By Lawrence Kaufman, Florida Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) 561-302-0568
7301 W Palmetto Park Road, Suite 201A, Boca Raton FL 33433-3456
The term “Anger Management” means different things to different people. I want to be clear about how I define this term in this article. Let’s make sure we are all dealing with the same concept – rather than having different meanings for, and understandings what “anger management” is. We will have less confusion and more clarity as a result.
In my view, when people say that someone has an anger management problem, it usually implies that the individual in question has a serious personal problem, or a serious deficiency in their personality and interpersonal relationships. It implies that the person is inclined, at times, (more or less frequently), to lose control of their feelings and burst out – suddenly, unpredictably, and explosively – with unproductive, or even destructive consequences.
The individual who periodically has angry outbursts may or may not have regrets about this behavior afterwards. Often, the person who loses such control feels justified in their behavior. They frequently believe that the recipient of their anger is at fault for triggering them off. People who “blow up” from time to time accept different levels of responsibility for their actions. They may not think of interactional problems of this type as usually involving contributions from both individuals involved. They may either take too much, or too little, responsibility for the stressful consequences of their actions.
I have professionally worked with many people who have so-called anger management problems. Sometimes they come to work with me in individual therapy — but more frequently they come in to work with me in couple therapy. Some have deeper and more serious underlying issues, while others are in need of some specific skills training. More often than not, these individuals have longstanding problems in this area, but have never gotten to the roots of their problems. They may have read some self-help books on this topic, and/or may have had short-term counseling/ therapy for their repeated emotional outbursts, but, nevertheless, the problem keeps popping back up from time to time. The problem doesn’t seem to get resolved or go away. This can cause havoc and distress in their closest and most important relationships.
Not infrequently, both people involved with these angry outbursts often experience them as “coming out of the blue” – without warning that such intense expressions of criticisms, resentments, and other negativity are about to enter into the interpersonal dialog. They often “don’t see it coming,” and are confused, puzzled, or even “shell-shocked” by such unexpectedly intense expressions and reactions. They may ask themselves, or the other, such questions as: “How can I account for and understand what just happened between us? What did I miss leading up to this? How can we prevent such an interchange from happening again (or again and again)?
Most of the time, people are not aware of the warning signs, within or between them, that immediately precede these “volcanic eruptions.” Complicating this matter is that there is a wide range of reactions people have after such outbursts. Sometimes people catch themselves after saying just one overly intense word, phrase, or sentence, while other times people are much slower to self-observe and become self-aware of how they are reacting. In other words, the duration (the length of time) of emotional (often out-of-character) “outbursts” varies considerably.
There is often, as well, great variability (differences) in the responses the listener has to the person expressing his/her anger. Some “take the bait” and get sucked into reacting in kind (as in the listener automatically and reflexively [without thinking] striking back, retaliating, “defending” themselves, taking “the low road”), while others are able to keep their cool and use constructive and more psychologically mature ways of responding. How people respond to this kind of challenging interaction depends, in part, upon context. Is the person exhausted from a hard day at work, caring all day for demanding children, or feeling sleep deprived, for example? Or are the conflict-involved participants in a relatively relaxed and self-confident state of mind?
Two other related and relevant issues are: 1. How long it takes those who have been upset by unpleasant and disturbing interchanges to “recover” from these episodes, and 2. How do they view what needs to happen to achieve “recovery” from these incidents. People have different styles in this regard. For example, some people are quick to anger, but also quick to want to put the troubling interchange into the past. They don’t see the value of “dredging up” or “overanalyzing” what just occurred between them. They would rather “move on” without talking or thinking much about it. They are focused on restoring the (seeming) peace between them, and pushing troubling thoughts and concerns out of their (conscious) minds.
However, their partner (parent, friend, etc.) may have a very different style when it comes to the more ideal, perceived manner of “processing” the upsetting event after it has happened. They have a distinct preference for understanding better what just happened between the two of them, and talking things out, with the hope that they can prevent such disturbances from happening again. Thus, their preferred styles of how to handle conflict situations may not match. This lack of “fit” between the two of them, in my view, calls for effective therapeutic intervention.
By Lawrence Kaufman, Florida Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) 561-302-0568
7301 W Palmetto Park Road, Suite 201A, Boca Raton FL 33433-3456
After several pleasant hours together with Pete at home, Karen says in a moderately toned voice: “I would appreciate it if you would put your dishes in the sink instead of waiting for me to do this for you.”
Pete immediately reacts to Karen by saying in an intensely angry (almost shouting) tone of voice: “There you go again — telling me all the time what to do! I’m fed up with your treating me this way. I want you to cut me some slack. I don’t appreciate your constant nitpicking and criticism. Get off my case. You sound just like my mother.”
In response to this unexpectedly intense and provocative outburst from Pete, Karen is surprised, taken aback, resentful, angry in return, and preparing to blast back. At this point, I could do much analysis (and so could you) commenting on in this deteriorating, fictitious interchange (scenario), but I will take another direction here, and make some other, broader, wide-ranging comments instead.
As a psychotherapist and couple counselor, I frequently see partners in couples overreact to one another. They are often reacting (without conscious awareness) not just to the immediately preceding triggering event, but to many different triggering events or cues that have been accumulating, between them, up to that point. The typical pattern is that partners have gotten into the habit (usually with good intentions) of allowing numerous grievances pass without saying or discussing anything about their inner negative feelings. They push these unpleasant and disturbing feelings out of their consciousness, mistakenly believing that these bad feelings will somehow just be forgotten or will go away on their own. However, this learned strategy for dealing with their feelings only works for a short period of time.
In the medium and long term, however, these short-term strategies to avoid direct and overt conflict break down and lead to further problems. Much of the negativity that has been pushed underground, at some point, resurfaces and bursts out with the intensity connected to the accumulation of unspoken about, and perhaps unthought about, anger (and other negative emotions). Given enough stored and accumulated negative energy, a tipping point occurs and the quietly angry person finally blows his or her lid. The volcano which has been simmering underground for quite some time, suddenly erupts. The good news is that with the appropriate skills training, this sequence of events – this particular cycle of unprocessed emotions – can be headed off, and eventually, virtually eliminated. With time, constructive and functional (adaptive, mentally healthy) behavior when practiced can replace nonconstructive, dysfunctional (maladaptive, poorly working) behavior.
Below are some suggestions and ideas for both the individual who struggles (chronically or occasionally) with anger management issues, and the individual who is challenged by how to deal with being the recipient (or target) of their partner’s angry outbursts (which can frequent or occasional). (Note that both individuals in a relationship can have anger management problems, at times, or at the same time. That is, both can alternate between these two roles — taking turns in these two seemingly opposite roles. There can be variations on a theme here, with, for example, one being more of the initiator of direct, rageful, outbursts, while the partner predominantly [or usually] only becomes emotionally dysregulated [that is, loses his or her emotional control or cool] in reaction to the other’s provocations.)
In all the variations possible, it is important that both parties (individuals involved in this interpersonal system of loss of control) take responsibility for their contributions to the breakdown of fair fighting, good judgment, and psychological maturity in their relationship together. This is particularly important when a couple has children who witness (by seeing or hearing, or both) – and thus are adversely affected by – the psychologically damaging role model they have been exposed to. Remember that children often learn more by what they observe and experience with parents than by what the parents tell them in words.
Further suggestions and ideas for understanding and dealing with anger management issues:
- Keep a written log of the “anger management” issues you encounter in your daily life. This log can include both the incidents where you yourself have angry outbursts, and when another (as your partner) loses emotional control (even briefly). Review this ongoing list with the goal of identifying the patterns you discover in what sets (triggers) you or the other off. In this way, in part, you can learn about your and the other’s unique (idiosyncratic) sensitivities and vulnerabilities (your trigger points, hot buttons, or psychological allergies).
- On an ongoing basis, try to connect the present with the past. Ask yourself if the person you are presently in conflict with reminds you in any way of a significant person from your past. As well, you can ask yourself if your reaction in the present (when you are emotionally dysregulated – emotionally triggered off) is similar in any way to how someone in your past reacted or treated you. Put another way, are you identifying with (acting like) a victimizer from your past, or internal world (as when you dream at night of someone trying to do something bad to you)?
- Keep in mind that anger is only one of many different kinds of emotions. Being human, you can experience a full range of a variety of emotions. By keeping a psychologically focused (daily) journal you can become more aware of the many different kinds of feelings, thoughts (including expectations and assumptions), and behaviors that affect your life on a moment-to-moment basis.
- Be aware that anger can be used defensively in ways in which you may not always be aware. For example, many people feel empowered (psychologically strong and powerful) when they are angry. This is more acceptable to them than feeling weak and vulnerable. So, sometimes anger functions as a secondary emotion, not a primary emotion. That is, sometimes people prefer (consciously or unconsciously) to feel angry instead of experiencing other more difficult, painful, or distressing emotions – such as sadness, grief, inadequacy, anxiety, depression, shame, fear, etc. In other words, sometimes anger helps a person to cover up or to distract themselves from feelings that are much more difficult for them to face, bear, or tolerate.
