I often hear clients in couples therapy ask for “tools.” I’m usually a bit wary of these requests, because exercises and tools tend to get shed and forgotten when jagged conflict blasts through the windows and doors. “I” statements that sound so sensible and helpful in a therapist’s office morph, with high stress and conflict into, “I think you’re a thoughtless piece of crap,” or worse. However, there is one set of rules that are so reliable they could be reduced to a mathematical formulas.
Partners in chronic conflict are beset with a firm fixation on their hurts, disappointments and violations, experienced at the hands of the other. We try so desperately hard to get the other to understand how their behavior hurts us. Yet, with dogged consistency, the other will either argue back, shut down or (maybe this is the worst) agree that they should do better and then continue the same dispiriting behavior. Any of these responses are guaranteed to stimulate within us a need to repeat the message with greater volume and intensity. So here are some basic rules that will help extricate struggling intimates from this maddening cycle. Rule 1: Acknowledging what your partner is doing right =:Lowering of the stress between you. Rule 2: Lowering the stress between you + acknowledgment = Increase in the behavior you are seeking. Rule 3: Continuing to mostly point out your partner’s shortcomings will lead to continued troubling behavior from them as they give up on trying to satisfy and please you.
While this rule also applies if you are dealing with a recalcitrant kid or a frustratingly under-performing employee, we see it almost all the time with couples in distress. Think back of the last time you wanted to give to someone you cared about. How did it feel when their face beamed and you knew you had satisfied them? Now think of the last time you made the same attempt to please them and they not only failed to acknowledge your effort in their direction, but criticized you? Just like an unwavering mathematical formula – just as surely as E=mc² – you will discourage further efforts with criticism and encourage further efforts with acknowledgment. Of course, the highly distressed and frustrated individual might respond, “That’s all well and good, but why should I have to bow down and kiss his/her feet if they do only what I’ve been asking for over and over and over again?” The answer is…the formula. If you want positive behavior, acknowledge it. U.W.’s John Gottman says that a solid relationship has a ratio of 5 positive interactions for every 1 negative interaction. That’s close to the relationship of positives to negatives you’re looking for.
It is also important to know that the loneliness, hurt or distance you have been experiencing – and trying to get your partner to understand – will be much more easily transmitted and taken in if the level of anger, dissatisfaction and despair are lowered and your intimate environment becomes safer. Acknowledgment doesn’t have to include brass bands and hosannas. Usually that’s not really called for anyway. Yet, a nod and a statement of acknowledgment and appreciation will be infinitely more effective in getting the behavior and care one craves than a reminder of how hurtful or disappointment that person is. I’d suggest, as a tool, you try it for a week or two and see if it doesn’t start shifting your partner’s behavior. It might be incremental at first, but remember that almost no significant change is dramatic. Our lives are organic. Every change is incremental – but one block adds to another and over time a strong structure is in place – built day-after-day with those incremental positive changes.