is discouraged by a setback, what do you do or say?
Share your strategies for handling those times when you take two steps forward and one step back?

My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness. 2 Corinthians 12:9