- Remind yourself to be curious about why, when, and how you find yourself becoming angry in reaction to both internal and external triggers (cues, stimuli). (An inner or internal trigger is something that sets you off without your needing to interact with another person. For example, you might become aware of having an angry reaction to someone you had interacted with in the past.)
- Keep in mind that you have a choice of whether or not you verbalize (express in words) feelings and thoughts that come into your awareness. You can catch yourself from automatically expressing yourself in angry ways. That is, you can “press the pause button” before you automatically express yourself in ways that can cause damage or harm to yourself or to another. This is a behavior you can learn to change with repeated practice. Learning such (an emotion regulation) skill can be compared to building up muscles in your body, through repeated exercises. Granted, this changed behavior can be particularly difficult to learn if your current behavior has been part of you for a very long time — if not a habit of a lifetime. But it can be done. Achieving this goal requires patience and hard work — but it’s well worth the effort in the long run.
- Remind yourself repeatedly that just because you have an urge to angrily lash out at someone, doesn’t mean you have to act on this urge. You can exercise (practice) self-restraint. Brain (neuro-) science teaches us that when emotions are very intense, the part of the brain that thinks may become disabled. By thinking before you speak (even for a few seconds) you can avoid some damaging consequences – such as the loss of a valued relationship or job.
- A word of warning: There are times when you may later regret what words and feelings come out of your mouth when you are angry, and you are not thinking of the consequences. Sometimes these words – which cannot be taken back — cause long-lasting or permanent damage that can never be repaired.
By Lawrence Kaufman, Florida Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) 561-302-0568
7301 W Palmetto Park Road, Suite 201A, Boca Raton FL 33433-3456
How troubled, unhappy, and dissatisfied are you with your partner? How long have you been disillusioned and disappointed with, and ambivalent about him/ her? Do you find that you frequently alternate between feeling you want to stay in this relationship, or leave it? Do you sometimes feel confused by feeling highly motivated, at times, to do whatever it takes to make the relationship “work” — but at other times feel like you want to give up and stop the endless, repetitive, and fruitless struggles with your partner? Have you become frustrated with yourself for feeling so ambivalent – critical of yourself for not being able to make a decision – one way or the other? Do you feel like you can neither live with him/her nor without him/her? I suspect that many other people have similar feelings, conflicts, and doubts as you. So, what can you do about this painful, confusing, and distressing circumstance (condition)?
Many people traditionally turn to friends, family members, spiritual advisors, etc., for help, perspective, and advice concerning this enormously challenging dilemma. Other people tend to try to handle their problems on their own. While they have various motives for this, many people talk about not wanting to burden others with their problems, not expecting that others will be of much help to them, not wanting to give people the opportunity to interfere in their lives, and/or feeling embarrassed, ashamed, or weak that they are unable to resolve their personal and interpersonal difficulties on their own. Still other people turn to a variety of mental health professionals, nonprofessionals, agencies, and support groups for assistance.
So many emotional, family, social, financial, practical, religious, cultural and other issues may be involved with your efforts to make one of the most important decisions of your life. Because of these complicated and diverse pressures and considerations you may feel pulled towards two different, and sometimes conflicting, extremes. On one hand, you might wish to relieve yourself of emotion draining, ongoing upset and turmoil, by “just accepting” your present relationship the way it is; you may try to convince yourself that your alternative(s) would be worse. However, on the other hand, you might significantly increase and re-intensify your efforts to get your partner to change, so as to better meet your needs.
It Takes Two to Make It Work
It has been my professional experience that, at least initially, one partner is more motivated to work out the problems in their relationship than is the other. Usually, at the beginning of couple therapy, both partners seem to be convinced that most of the problems in their relationship are the fault of the other. They often want me to “fix” their partner, and explain to me how their partner is to blame (or mostly to blame) for their ongoing problems. Thus, they start out having a much greater awareness of their partner’s, rather than their own, contributions to the difficulties in their relationship. They frequently don’t realize how much they, not just their partner, need to change if they are to achieve the relational goals they want and desire.
“Nothing Seems to Work”
New clients of mine often tell me variations of the following: “I (we) have tried everything to make things better in our relationship, but nothing seems to work!” Couple therapy sometimes is a last-ditch effort to try to save the marriage/ relationship. Sometimes people have previously tried to improve their troubled, or not good enough, primary relationship by seeing therapists – but their best efforts have been disappointing at best, or have outright failed. Indeed, some people have been trying very hard for years to change their relationships back into ones that are closer to their ideal (or like the relationships they had [or thought they had] when they first fell in love with one another — or first became committed to one another).
When It Is Too Late
I often wonder how come many couples have waited as long as they have to first seek out the services of a professional couple therapist. (Sometimes people follow this same “strategy” with regard to facing medical problems or conditions they have.) Sadly, sometimes they have waited too long. By the time I first have the opportunity to work with them, their relationship has deteriorated so much — and they have wounded one another so frequently and deeply — that even the best therapists cannot help them put their relationship back on track again. As the expression goes: “Too much water has gone under the bridge.”
They have become emotionally disengaged, distant, and bitter for quite some time. They have experienced despair and hopelessness for much too long. They can be living only as roommates — with sex and friendship only distant memories. They may have resorted to engaging in relationship destroying affairs, domestic violence, emotional abuse, and/ or alcohol and other drug abuse, etc., and have cut their emotional ties quite thoroughly — sometimes years ago — with one another. At times, they have grown to intensely dislike — or even hate and detest one another. We can consider them to be emotionally divorced.
Not infrequently, they end their relationships dysfunctionally and destructively. Again, this is very sad and regrettable — especially since this state of affairs might have been prevented with earlier intervention (that is, with the help of a third party — as a competent professional).
In some instances, there could have been a much more positive and constructive ending to their relationship. In my view, even if one’s current relationship can’t be “saved,” much can be learned from doing a “psychological autopsy” on this failed relationship. This can be very beneficial for some individuals who hope to “do it better the next time.” That is, we all make mistakes and make poor judgments in our lives — (after all, we do the best we can with the knowledge and experiences we have at the time).
Sometimes the best we can do in the current moment is to learn from our previous mistakes, failures, and poor decisions. We can benefit by mourning the losses of how we lived our lives, what we could have done differently, and all the time that has passed by without enough happiness and satisfaction in our lives. Most of all, perhaps, we may need to more completely face and mourn the loss of our hopes and dreams for a lifetime with our partner. Eventually, we can summon up our courage and confidence to open ourselves up to finding another opportunity to do it (a close, intimate relationship) better the next time. Or we can decide to live life alone (at least with regard to having a partner in life).
Finding New Hope
Constructive endings (of relationships) can also be seen as containing seeds of constructive new beginnings. We then get back up after being knocked down (as in a “prize-fight”) and then create and take advantage of new opportunities to find happiness and satisfaction in a new, healthier, and better functioning relationship. At least then, something good can come out of something bad. The past doesn’t necessarily have to endlessly repeat itself. We can find a way out of our previously scripted, repetitive patterns. We can, to some extent, creatively reinvent ourselves. We can learn to re-author our self-scripts (the blueprints of our lives) to create a better, happier, and more fulfilling narrative and life story for ourselves.
The Dilemma of Staying or Leaving: Further Considerations
Now let’s get back to the central issue of this article: Is it better to stay in your (painfully) imperfect relationship and try your best to make it work, or “make the best of it,” or is it better to face the painful “reality” that your relationship is emotionally and psychologically over and beyond saving, and it is best to live your life without him/ her? Obviously, there are many trade-offs involved (including financial, emotional, practical, social, family related, etc.) no matter what you decide in the end to do.
You probably have gone over in your mind these opposing considerations. Perhaps at times you are in touch with a desperate need to get yourself out of the limbo of feeling torn, conflicted, and worn out by all your inner doubts (and perhaps obsessions) about what should be the best course of action for you to take. What are you to do when the advantages of staying in the relationship are just as convincing as the advantages of leaving the relationship?
Additional Ideas That Might Help You Make Up Your Mind
I now suggest that you step back from your seemingly opposite choices — your irresolvable dilemma — and consider additional options that you might have before you make your final decisions. Below are some further ideas and strategies for you to think about, or re-consider:
* Start working with a therapist — individually or jointly (that is, with both you and your partner present), preferably both — who specializes working with relationship issues.
* Read self-help books on relationship issues. One book you may wish to start with is Couple Skills (Second Edition): Making Your Relationship Work (2006), by Matthew McKay, Patrick Fanning, and Kim Paleg.
