OXFORD • Business usually picks up around Valentine’s Day for Pat Ward of Oxford.
A counselor with the Oxford Wellness Center, the 37-year-old Ward said there’s just something about the season that puts a strain on many relationships.
“Valentine’s Day is such a head game,” he said. “You have nothing to gain and so much to lose. It just brings a lot of wounds to the surface, the things we overlook in normal life. For a lot of couples, it’s a reminder that if they’re in a rut, on Valentine’s Day they kinda have to face it.”
Ward joined the Wellness Center in January of 2019, after planting and then being the lead pastor of The Orchard in Oxford for 13 years. He said his shift in ministry emphasis has been refreshing.
“I thought I’d miss the creativity I got to use in preaching and teaching,” he said. “But I use creativity in every hour of counseling. You’re always looking for that opening, that point of insight. I love it.”
Ward said the growing demand for counseling of all kinds is a commentary on the culture in which we now live.
“We live in a really toxic society that predisposes us to struggles and addictions,” he said. “The mental health needs of our country are growing like crazy.”
Ward said premarital counseling in particular can help those preparing to take “the plunge” avoid some common pitfalls.
“Premarital counseling is one of the most fun things I do,” he said. “It’s the last stop for someone to take an assessment of where they’re healthy and where they’re not before they run into a crisis. It’s an opportunity to decide if you’re a whole person before you give yourself to someone else.”
Even those already married can benefit from counseling as a sort of “yearly checkup,” according to Ward.
“A mentor of mine said about every three years a marriage will either be in a groove or a rut,” Ward said. “They’re both patterns; they’re both habitual. But some will feel good and some will not.”
Ward said while most couples would prefer to avoid such patterns, they are an inevitable reality in long-term relationships.
“It should make us feel a little better to know that it’s just part of the life cycle of relationships: sometimes we get in ruts,” he said. “And even if there isn’t a deep rut, there are just seasons where the level of commitment and respect is high, but the level of passion and intimacy is low, or it may be reversed.”
Ward said most couples want to emerge from these cyclical ruts, but they may need help to do so.
“It’s just like a rut in the road,” he said. “You can’t just merge out of it; you have to build some energy and spring out of it. You have to do some things differently to disrupt the pattern.”
Ward said Valentine’s Day has a way of bringing relational woes to a crisis point.
“On Valentine’s Day all these issues come to the surface,” he said. “Anybody can win on Valentine’s Day, and anyone can make a relationship look good on Instagram. But you don’t want to go back to that rut on Feb. 15.”
Ward said the way out of a rut is often through recognizing common pitfalls and finding new ways to negotiate them.
“These ruts are usually caused by what I refer to as ‘resentment traps’ – issues that, no matter how we talk about them, both people seem to wind up feeling bad,” he said. “And they usually revolve around the ‘big four’: faith, family, sex, and money.”
Technology, according to Ward, is creating a fifth, uniquely modern, trap to that list.
“I see screens and the issue of quality time starting to elevate itself into the ‘big four,’” he said. “There are more ways to check out now than ever. A lot of spouses are checked out and their partners don’t even realize it because they’re checked out, too. It can go on like that for years.”
Ward said he created a resource for his clients to help them reestablish communication and collaboration.
“I call it the ‘Sunday Night Rundown,’” he said. “It’s a planner for the week, and it opens up communication. If you don’t plan your week, your week will eat you alive. And if there’s no place where you can do some healthy collaboration without it escalating, that’s a sign that the relationship is stressed.”
Ward said he hopes Valentine’s Day can be more than a temporary lift from a permanent rut.
“I would love it if there were something about Valentine’s Day that wasn’t just pretending it’s all roses and candy,” he said. “When each person wants the healthiest version of themselves and their partner, and they’re willing to do whatever it takes to make that happen – that’s what we should celebrate.”