Good couples therapy is complex, demanding and very, very rewarding. I’ve been at it for many years, now, and the gratification that comes with helping two people in conflict and deep distress find each other again and re-bond is just immense. Yet, what I have found, as well, is that many parts of helping couples is pretty straightforward and kind of easy. Noting, and reflecting back to people, some of the natural errors of thinking – their mistaken expectations – which only gets them in trouble comes up all the time. Here are some examples:
- Many times, a person will say or do something that is incredibly hurtful to their partner and their defense is often, “I didn’t do it on purpose.” That comment never mollifies the wounded partner. After all, if a person did miss the anniversary or leave a mess in the kitchen (despite the pleas of the other to be more aware of that), then they are either very angry (which needs to be talked about) or they are simply a sociopath (which means that the relationship is fundamentally destructive and the wounded person has some serious deciding to do). The part that hurts is the sense of neglect and not being valuable or cared for. That’s the issue to be addressed. It doesn’t help that the behavior wasn’t intentional.
- Many people still believe that “if I have to ask for it, it doesn’t mean anything.” They labor under the inevitably heartbreaking belief that to be truly loved means the other person can anticipate your needs, they know you that well. Maybe one day in the far distant future pre-marital counseling will include a procedure which permits us to mind read our partner (although I don’t think anybody would really want that). In any event, that capacity does not currently exist and it is not how adult people show love to each other. To expect love to be shown by knowing what we need without us having to tell you about it is, I believe, part of the magical thinking of childhood and that’s where we get this sadly deceptive belief. The honest to goodness truth is that many loving partners are overjoyed at the prospect of providing something to their lover, if they knew what was needed. We do have to ask for what we need. The disappointment comes when we are clear about our need and our partner refuses to provide. Again, that may be a result of anger or high defensiveness (which needs to be talked about), but from what I’ve seen, people want to show their love.
- Many couples let their connection just slip away. They take their relationship for granted. I have witnessed this frequently. Bill Doherty Ph.D., perhaps the Dean of American couples therapists has written an excellent book, Take Back Your Marriage, which is built around this very theme. Take back your marriage from your children, from work, from the computer, etc. I am lucky enough to practice in Bellevue, WA, where many couples are high functioning and extremely busy. I will often ask them to recount their interactions over the past week and they will say that they were so busy that there isn’t much to report. They hardly saw each other during the week. If people allow this to disconnect to become embedded into their relationship, they will drift away from each other and the next time they look up, their partner will be so far away that they will lose hope of ever getting them close again. That’s when the discussion of consistent “marital rituals” comes in and that, too, is a pretty easy problem to identify and discuss.
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.
I like lawyers. Some of my oldest, dearest friends are lawyers. It’s really the same thing that has me coming back year after year to teach counseling skills to law students. Lawyers, as people, are smart, funny, generally very positive and full of life. This is even more so for law students – with their youth and energy. Yet one thing has always bemused me about lawyers – They are a conflict resolution profession that hates interpersonal conflict. Take mediation, for example. The classic approach to mediation is to sit the disputing people down together and have them talk to each other. The mediator’s job is to help this process by creating a safe environment where each person will have their space to express what’s on their mind and help in phrasing it in a way that is both true for the speaker and also said in way that can be heard without defensiveness. It is almost guaranteed that if we are accused of something (or feel we are being accused) we will automatically become defensive and the speaker will be hugely frustrated at the fact that they are not being heard. This is just one of the realities of interpersonal conflict resolution – helping people speak to each other in a productive fashion. Lawyers, however, find the possibility of sitting in the presence of emotion that can become hot and possibly escalate to be too potentially destructive, so they choose, almost invariably, to separate the people (or groups) in dispute. This is kind of consistent with one of the most poignant elements of lawyers’ discomfort with conflict – how they fight at home.
One of the real problems with legal training is that lawyers feel they have to “win” an argument. Often by “winning” this means being able to explain their position either clearly enough or with enough supportive evidence (and examples from the past) that their partner will ultimately relent and admit that they are right. So how does one deal with the reality that you don’t “win” marital arguments? When what is at stake is each person’s deepest needs, fears and vulnerabilities, “winning” seems beside the point. It certainly won’t get us what we want, which is peace and connection. I wrote a blog post about a year or so ago about the two different conversations couples have when they are in conflict. The one that we try to win is the unwinnable one. How’s that for a conundrum? The way out of it, I think, is to understand that no relationship will touch on our deepest needs, fears and vulnerabilities like our intimate partnership. If we are going to have these feelings, this is going to be the place. Learning to understand them, express them, listen to them and connect with them, while often uncomfortable, is the way out of that maze.