* Plan regularly scheduled meetings (dates) with you partner so that you can focus specifically on relationship issues between the two of you. (See my article entitled “Guidelines for Talking with Your Partner About Significant Shared Relationship Issues” for some helpful perspectives and ideas on this issue.) You might, for example, decide to spend every Sunday morning, from 9 – 9:30, talking about unresolved relationship issues between the two of you. In these discussions it would important for you to focus much more on process than on content. That is, put a priority on how you talk to one another rather than on what you talk about. One bottom line is that as a result of these intentional and focused conversations you will gain some very important information about both yourself and your partner, and about your shared relationship.
* Keep a daily, personal journal on the most important feelings, thoughts, experiences, and reactions you have had related to your primary relationship. When doing this, place the most emphasis on your emotions and feelings. Focus particularly on identifying, labeling, and expressing these feelings. If you have a concern about privacy, you can destroy what you have written after you have written it. It’s up to you to decide how much you choose to initiate discussions with your partner on these personal issues and reflections.
* Read the other articles on this website. They could help clarify some of the issues you are struggling with.
* Monitor more closely what you say and don’t say, and do and don’t do, in relation to your partner. Think more carefully about what impact you may be having on your partner — (not just the impact s/he is having on you.) This is an important “exercise” (or self-discipline) with regard to increasing your self-awareness. Consider significantly increasing the ratio/ proportion of positive comments (such as compliments and expressions of appreciation) you make to you partner versus negative comments (such as non-constructive criticisms and complaints).
* Carefully weigh practical and lifestyle (including financial, social, extended family) considerations versus emotional and psychological considerations. Also, be sure to fully and fairly explore all areas of your life — including your sex life, your spiritual and religious life, and the impact on your child/ children (if you have any) of staying or leaving your relationship.
* Consider whether or not you might want to try a trial separation prior to making your split permanent. Actually living through the experience, on a day-to-day basis, of not physically being with your partner, may provide you with valuable intellectual (cognitive) and emotional insights into your situation. Whatever decision you may come to in the end will then be the result of giving yourself the best opportunity to have fewer regrets, self-doubts, and guilt feelings later on.
7301 W Palmetto Park Road, Suite 201A, Boca Raton FL 33433-3456
Based on the many years of experience I have had working professionally with couples, I have listed below some of the least helpful things to say (or not say) or do when discussing serious relational issues with your partner. These “dirty dozen,” dysfunctional (psychologically damaging, ineffective, or counterproductive) strategies or approaches, often serve as triggers to set the other off reactively or defensively. (Note: I am using the word “react” here to refer to an automatic “knee jerk” [unthinking] reaction, as opposed to “respond” – a thoughtful, moderate, not overly emotional or dysfunctional response.)
Following some of the points below, I have included explanations as to why I think these specific types of communications are best avoided, and I suggest some alternatives you may have to saying or using them.
Conversations with your partner are more likely to deteriorate and become derailed (thrown off course) when you:
- Say “That’s not true!”
This makes it sound like you, unlike your partner, know the real facts — the way things really are. Receivers of these words tend to feel put off in response. Just because you believe something to be true, doesn’t make it true. Perspectives (or subjective [personal, unique points of view]) reactions are not facts. What is true for one person may not be true for another. It is more constructive to think in terms of, and express, your own opinions, perspectives, and points of view.
- Ask questions (especially those starting with “why”) instead of making statements.
When people are asked questions, they not infrequently feel attacked or threatened, and then respond in a defensive way. Almost as a reflex, many people tend to feel put on the spot, or trapped, when asked questions. They may wonder what your (bad) motives or motivations are for asking the questions. Example: Instead of asking: “Why didn’t you tell me that sooner?”, you might consider saying something like: “I’m disappointed and puzzled by your not telling me that sooner.”
- Express yourself in exaggerated ways.
Examples: Saying “You never have anything nice to say to me.” “You always raise your voice when talking to me.” “You let me down all the time.” These kinds of statements can be felt by the recipient to be attacking, harshly critical, untrue, provocative, etc. To increase the likelihood that your listener will be receptive, open, and non-defensive to what you express, you might, for example, phrase your comments as follows: “I feel disappointed and put off that you didn’t stop at the grocery store as you had agreed.” “I feel criticized and hurt by the way you are talking to me.” By communicating in these more constructive ways, you are both asserting yourself and avoiding provoking an unnecessary and distracting counter-response (a tit-for-tat, I’ll get back at you, or retaliating response).
- Use sarcasm and express contempt.
(Note: I am defining “contempt” here as the attitude of having no respect, concern, or valuing of someone. “Sarcasm” here is defined as the use of stinging, cutting, or hurtful remarks, made with the intention of wounding another’s sensitive feelings.) These kinds of messages need to be eliminated from your communication repertoire. These are put-downs and expressions of disrespect. They are attacks on the partner’s self-esteem and self-worth. They can wound the other deeply and cause lasting damage in your relationship. Examples: “That’s the most ridiculous thing I ever heard!” “Thanks a lot!” (said when the speaker is actually feeling quite critical of you).
- Don’t respond to what your partner is saying or asking.
Sometimes listeners change the subject, stonewall (frustratingly refuse to comply or cooperate), shift the focus from themselves back on to the other, evade directly answering the other’s question, or pass over what the other has just said, as if they never heard it in the first place. Another habit or “strategy” some listeners have is to suddenly tell the other they have something very important to take care of at that moment (and perhaps adding that they will talk about it later — but have no intention of ever doing so). Even more dramatic, some partners angrily say something like “This conversation is over!”, or they “just” walk out of the room. And subsequently, don’t apologize for their behavior.
- Interrupt your partner in the middle of his/her sentence or thought.
This is also known as “talking over” what the other is saying, or talking at the same time as the other person. When people do this, they tend to talk louder and faster — as if to overpower the other. They strongly want to be heard and are forceful about it — sometimes being aggressive. This is sometimes done consciously, but is often done out of conscious awareness.
Put another way, when the interrupting person does this he or she is functioning on “auto-pilot.” This (as with many other forms of communication) has probably been learned in early childhood, in the family one grew up in (one’s “family of origin,” as it is technically called). Communication styles are passed down from one generation to the next, usually without conscious awareness or reflection about this process. This is a dysfunctional (or not constructive) form of communication.
Communicating in this manner can lead to confusion, resentment, frustration, and power struggles. In general, timing is a key consideration in deciding when to say something, or not, in a conversation. It is empathic (sensitive, tuned in) to be able to hear the other out, “wait your turn,” and respect the psychological space of the other. These are important skills that can be learned with patience and practice.
- Use commands or orders (telling people what to do) when talking to your partner.
This is a style of communicating that people often use with young children and pets — especially with dogs. Examples of this style of communication include the following: “Tell me what you are really feeling!” “Make sure you are on time!” “Don’t raise your voice!” “Listen to what I am saying!” “Make sure you take out the garbage!” The recipients of such commands or orders often feel resentful, controlled, put down, put in their place, etc. They may comply with your “order” initially, but later may “passive-aggressively” get back at, or retaliate against you at a later time.
- Express your negative feelings indirectly instead of directly.
That is, instead of expressing your feelings directly in words, you express them indirectly — as in your tone of voice, facial expressions, hand gestures, etc. (Note: Researchers have found that 90% of all communication is non-verbal – not directly communicated in words.) For example, instead of saying “I feel annoyed and frustrated with you,” you might instead say with an irritated and louder tone in your voice, “You didn’t answer my question!” This kind of statement often stimulates and initiates a negative interaction cycle (where one negative and critical comment stimulates a similar response from the other).
- Monologue, dominate, and “broadcast,” — speaking considerably more than 50% of the time.
These are ways in which to sabotage the possibility of having an effective and productive interchange. People resent engaging in one-way conversations, or being lectured or dominated in discussions. You will generally achieve better results if you keep your turns of talking short and to the point, and if you don’t talk any more than your partner does. I suggest you keep the “equal time rule” in mind whenever engaging in a serious conversation with your partner.
- Express yourself in judgmental, non-constructively critical ways.
It is destructive to blame, shame, attack, accuse, belittle, ridicule, and put down your partner. As well, it is harmful to speak in condescending, contemptuous, and patronizing ways. Also, don’t ever call one another names, such as “bitch” or “bastard.” Avoid saying such provocative things as: “You shouldn’t do that.” “That wasn’t a nice thing to say.” “You sound just as controlling as your mother (father, boss, son, daughter, etc.)” “You look like a slut in that dress.” “All you care about is money!”
- Think and express yourself in “either/or,” “black or white”, or “this or that” ways.
(Technically, this is called dichotomous or polarized thinking.) For instance, some couples hit a wall and get stuck in their conversations when they can’t get beyond feeling convinced that one of them is right, and the other is wrong. They are unable to imagine, or conceive of the possibility that there could be a third (or fourth, etc.) perspective, point of view, or way of seeing a problem between them. They are excessively certain about their view of things. For them, compromise, flexibility, or creative problem solving is just not an option or possibility. So, they may be doomed to repeat endlessly the same arguments — stuck in a “go nowhere” power struggle –never finding a resolution to their perpetual and seemingly unsolvable conflicts.. Both partners suffer as a result – and suffer repeatedly.
- Are overly pessimistic, overly optimistic, or alternate between these two extremes.
Here it is important to remind yourself to be realistic in your expectations of both the other and yourself. Change in significant relationships usually occurs slowly and gradually (although at times it occurs in dramatic leaps forward). Avoid the common myths that tell you such things as: “You can’t change anyone, just yourself.” and “Love can conquer all problems in a romantic relationship.” In my way of thinking, if it weren’t possible to influence anyone (for the better) then all counseling and psychotherapy would be ineffective and a waste of time, energy, and money (which I clearly disagree with). On the other hand, if you have excessive and unrealistic expectations of changing or transforming your partner, or yourself, you are going to be setting yourself up for a big disappointment and let down. It is much better and healthier to have realistic expectations.
7301 W Palmetto Park Road, Suite 201A, Boca Raton FL 33433-3456
Imagine listening in on a small part of an argument Sharon and Jake are having with one another:
Sharon: “How many times do I have to tell you to clean up your dishes after you eat. You are so irresponsible. Why don’t you grow up! I’m not your mother.”
Jake: “Don’t be such a nag! You’re always getting on my case for one reason or another. Why do you have to be so critical? You don’t think about all the things I do do for you.”
I could go on extensively with this dysfunctional (ineffective, nonconstructive) somewhat typical “dialogue,” but we already have plenty of material (information) to analyze, think about, and learn from. First, notice that neither one of them is actually saying what they are feeling. (This might not be immediately apparent.) Their negative feelings are implied, but not stated directly.
We can assume that they are probably communicating their negative feelings towards one another mainly through their tones of voice, facial expressions, bodily movements, etc. That is, their negative (aversive) feelings towards one another are communicated nonverbally and paralinguistically (especially, through the verbal accompaniments of their voices — also called prosody). They probably are not considering the possibility that some of what they are currently feeling and perceiving is colored (influenced, distorted), transferred, and replicated (duplicated, repeated) from significant relationships in their pasts.
In their interchange they never say things like: “I feel angry (frustrated, resentful, fed up, furious, etc.”) They probably can’t easily identify, label, and express their feelings while they are having them. We could say that they are not as yet emotionally literate. They do not as yet have some of the skills necessary to effectively and constructively communicate with one another. They probably get stuck in the same dysfunctional (nonconstructive, unhealthy) arguments over and over again.
Instead of talking in such a way where problems might be talked out constructively, and resolutions found, they blame, shame, mock, put down, belittle, scold, and non-constructively criticize one another. Clearly, they need a lot of help. But how much help will they actually get from the couple therapist they see?
A great majority of couple therapists focus on clients’ thinking, reasoning, and behavior. Not infrequently, their clients’ feelings (emotions) are downplayed, passed over, or not even perceived. So what happens, again not infrequently, is that the partners go for couples therapy for a while, don’t feel they are making much progress, and then stop going to sessions.
In addition, they often leave therapy without talking out their dissatisfactions with their therapist. They do not give their therapist the opportunity, time, and necessary feedback in which to make modifications to their therapy so as to be able to help them get more out of it. So, they are just as dysfunctional in communicating with their therapist as they are with one another.
Further, a great majority of couple therapists do not deal (or deal much) on an unconscious level. As a result, even if feelings are focused on, the clients do not get to the deeper root causes of the feelings they are currently having problems and difficulties with. And here I am referring not to just conscious memories clients have of the past — whether in their current relationship or in their childhoods. In my view, these conscious memories are just the tip of the iceberg.
Most feelings (and thoughts, attitudes, beliefs, expectations, perceptions, bodily experiences, etc.) occur on a non-conscious or unconscious level. If one focuses just on the conscious surface of each individual’s mind, or the couple’s dialogue, one will miss out on most of what is occurring within each individual’s mind and between the partners in the couple. Put another way, in terms of information processing, by restricting one’s attention and focus only to what is going on consciously, one will not be able to access or make use of all the potential, valuable information about the couple’s problems that is hidden, buried, or unformed deep down within them. Research from brain science (neuroscience) confirms the view of the primary importance of focusing on feelings and non-conscious events in the mind.
It is my perspective that solid progress is much more likely to occur in couple therapy when feelings and emotions are put in the forefront (not in the background) of the therapeutic work. I believe that couple therapists who emphasize feelings over cognitions (thoughts, beliefs, perceptions, etc.) and behaviors (actions) will be in a much better position to be able to help their suffering, distressed, and frustrated clients. Dysfunctional, interactional patterns (the repetitive, often escalating [closer to being out of control]) discussions that take place between partners, need to be disrupted. Partners need to be given effective and more psychologically mature alternatives to their failed attempts to make things better between them. Real hope is possible to significantly improve relationships when quality, emotionally focused, depth therapy is provided.
There are many different models (approaches, theories) therapists use in their practices of doing couple therapy. One way of thinking about, organizing, and comparing these models is to place them into broad categories. Theoretical models/ approaches include the following: Behavioral, Humanistic, Existential, Psychodynamic/ Psychoanalytic, Transgenerational, Social Constructionist, Systemic, and Integrative. There are different ways of placing the large variety of these approaches into different categories.
Clients usually do not know (nor are they particularly interested in knowing about) the technicalities involved here. They are more interested (which is quite understandable) in what works for them — what helps them solve problems between them, and what helps them communicate and feel better about one another, and themselves. They are also interested in what they think about, and how comfortable and compatible they feel with, their therapist.
In conclusion, I am presenting the point of view that focusing on feelings and emotions in couple therapy is of central importance. Helping partners to think and communicate more rationally and logically is very important, but helping partners to manage, moderate, and regulate their emotions is of primary importance. When most people get drawn into, and swept up in a highly charged emotional battle with one another, their capacities to make use of their thinking skills (mediated or overseen predominantly in the left brain [hemisphere]) become impaired. We need to give a priority to helping couples master their emotions so that they won’t be taken over and hijacked by them. In neuroscience (brain science) terms, we need to be more focused on the functioning of the right brain (or hemisphere) (which predominantly mediates or processes emotions) than the left. Focusing of feelings (or affect) is a key to deriving (getting, finding, discovering) meaning and significance to what is being communicated between people in a committed relationship.
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So, you have decided to give couple therapy/ counseling a chance (perhaps, once again)? Or perhaps you have already started? I commend you for your courage, openness, and hopefulness to take advantage of this valuable therapeutic service. Hopefully, both of you will give it, your partner, yourself, and your therapist, a fair try.
Couple therapy (as any psychological therapy or counseling) takes time to demonstrate and give clear evidence of its full effectiveness. Somewhat like taking antibiotics, you need to take your doses of therapy regularly, for a long enough period of time, in order to get the fullest benefit.
Below, I have listed a number of additional points for you to keep in mind to help you get the maximum benefit from your participation in couple therapy:
What You Can Do Prior to Meeting with a Therapist
If you haven’t already started couple therapy, make sure to select a therapist/counselor who specializes in this form of therapy. Similar to selecting an appropriate type of physician to see, you need to make sure that your therapist of choice is specially trained and experienced working with couples. For example, if you were having a problem with your heart you would see a cardiologist, not a dermatologist. Many therapists either do not work with couples or infrequently work with them. Couple therapy is not a particular specialty for them.
Before contacting a therapist, check out his/ her website. Some therapists have a separate page on couple therapy on their website. This can be filled with important and revealing information on how the therapist thinks and works with couples. Also, this will give you an opportunity to see what does and does not appeal to you. Different therapists have varied theoretical orientations (different ways of understanding and conceptualizing [or thinking about] clients’ problems and difficulties) and different methods or approaches to working with clients.
If you haven’t already selected a therapist, you may wish to consider having a consultation with more than one professional. This way, you will have the opportunity to compare and contrast their styles and levels of competence, and your sense of “fit” with them. You can start forming some initial impressions as to how much you think they might be able to be of help to you.
If you decide not to see more than one therapist before you make a decision (let’s say because of the cost, time, and energy involved), you (and/ or your partner) can briefly speak with several therapists, over the phone, without cost, before you make an appointment with one of them.
How Long Does Couple Therapy Take?
This is an important question. Many therapists/ counselors — even those who specialize working with couples — say they work “briefly”. (For example, from the beginning of your work together, they will inform you that you will be meeting a set or limited number of times — perhaps 10 -12 sessions.) This is appealing and sounds tempting to many prospective (potential) clients. But beware! Some people are looking for “a quick fix” or seriously underestimate just how long it might take to effectively produce significant and lasting results in couple therapy.
I, myself, work in an open-ended way. I cannot predict beforehand “how long it [the process of therapy] will take.” Every couple has their own story to tell, their own history, their own set of problems that are a challenge to them, their own goals, and differing psychological resources they bring into the therapy setting.