John Gottman is the pre-eminent researcher of intimate couples – both in conflict and getting along. One of Gottman’s insights – and one I find of, perhaps, the greatest value – is this: Of all the couples he has studied – with those who separate after a brief time together to those who are together for 60 years (and through all those years others marvel at what a strong, enduring bond they display) – among all of these couples, roughly 69% of their conflicts are perpetual. They will never be resolved. Put another way, if each person is waiting for the other to just compromise (“If they’ll move a little toward me, I’ll move toward them.”) each will be continually disappointed, irritated and estranged. It’s just not going to happen – for either person. The areas of conflict are myriad and examples provided by Gottman include differences in: Approach to finances; Preferred love-making style or frequency; Approach to child-rearing; Sociability; Relationship to extended family or in-laws; Emotional expressiveness; Work before play vs. Play before work; Neatness/Organization; Private time vs. Alone time; Punctuality; Activity level; Religious observance and Approach to conflict.
Think about it. Of these differences (and others) about 69% will be there on the first day of the relationship and remain until the 60th year. “Why, then, don’t all relationships blow apart?” you might ask. Excellent question. The couples who endure and thrive are those who are able understand and appreciate the underlying values that support the other’s approach. Also, it is so important to understand that the other’s persistence in making their way through the world in their way is not a rejection of us or a statement that we are not important (after all they are probably feeling that they are not important to us because if they were, we would not be so upset about them being the way they are). I have seen many people sigh with relief, and lower their shoulders in relaxation at the understanding that this difference is not a toxic and irredeemable flaw in their relationship, but, rather just something that comes with all connections between two different people and which is shared by long, long term relationships.
Many years ago, John Gray, made a mark (and a gazillion dollars) with his hugely popular Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. Between its hardcovers (and I recall it being in hardback for a long, long time – well after most personal growth/self help books had gone into paperback) Gray talked about the many fundamental differences between men and women. For years after its release, I listened to experienced marital therapists dismiss him and his book as overly simplistic. While there may be some truth to that, I think it’s hard to ignore the reality that the two sexes do seem to process the world differently……as a general rule. There are always going to be exceptions to these rules, but some things do seem to be gender related. One example is the way women often prefer to talk things out. If something has happened in her life, she wants to be able to talk it through, being pretty confident that she can come up with a solution herself as she airs out the experience. He, on the other hand, likes to drive for solutions. Any problem raised is an invitation to come up with a solution. When one person interacts with the other, the solution-seeker may get frustrated by the continued recounting of the problem, while the problem-discusser is frustrated by the other’s quick-cut to a solution. It feels like she’s being shut down. Well, we are lucky to have this problem described and solved in a two-minute YouTube video. If you have not seen this yet, enjoy.
Many (most) women who come into my office with their partners to work on their troubled relationships are quite high functioning. At least from my observations, these woman really display a skill in multi-tasking. Sometimes, this remarkable functionality keeps her busy – so busy that I get the impression that she’s racing to keep ahead of something. While I am not a fan of long dissections of our childhood to get at what is going on now, I also believe its impossible to understand that now without some flavor of the past. Our families of origin are where we learn our earliest and most indelible lessons. True or false – here is where we first learn about ourselves in the world. Are intimate relationships safe? Am I worthy of love? How do others really see me?
The highly effective woman will often come into my office with the most poignant, powerful dilemma. On the one hand, she has gotten it done throughout her life – often in the face of an utter absence of love and support from her important caretaker(s). She grew up believing that there was nobody she could ever really lean on. In fact, the idea of really leaning on anyone is so frightening – What if they can’t or don’t want to be there for me. What if my need is an imposition or a reason for them to judge and dismiss me as not worthy of love. Better I take care of myself.
Yet that is exactly what a close, bonded, adult attachment relationship is – Knowing that you will be there to catch me if I fall. There is nothing wrong with wanting to be taken care of. There are lots of ways that can happen for us. Guys need it in their ways. He may think of it in terms of sex or as being okay and still loved even if he screws something up. She may just need to know that she can collapse every once in a while – to be exhausted or overwhelmed or scared and it’ll be okay. She will be okay. She will still be seen as strong, worthy, desired – still be loved.
All relationships have conflict. We will wound each other, often withtout even realizing the depth of the hurts we inflict. When our partner protests, often with anger, we recoil and defend ourselves. We think, “You’re saying I’m a bad person. You’re wrong and here’s why.” We so want to protect ourselves from the bad feelings that arise when our partner protests, that we can’t hear their own pain through their anger……and so it goes, until each of us reacts to the other’s anger or withdrawal, distancing ourselves further from the one person who can provide us safety and care. How can we slow and reverse this distancing? Many suggest that it is through the power of Repair. What is Repair? One way of thinking about it is that Repair is the word, act or touch that says, “I don’t like what’s happening to us, here. I don’t want to be hurt, angry or distant.” It can be stated in those simple words. It can also be the soft touch of concliation or gesture that moves towards the lover rather than away (helping with a task; making a cup of tea; giving a small, but thoughtful gift). It can be with humor. It can be with an admission of our part in the painful exchange. A colleague, and therapist trained in Gottman’s work suggested to me that the most powerful of John Gottman’s ideas is the power of repair. This is a useful idea in this time of gift giving.