I view every couple as being unique. I realize that what works for one couple may not work for another. Couple therapy needs to be tailor-made (individualized, customized) in order to be most effective. This is opposite to what has been called a “cookie cutter” approach where clients are expected to fit into a preexisting mold — as a particular, favored theoretical approach or method of a therapist. Put another way, I use my extensive theoretical knowledge and experience to fit the specific and unique needs of a couple client as opposed to fitting a couple client into a narrow, preconceived approach. (Note: I use the term “couple client” because I see myself as “treating” a relationship — not just two, separate individuals.)
Most couples I have worked with have longstanding and complex problems — together and individually. Clients and therapists need to be realistic as to how much time it usually takes to get to the roots of the couple’s problems, and to supplement the couple’s old patterns, stories, “tapes,” and “programming,” with new patterns, stories, “tapes,” and “programming.” In this way — gradually, and step-by-step — old unhealthy, dysfunctional, ineffective, and unproductive ways of relating to one another are replaced by healthy, functional, effective, and productive alternative ways of relating.
Meet with the Couple Therapist Together or Alone?
Once you meet with a therapist in person, you can decide together (and this is indeed a joint decision) how much you and your partner want to meet in conjoint sessions (ones in which both of you are present) individual sessions, or a combination of the two. There are advantages and disadvantages of meeting in each modality. (Note: A “modality” is a format or form of therapy — as with individual, couple [conjoint], family, or group sessions.) If individual sessions are included in your therapy/ counseling, make sure ahead of time how the therapist you work with will handle confidentiality. Therapists have different policies in this regard. Some will share what you say in individual sessions with your partner, while some will not.
What Happens Between Sessions?
Therapists work in different ways with regard to what happens between sessions. For example, some couple therapists often give their clients “homework” assignments, while others do not. Some therapists and clients believe that homework speeds up their therapy process while others consider this a burden — especially in a very busy life. This issue can be negotiated with your therapist. Consider what will/ might work best for you. In general, the more time and effort you commit to putting into practice what you have learned in sessions, the more successful the therapy is likely to be for you. How structured or unstructured, or time-consuming this work at home will be, will be up to you.
If you feel motivated and committed to speeding up the therapeutic process, you can plan and participate in regularly scheduled relationship centered discussions in-between the sessions with your therapist. For help with this effort, see my article (which can be found on this website) entitled “Guidelines for Talking with Your Partner About Significant Shared Relationship Issues.”
Giving Feedback to the Therapist and the Therapist Adjusting to This
As the therapy sessions go on, make sure you give a great deal of feedback to your therapist as to what is working well, and what is not, for the two of you. Your therapist very much needs this feedback in order to best help and respond to you. Each couple’s needs and preferences are unique. All therapy that is effective must be adjusted and tailored to these unique needs and preferences. One size (with regard to therapy approaches) does not fit all! An effective and competent therapist needs to be flexible in his/ her approaches with you, and needs to know many different possible ways of working with you. Put metaphorically, a highly skilled therapist has more tools in his/her toolbox with which to work.
Assessment of problems and devising possible solutions are ongoing processes. As clients, you are assessing your therapist as much as he or she is assessing you. This is indeed a “two-way street” — an ever-growing, changing, and evolving, working partnership. Continuous communication between therapist and clients needs to be direct, honest, comprehensive, and clear.
How to Best End Work with Your Therapist
How you end work with you therapist is crucial. It is extremely important that you inform your therapist at the beginning of a session, that you plan to discontinue your sessions with him/ her. Just as it is so important to thoroughly talk things out with your partner before you decide to “break up,” separate, or divorce, it is so therapeutically important for you to talk openly and without censorship about the reasons why you want to “terminate” sessions. This kind of upfront and direct communication is a challenge for most people.
There is a great deal to be learned by “putting everything on the table” before ending the relationship. One of the least effective things you can do (but quite tempting for some people) is to “take the easy way out” by avoiding any direct “confrontation” with the therapist. It is my strong opinion that it is not in your medium or long-term best interest to quit therapy by leaving a message on the therapist’s voice mail canceling the next scheduled appointment — with no intention of ever talking to the therapist again.
So very much can be learned about your relationship with your partner, and about yourself, by having a final session with your therapist. To not have such a session is a significant, lost opportunity. I strongly believe that assertively talking out your points of view directly with a therapist is far more beneficial to “enacting” (or “acting out” as it was termed in the past). In an enactment, one expresses oneself through one’s actions or behaviors as opposed to communicating directly by using words.
An example of an enactment would be the following: Instead of Carl telling Angie in person that he no longer wanted to remain in a relationship with her, explaining why, and then listening to her response to what he had just told her, he left a note on the kitchen table informing her that he no longer wanted to talk to her — and that he didn’t want her to contact him. How do you think you would feel if you were in Angie’s position/ role? Have you ever experienced this type of enactment in the ending of a relationship with someone your cared about? How wounded or traumatized were you (or still are) by this method or approach to ending a relationship? Why do you suppose that people end relationships in this way? If you have been the one who enacted (instead of talking) in the past, how do you now feel about handling the situation in this way?
As difficult as it might be for you, I would suggest that you give much thought to how you go about stopping your work with your therapist. (In expressing these thoughts, I hope I have not offended you or put you off. This was not my intention. In perspective, I realize that it is sometimes in a client’s best interest to find another therapist — or partner.) I’m making an important distinction here between what you decide and how you go about carrying out this decision. One broader issue to consider is how psychologically mature you and your partner are going to be in saying or doing anything in your relationship.
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Martha and Joe have been living together for three years. When they were “courting,” their relationship seemed to be what they were both looking and hoping for. They both felt wonderfully alive, happy, and valued by the other. Their romantic feelings were strong and their sex life was exciting. And they never felt so deeply understood and loved by a partner before. Then, as so often happens with many other couples, their feelings towards one another slowly began to change.
Disillusionments with Your Relationship
As is usually the case with romantic couples, reality began to set in, and their positive fantasies and illusions about one another diminished. They started seeing more and more flaws and imperfections in their partner, and they had difficulty understanding and tolerating this. They were experiencing a growing gap between their view of an “ideal” partner, and the one they were actually with.
They tried and tried to talk things out with one another, but were unable to resolve their problems together. As time went on, they stopped trying so hard to improve their relationship. They became more and more disillusioned, discouraged, and frustrated with what was evolving in their relationship. Bit by bit – slowly and steadily – they drifted apart — emotionally and physically. They found that avoiding one another, and not openly discussing their deteriorating feelings and connections with one another kept their unhappiness and dissatisfactions out of their awareness. They avoided overt (direct) conflict as much as they could. They put a priority on “peace at any price.” They developed a strategy (which ultimately caught up with them) of “letting things slide” in order to keep a surface impression of an OK or normal relationship.
Both of them felt so disappointed in one another and began to feel despairing about ever being happy with one another again. Their hopes and dreams of continuing romantic bliss were eroding, disintegrating, and shattering. They started to wonder if they would be better off ending their relationship. They started thinking of having an affair in order to get some spark, life, and hope back into their lives.
What went wrong with such a seemingly promising relationship? And what could be done now to try to improve or “save” this relationship? They also asked themselves if it was too late to “save” their marriage? Was there “too much water under the bridge”?
Considering Couple Therapy
Martha and Joe — as most partners in a seemingly committed relationship — never gave serious thought to getting professional help for their crumbling and deteriorating relationship. Martha – a very private person — made some efforts to discuss her relational problems with a few of her friends and relatives, but felt embarrassed to reveal much about what was going on in her marriage, or in her mind. Joe was the kind of guy who pretty much needed to handle personal issues on his own. (To do otherwise would have caused him to feel weak, inadequate, and unmanly.) This is what he had done his entire life — from childhood on. Neither one of them knew of another couple who had seen a couple counselor (or a couple who admitted to this). When they were young, their own parents had had constant arguments and fights with one another. They seemed constantly miserable. So, Martha and Joe didn’t have a role model of a couple who could teach them how to succeed in a marriage.
The Natural and Healthy Need for Couple Therapy
My view is that partners in strained and stressed relationships owe it to themselves (and to their children, if they have any) to get professional help for their ongoing struggles and frustrations. I believe that peoples’ mental health needs (including their needs in relationships) are just as important as their physical health needs. Besides, the mind and body work together as a whole. What affects the body affects the mind, and what affects the mind affects the body. In this sense, it is so important to take care of all of your important needs. Just as it is wise and responsible to regularly see physicians and dentists, and to exercise regularly, in order to care for your body, it is a necessary part of responsible self-care to see mental health professionals. Just as you would see a gastroenterologist, for example, if you had a problem with your stomach or intestines, you would see a couple therapist as a resource to help you with your primary (most important) relationship in your life.
Nowadays, many people openly see counselors and therapists. I consider this to be a necessary form of psychological and emotional “education for living”. People who work with, or have worked with, mental health professionals, tend, on average, to be psychologically healthier than people who haven’t had this experience. No longer do people need to be or feel stigmatized as disturbed, crazy, or weak if they see a therapist. But, old attitudes and beliefs, in part, still persist in some people, and in society at large. This old “programming,” or “tapes” in one’s mind (often passed down through the generations), can still be an active force or barrier in preventing some people from reaching out for the help that they so much need and could benefit from.
I believe that you can’t effectively fix your relationship problems on your own, any more than you could reset a broken bone in your body, or treat a toothache, without professional help. You need an experienced, empathic, and skilled professional to help you get back on your pathways towards your goals. Reading self-help books and talking to friends and family members are fine — and sometimes invaluable — but they are no substitute for expert, in-person assistance.
Counselors/ therapists specializing in work with couples can present you with many options, alternatives, and approaches to consider that you could never think of on your own. Knowing how to work out problems, difficulties, and challenges in intimate relationships just doesn’t come naturally. We are not born with this knowledge, and few of us have been so fortunate as to have learned these vital skills in the families and environments in which we grew up. By analogy, knowledge in our society has grown so complex that there is a limit to how well we can fix our own computers when something goes wrong. We need the help of a well-trained, competent, and trustworthy computer technician to set things right. Likewise, one needs the assistance of a couple therapist to help make things better. (And if this doesn’t work out well enough, the therapist can help both of you to more constructively “break up” or get divorced.)
When Couple Therapy Doesn’t Succeed
Beyond couples like Martha and Joe mentioned above, there are couples who have tried couple therapy but this “hasn’t worked out” for them. (They have not felt sufficiently helped.) At times, this may be a result of unrealistic expectations – whether of the therapist, or of your partner. For example, not infrequently, people “locate” their problems in their partner – seeing their spouse or partner as being the source of almost all the problems they have in their relationship. They sometimes say: “If only he/ she would change in these ways then the problems in our relationship would be resolved.” Many people have difficulty owning their share of responsibility for the ongoing problems in their relationship.
Seeing a counselor/ therapist only once or twice, for example, usually is not a long enough time in which to make a good judgment call on the professional, and doesn’t give the therapist enough time to gather the information necessary in order to be able to be of significant help to you. It is not realistic to expect immediate, quick, and painless “solutions” to your problems together.
Assuming you view the therapist as basically competent, it usually takes a couple of months before you can properly assess how much the sessions are helping to meet your needs. You are then in a better position to do an informed cost/ benefit analysis with regard to the therapy. You can weigh the pros, benefits, and advantages, versus the cons, downsides, and disadvantages. You can also consider the possibility of having individual sessions to talk through issues, conflicts, and needs that are not being sufficiently or adequately addressed in the couple sessions. Each partner’s needs as an individual, and as part of a “we,” need to be kept in a healthy balance.
At times, a couple has a bad or unsatisfactory experience (for one reason or another) with a counselor/ therapist, and then just gives up on the possibility of trying again to get the help they need (and deserve). As in dating, where you infrequently meet the love of your life on the first try, it may take meeting with more than one counselor/ therapist before you find the fit, match, or help you are looking for. It is so important not to give up when you at first (or repeatedly) don’t succeed. I suggest you hang in there, and try to make better choices, until you find a professional with whom you can feel comfortable, safe, trusting, and confident. The investment (financially, emotionally, time-wise) you make can pay great dividends (whether or not in the end you successfully work out your issues with your current partner)
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Relationships usually don’t get better just by spending more time together. It’s what you do with your time – the quality and depth of your relating – that really counts. It is my belief that in the midst of a very busy life, it is often necessary to deliberately plan to spend quality time together – even if this might at first sound unnatural, inauthentic, or even “unromantic” to you.
Schedule a regular time to talk together about your relationship issues!
Spontaneous interactions are fine, but planned times to talk are essential as well. For example, you can agree to have a serious conversation together every Friday evening from 8 – 8:30. To prepare for this talk, you may want to write yourself notes during the week as an aid in remembering what you would most like to focus on. This can be a time to focus on “unfinished business” (insufficiently talked out issues in need of clarification, understanding, and resolution.)
Some guidelines you may want to follow when having serious talks with your partner about your mutual, primary relationship:
Follow the “equal time rule.” Each partner talks for half the time. Communication often deteriorates when one person talks significantly more than the other, on an ongoing basis.
Try to limit the time you spend talking at each “turn.”. A few sentences at a time often works best. Granted, this is hard for most people to do. It takes time and effort to learn how to say less during your turn of talking. Talking for a shorter period of time helps your partner listen to, take in (digest and metabolize), and remember better what you have said. Making more than one point at a time can complicate communication.
Use “I” statements instead of “You” statements. That is, start your statements to the other using the word “I.” In this way, you are taking personal ownership for what you are saying. Starting statements with “you” not infrequently is experienced by the other as blaming and/ or attacking. He/she may then react and/or respond defensively. For example, consider the different effects and impacts the following two statements might have on the person who is listening to you: “You are frustrating me.” vs. (versus, compared to) “I am getting frustrated with you.”
Give a priority to identifying and expressing your feelings in words. Most people find it much easier to identify and say their thoughts rather than their feelings. Thoughts, opinions, and ideas are very important too, but focusing on feelings will usually give you better results. A major goal of a deeper and more effective kind of communication (and therapy) is to be able to quickly distinguish between thoughts and feelings.
Be careful not to express thoughts disguised as feelings. (An example of this is starting a sentence by saying: “I feel you are…”) Often people indirectly rather than directly express their feelings (as through the tone of their voice, or facial expressions). (Indeed, studies show that about 90% of all communication is transmitted in this way!) This can lead to a lot of problems, complications, and misunderstandings in interactions between partners. Putting words to your internal states can be very beneficial.
If the conversation is not going well, temporarily put the content of what you are talking about on hold. Focus on the process (how you are talking to one another) rather than on the content (what you are talking about). This is a time to step back, observe, and reflect upon what has just been going on between the two of you. Work together, in a cooperative partnership to try to determine what “pressed your buttons” (That is, what triggered off your negative feelings towards one another) and jointly see if you can figure out better, more effective, and satisfying ways of talking with another. If one or both of you are experiencing overly intense emotions as a result of your discussion, consider taking a time out. (For example, you can agree to take a break for a half hour, and then resume your discussion after this time to cool down and sort out your thoughts.)
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There are many reasons why people put off — sometimes for long periods of time — seeing a professional couples counselor/ therapist. Some of these reasons are more practical in nature, while others are more psychologically based. Within the psychological area, there is a range of considerations — from the most consciously perceived, to those most deeply unconscious (out of awareness; not capable of being thought about consciously). Most of the time, practical considerations are intermixed (mixed together, blended, intermingled) with the psychologically based contributing factors.
Over my years of being a couple therapist, I have been intrigued by the issue of why so many couples don’t seek out professional help sooner for their relationship problems. Even sensitively raising this issue to some people immediately raises their defenses (or protective reactions). They may experience me (or another therapist) as blaming them, being non-constructively critical, or accusing them of being negligent, psychologically deficient, or in some other way, as not being “good enough.”
A rather large percentage of partners in a committed relationship experience significant difficulties, tensions, and conflicts in these partnerships. Some of these problems have a more external focus (as a death of someone close, or conflicts over parenting) while other problems have a more internal focus (as with one of the partners having a drinking or anger management problem).
Consider the possible reasons outlined below as to why couples may have a reluctance to reaching out to a professional couple counselor/ therapist. See what resonates with, or applies to, your unique circumstances, and/or with other couples you know:
*** Financial considerations sometimes play a major part. They are already struggling to make ends meet. They don’t believe they could afford the “luxury” of seeing a (an expensive) therapist. Further, they may not see employing the services of a mental health professional as a very worthwhile investment –one that could provide sufficient rewards. To them, the disadvantages outweigh the advantages. They don’t consider paying for counseling or therapy as being a priority compared to other financial obligations they have.
*** They already feel overloaded, burdened, and over-committed with regard to their time schedule. They may feel too exhausted or drained to add another significant time and emotional commitment to their lives.
*** They don’t see view counseling/ therapy as offering sufficient value to them. They may not have high regard for psychotherapeutic services. (For example, they may know another couple who had a disappointing or failed experience with counseling.) Or, they don’t know anyone who has taken advantage of this service — so they don’t even consider this as a worthwhile option.
*** They were brought up to believe that you solve your problems on your own — without the help of a third party — especially one you have to pay a fee to. They view their difficulties together as being (eventually) solvable by using common sense, their substantial intelligence, knowledge, and problem-solving skills, and the resources they have in family members and friends. They may have read a lot of self-help books, and attended workshops, seminars, and marriage encounter or enrichment retreats in an attempt to improve and resolve their relational difficulties. In doing a cost/ benefit analysis on their situation, they are not convinced that engaging the services of a professional couple therapist would be of sufficient advantage to them.