John Gottman, Ph.D. has observed that when couples come in for their first appointment with a marital therapist, their relationship has had serious problems for, on average, six years. I often tell couples that it is rare that two people will sit across me me and say something like, “We’re basically doing fine. We just need some help with communication.” Much more likely, I am sitting with two very wounded people, their feelings rubbed raw from years of conflict, pain and emotional distance. Dr. Sue Johnson observed years ago that the intensity of the conflict – the very sense of being out of control – is tragically understandable – as each person’s deepest need for connection has been unmet. This “attachment” need (see earlier posts) is so deep it is felt, literally, on a cellular level. People are just so emotionally exhausted and strained when they first enter marital therapy that any therapist who blames either person, rather than compassionately trying to understand the particular wounds and needs of each is doing more harm than good. Emotionally Focused Therapy, among many things, is like a balm to people’s psychic sores. I am on the EFT community’s list serve and I am frequently moved by the deep care and compassion of these attachment therapists. It is a pure and fine form of therapy. The abiding belief of this community is that healing of even the most strained relationships can come to us if we are patient and give care rather than judgment.
Relationship conflict isn’t a bad thing – to be avoided whenever possible. Ask any couple who’s been together for years and years and they will tell you that their time together has not been without conflict. As U.W.’s John Gottman assures us, the problem isn’t conflict, it’s the way we deal with conflict. According to Gottman 69% of marital disagreements are durable. We’ll never get them to agree with our view and we’ll certainly never agree with theirs. Think of it….69%. If we really think that the way to end this particular conflict is for one of us to come over to the other’s side, that’s a heck of a lot of frustration we’ll be dealing with. So what happens when we are grinding on each other without a sense of resolution? Well, the risk to our relationships, again, isn’t the fact of those perpetual disagreements. It’s our tendency to slip into one, or more, of the negative relationship habits that Gottman terms The Four Horsemen of relationship apocalypse. These are Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness and Stonewalling. Criticism: When you don’t just have a complaint about something your partner did or didn’t do, but you criticize their character. It’s not, “I’m really angry that you promised to take out the garbage but didn’t and it didn’t get picked up.” It’s, “You always do this. You are unreliable (or lazy or uncaring or selfish, etc.). Contempt: When you begin to nurture an attitude that you are superior to your partner. Gottman observes that contempt is incredibly toxic for a relationship and if it is allowed free rein inside a person’s psyche, he can almost guarantee divorce. Stonewalling: When one partner shuts down and refuses to engage. It may be the result of emotional flooding that feels overwhelming, but the period for that is fairly limited and the stonewaller shuts down and doesn’t re-engage. It leaves the other person hanging out there, exposed. The stonewaller thinks their behavior is passive and doesn’t understand that it is experienced, usually, as much more painful and aggressive by their partner. Finally, Defensiveness: No matter what I say to you about my concerns, you have a reason, defense or counterattack. I feel unheard and unacknowledged. It is a terribly frustrating and painful experience and will cause me to withdraw to protect myself from feeling so invisible. There are definitely ways to manage perpetual conflict, or conflict on topics that forever seem to defy solution, and these will be brought up in a later post. For now, however, the point is that we need to be ever vigilant for the introduction of any of The Four Horsemen into our relationship when we experience the emotional fatigue and discouragement of disagreements that seem not to have ready solutions.
Recently, the New York Times reported that the mental health diagnostic “bible,” the DSM is going to drop Narcissistic Personality Disorder in its 5th Edition. Laura Smith, Ph.D. provides a good explanation for why this was done, here. While an interesting development in its own right, the move brings to mind an overriding concern about the easy use of labels like “narcissistic.” Many, many, times have I heard people in recent years label someone as “narcissistic.” It’s not that “people who believe the world only exists if seen through their own eyes” don’t exist – and it’s not that these folks don’t cause a lot of distress to those close to them. (I remember hearing in my training that the only way you see a person with NPD in therapy is if their spouse or family basically says, “Get help on this or we’re outta here!”) San Diego mediator Bill Eddy identifies people struggling with NPD as one of a handful of “high conflict personalities” who challenge helping professionals mightily. But here’s the problem – it’s easy to label, isolate and dismiss another person, losing sight of the fact that this rigid shell of a personality they present to the world covers enormous, old pain. Eddy has suggested that the 4 major “high conflict personalities” at their core, are protecting themselves from the pain of early, constant violations to their developing, tender personalities. The “borderline” personality is driven by the Fear of (emotional) Abandonment, suffered so early. The “antisocial” personality is driven by the Fear of Being Dominated. The “histrionic” personality is driven by the Fear of Being Ignored. The “narcissistic personality” is driven by the Fear of Inferiority. In fact, these people with hugely (over)inflated views of themselves have buried within their hearts a glass shard of failure to measure up – of not being good enough. When we almost cavalierly label others as “narcissists” (or any other thing) we rob them of their humanity and pain. Of course, in their striving to protect themselves from the ancient, overwhelming wounds that are long-buried within, they may often overwhelm and deeply injure their intimates. But as with all injuries which we suffer at the hands of others, our own healing comes in part through our own halting efforts to understand and even hold compassion for the other. It’s not necessary to label the other so that we don’t take on responsibility for our own injuries. It was never our fault anyway. To humanize ourselves without dehumanizing the person who wounded us is an ongoing challenge and, I think, righteous goal.