*** Related to the above, a gender issue seems to be at play with regard to one’s inclination or disinclination to be in therapy. Even though we are now in the 21st century, women are still more likely overall to see professional counseling/ psychotherapy as a beneficial resource to help them with their relationship problems. As a generalization, women are more likely than men to be open and motivated to talk about their personal and relational problems and communicate about their emotions. Men, in general, are less enthusiastic about what was historically called “the talking cure,” but now could better be referred to as “the relationship cure.” Men are more likely to want to problem solve and relate on an action oriented and/or cognitive (intellectual), rational, and logical basis – rather than focus on their feelings (which they associate with feminine concerns).
On the flip side, some men — as well as some women too — might be more open to entering couple therapy than individual therapy. The reason for this is that, at least initially, the more reluctant partner (that is, the partner less enthusiastic about seeing a therapist) can enter couple therapy with the belief that their partner is the one who (predominantly) has the problems in the relationship and needs to change — not him (or her). Thus, entering couple therapy, — versus (in contrast to) individual therapy — might, for some, be experienced as a way to “save face.”
*** They previously have seen a clergyperson, coach, or another human services professional not specifically trained or experienced in conducting couple therapy. They may not (adequately, sufficiently) distinguish between professionally trained persons in the helping professions from ones who are not. As a result, if they had not previously been successful in finding the help they were seeking and needing, they may falsely conclude that this sort of help is unavailable.
*** They may be afraid of, or not be ready to face the unpleasant (or even devastating) “emotional reality” that their relationship can’t or won’t work out. For example, they may believe, or be convinced that that their or their partner’s problems (as with an alcohol or other drug problem, sex addiction, compulsive gambling, eating disorder, personality disorder, PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder], longstanding pattern of lying or dishonesty, chronic suicidality, etc.) are unresolvable.
*** They may have heard about someone else, or others, who saw a professional couple therapist but didn’t have a particularly good, positive, or successful experience or outcome.
*** They may not believe that a couple therapist could help them. They may have previously had a bad (not successful or helpful) experience with a couple therapist. They may not realize that therapists have a wide diversity in their training, experience, theoretical orientations (that is, the predominant theoretical approaches they use as a framework in which to help couples), and professional competence. In addition, different therapists can have very different personalities. The partners may not realize enough about the importance of finding a fit or match with the personality or style of the therapist they choose to work with.
*** They have negative expectations of what the therapist might say and recommend to them. They may anticipate judgment, criticism, blaming, shaming, ridiculing, and/ or scolding, etc. — as perhaps one of their parents had treated them previously. (This is called a “transference” reaction. They expect and anticipate that the therapist will relate to them as a significant person in their past related to them. That is, their past experiences color or affect their expectations in the present, and in the future.) They defensively fear that the therapist will try to control them, tell them what to do, prescribe homework to them they didn’t want to do or have time to do, side with their partner against them, like their partner better than them, or disappoint them by not being particularly helpful. Most importantly, perhaps, they may fear that the therapist will recommend that they split up (separate, divorce, break up) – or stay together. This can be very anxiety provoking, disturbing, and unsettling to them.
*** They believe that being in individual therapy is sufficient to help them with their relationship problems, difficulties, and challenges. They are not aware that people who are only in individual therapy are more likely to decide to end their romantic relationship than those who have their partner participate in couple therapy. It is generally easier to convince an individual therapist than a couple therapist that your partner is largely or predominantly at fault for the (large majority of the) problems in your relationship. I suspect that many primary relationships dissolve or end prematurely and unnecessarily because one or both partners find it easier or less painful (at least in the short run) to blame or reject their partner than to accept their fuller responsibilities in contributing to and sustaining the problems in their relationship.
*** Sometimes one of the partners finds a particular topic, problem, or area of concern so anxiety, embarrassment, or shame provoking, and difficult to talk about — if not think about — that he or she wants to avoid it as much as possible. This is a relationship concern that would be very difficult for the partner to even discuss in confidence with an individual therapist. To bring this issue up with one’s “intimate” partner present, in front of a couple therapist, might feel (almost) unbearable and intolerable.
The area of sexuality stands out in this context. Let’s say that one of the partners expects to be embarrassed, humiliated, devastated, judged, or rejected by talking openly about his or her homosexual or heterosexual activities, actions, or fantasies. Disclosure of one of these secrets might lead to the end, or feared end, of the relationship. Think of how difficult it might be for a partner to disclose about and discuss about the following: an affair, an “addiction” to Internet pornography or visiting prostitutes, strip clubs, or bath houses; having a paraphilia (a preference for, or addiction to, unusual sexual practices), or sexual fantasies the partner would (probably) find unacceptable. Under these potentially difficult circumstances, a distancing, withdrawing, threatened, and avoiding partner would offer a number of reasons, rationales, rationalizations, and excuses to “get out of” going to a couple therapist.
*** On still a deeper psychological level, the prospect (or anticipation) of being in couple therapy may induce (influence, cause, or bring about) one or both of the partners’ (largely unconscious) fears of intimacy and closeness. For example, due to previous traumatic attachment relationships in their life — especially in childhood — they may be conditioned (or neurologically wired or programmed) to expect to become retraumatized if they should again become very vulnerable with, dependent on, or deeply love another. If this pertains (relates) to their situation, they may find it less painful to end their current relationship than to explore (or “dig” into) the underlying, deeper conflicts, personality deficits, relational patterns, or other issues that are so frightening for them to face.
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Have you ever had the experience of not being clear about what you and your partner could/ would talk about in a couple session? After awhile, many veterans of couple therapy (and some beginners too) “draw a blank;” they don’t want to rehash what they have already talked about, yet they can’t think of another focus that could open doors to a fresh and revealing dialogue. Below I have listed a number of topics and issues (not in any particular order) that you and your partner could consider talking about in couple sessions. One or more of these points might stimulate another idea, or several ideas, that you might decide to later explore and examine.
This list is not meant to be comprehensive. It contains a variety of possibilities of what to think about, and talk about, with regard to your relationship. In my view, the more comprehensive you are in what you bring up for consideration, exploration, and discussion in couple sessions, the more you will get out of the overall process.
In making your best efforts to make good use of these sessions, you are helping to increase the chances that you will successfully achieve your goals in therapy. You will become truly more intimate with one another as a result. You will end up knowing one another better than a large majority of people in close relationships. In most cases, this will result in a greater degree of happiness and satisfaction with your special bond together. Deeper and long-lasting love, trust, and commitment actually take a lot of work to achieve and maintain. Congratulations on your courage to take this challenging, yet highly rewarding interpersonal and intrapersonal (within yourself) journey of discovery.
Topics, Issues, and Concerns You Can Explore in Couple Therapy Sessions
**The circumstances of how the two of you first met, what first attracted you to one another, what didn’t you like about one another, how you became serious with one another, and how you decided to make some form of commitment to one another.
**The most significant, meaningful, and “shaping” experiences you have had in your lifetime — externally (in relationship to your partner, family members, friends, and others) and internally (within yourself — especially on an emotional level) in the past.
**If you have one or more children: The nature and quality, and challenges and joys, of your individual and joint relationships with your children. Similarities and differences with regard to your child-rearing practices, philosophies, and goals. How much do you see eye-to-eye in the ways in which you discipline, guide, and support your child/ children? How coordinated and “on the same page” are you with regard to how you raise and relate to your child/ children? How fairly distributed are your responsibilities in caring for and “raising” your child/ children? Is one parent much more actively involved with relating to your child/ children? If so, how do you feel about this?
**How similar and compatible are the two of you in terms of financial priorities, values, ethics, and goals? How much do you trust one another with regard to money issues? To what extent do you have separate or joint financial accounts, resources, and budgets? How have you been influenced by your parents and “significant others” in your life with regard to your approaching and handling money related issues?
**How good and satisfying (or not) is your shared sex life? To what degree do you have consistent feelings of attraction and desire for your partner? To what degree are your sexual energies diverted away, or displaced from your partner onto another outlet or focus? (As with affairs, pornography, masturbation, or paraphilias [formerly called perversions]).
**The nature and quality of your relationships with your own and your partner’s family members. This includes in-laws (or their equivalent) and a child or children from previous marriages/relationships. How do these relationships have an impact on your current relationship?
**The impact of behavioral (process) addictions and compulsions (including gambling, shopping, spending, exercising, and compulsive sexuality) on your marriage/ partnership.
**The effects of your childhood development, upbringing, and experiences — including the quality of the parenting you received, and the security of the emotional attachments you established — on your current relationship. (Consider here such issues as abuse [sexual, physical, emotional], neglect, deprivation, and other damaging and traumatic experiences.)
**The effects on you, and your partner, of previous marriages and other important romantic relationships in your life.
**To what degree do you share mutual interests, hobbies, activities, passions, and personal philosophies? How compatible are the two of you with regard to how you spend your “spare” or leisure time? How much, or how little, quality time do you actually spend with one another?
**The role(s) of individual friends (That is, friends of only one partner.) on your relationship. How much do you approve or disapprove of, are jealous of, resent, feel relieved or threatened by these relationships? What difference does it make to you if your partner’s friend is of the same or different gender, or sexual orientation, as your partner?
**The role(s) of shared couple friends on your relationship.
**If you live together, how comfortable and satisfied are you with the sharing of household responsibilities? How fair do you think is the current distribution of responsibilities? (That is, do you think your partner does his or her fair share?) To what degree do you feel taken advantage of — and feel resentful about this — or feel guilty? How pleased are you with the current arrangement where one partner may take more care of outside (of the household) responsibilities while the other may take more care of inside (within the household — your living space) responsibilities?
**How compatible or incompatible are the two of you with regard to religious and spiritual practices and beliefs? How much does this affect your shared life together?
**How compatible or incompatible are the two of you with regard to political, religious, social, and cultural attitudes, beliefs, and practices?
**How involved are you in the other’s work life? What are the consequences — good and bad –of your being involved in a business together?
**How emotionally intimate are the two of you with one another? For example, some couples in their relationship are like roommates or “two ships passing in the night,” while others are best friends, soul mates, confidantes, and/or deeply emotionally connected to, and bonded with, one another.
**The impact of one or both partners’ psychiatric disorder(s). (For example: bipolar, compulsive, phobic, eating, or other psychological problem) on your joint functioning?
**The impact and effects (short-, medium-, and long-term) of medical problems and complications, diseases (acute, chronic, life threatening), disabilities, serious injuries, surgeries, and psychosomatic conditions.
**Your similar or different (compatible or incompatible) attitudes towards, and relationships with, pets and other animals.
**Your interacting sensitivities. (That is, you may have very different — sometimes opposite — habits, attitudes, beliefs, and values that clash with one another, and are a challenge to live with on a day-to-day basis.) For example, one of you may be more organized, the other disorganized; one may value punctuality (consistently being on time, and not keeping the other waiting) while the other may be more casual or “flexible” about time.
**What is the impact of your differing (different) priorities with regard to the care and protection of your body? How similar or not are you in your attitudes, values, and behaviors with regard to recommended and prescribed treatments and preventative medical and dental care? Does one of you give considerably higher priority to bodily related issues, such as grooming, weight, eating habits, exercise, and physical fitness? Does one wear a seat belt in a car, and the other doesn’t? Does one partner drive a car in a much more cautious and safe way than the other? How do your different lifestyle choices, decisions, and priorities affect your relationship?
**What have been the most important and influential effects of the differences you both brought into your current relationship from your: family of origin (the family you grew up in); extended family (relatives not living in your household); family’s culture and subculture; country of origin; religious and spiritual upbringing, etc.?
**To what degree do your attitudes and beliefs about your gender identity (male or female) and sexual orientation (gay or straight; homosexual, bisexual, transsexual, or heterosexual) affect your partnership? To what degree are your relationship roles and expectations affected by being either a man or a woman?
**Personality characteristics, behaviors, attitudes, values, styles, and nonverbal behaviors that you particularly like and appreciate about your partner. These are things that you may take for granted and not usually comment on or talk about. (For example: Aspects of their appearance — as with how they wear/ keep their hair, the clothes they wear; the sound of their voice; the ways in which they smile and laugh; the ways in which they touch you; etc.)
**How compatible or incompatible are the two of you with regard to your health and eating habits, and bodily care and hygiene? What are implications of this on your attitudes and feelings towards one another?
**The recreational, social and other activities you currently or used to enjoy together.
**The smaller interactions of daily life (often so much in the background, and taken for granted, that you are not particularly aware of when they occur) that make your life together so much enjoyable, secure, and meaningful — or miserable, unsatisfying, or frustrating.
**To what degree have you planned for your retirement?
**To what extent have you prepared (emotionally, financially, etc.) for your future together and alone? What are the things (large and small) that you would miss the most about your partner if he or she suddenly died or left you? How would your life and lifestyle change as a result?
**Practical arrangements you have made, or need or want to make, in the event of the (sudden) disability or death of your partner? For example: wills; advanced medical directives; beneficiary accounts; life, long-term care, and disability insurance; funeral arrangements. How do you feel about talking about these difficult, emotionally demanding, and often taboo subjects?
**Changes you would like your partner to make. Changes your partner would like you to make. changes you would like to make in yourself.
**If you are not currently living together, how does this affect your relationship? Do you have significant differences with regard to how committed you are to maintaining this relationship? (Does one or both of you “have one foot out the door”?) If applicable, what has been the impact on you of having been separated from your partner in the past?
**How satisfied are you with your sex life? What do you like and not like about it? What would you like to do more of, or less of, or do differently? How has the quality of your sex life changed (for better or worse) over the months or years? If you are not currently having sexual relations with one another, or having sex infrequently, how do you understand this? What could you do to help yourselves in this regard? How much do your feelings of embarrassment and/ or shame (or your strong feelings with regard to maintaining your personal privacy and solving your own problems) prevent you from getting the professional help that you need in this area?
**How satisfied are you with your shared social and recreational life? What would you like to keep doing, do more of, or do less of? What else would you like to do that you haven’t done before?
**Your different relationships and reactions to the technology interests of your partner. For example, some partners clash over the use (or overuse) of computers and Smart Phones.
**Differences you might have with regard to psychological “mindedness,” capacities, or motivations. Do you have the sense that the two of you are growing at about the same rate or pace emotionally and psychologically — or is there a widening gap between the two of you? Do you have significantly different attitudes and beliefs about being in psychological counseling or therapy (alone and together)?
**To what degree are the two of you “on the same page” with regard to how much you like/ prefer to stay at home or go out? How compatible are the two of you with regard to preferring more alone time or together time?
**How would you characterize (assess, describe) the role of power (including control and influence) in your relationship (as with who is more in charge, makes important decisions, makes more money, is more emotionally dominant)? How do you feel about the present balance of power in the relationship? What problems do you have together over these kinds of issues?
**Where do you stand with regard to your partner’s and your own use of alcohol, nicotine, prescribed and unprescribed drugs? How much conflict do the two of you have over your differences in this regard?
**The dreams that you have while you are asleep can provide a fascinating, revealing, and interesting window into your unconscious mind. (Note: In my view, most of what happens in the mind is below the level of consciousness.) How much do you share and talk about your dreams with your partner? How much do you know about your own and your partner’s inner world? How much does each one of you know about the unconscious images, stories, and hidden memories, wishes, fears, and fantasies contained in your dream life? How much are you motivated to know about these things?
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Press the pause button! Slow down! Learn slow motion analysis! Freeze frame the action! Observe more, and talk less than you usually do in a discussion with your partner! These are words of advice for how you can generally improve the quality of your dialogs together.
You will probably discover great benefits once you are able to slow down and reflect more on what you have just communicated — both verbally and non-verbally. You will benefit by noticing and becoming curious about a fuller range of direct and indirect interpersonal messages that have been exchanged. You will be much less likely to end up feeling as if you have been “arguing over nothing.” You will gain clarity (a clear understanding) as to what is going on between the two of you that you may not have initially been aware of.
This seeming “nothingness” that sometimes bogs the two of you down, and throws you off course, is actually filled with important meanings. At first, these meanings may not be apparent. They may seem invisible. You will need to work hard to discover what has been communicated – or not communicated — from both of you. Sometimes the messages one person sends to another, or thinks they are sending to another, is not necessarily the same message received by the person you are in discussion with.
For example, in a certain instance, you may have good intentions in what you say to your partner, but your partner may not interpret you as having good intentions. Something has gone wrong with this attempt at feeling closer. Hopefully, both of you will be curious, and not judgmental, and then try to figure out why your seemingly “simple” or “straightforward” attempted communication has gone awry (or became misinterpreted or distorted along the way). When such a “communication miss” occurs, it is time to “step back into the observing position” so that you can review your discussion from different vantage points: yours, your partner’s, and an imagined objective observer.
At times, people are “misattuned” to one another. That is, they may not be in synch or tuned in to the other, or be “on the same page” as the other. When you attempt to talk out a communication issue or problem between the two of you, it is so important not to blame your partner for what doesn’t go well in your discussions. It is so much easier to see what your partner is doing “wrong” than to see and understand what you might be contributing to what is not working out well in your communications.
One bottom line, which may not be apparent (at least at first), is that “it takes two to tango” – that is, both participants in the conversation usually contribute to what goes on between them. One or both partners may be misperceiving, distorting, transferring, or “simply” distracted, not communicating clearly, or not listening very well at the moment (for whatever the reason[s]). (Note: To “transfer,” in a psychological sense, means to experience an other as if they were a significant person from the past. Thus, a person can be said to be having a “negative father transference” towards their current partner. What this means is that at a particular moment in time, the partner seems to be just like (in an unpleasant way) one’s actual father in the past. We can call this a form of emotional memory. One feels towards the current partner something similar to what he or she had experienced in the past in relationship to her or his own father. Often, people are not aware of having transference reactions.
Some of the couples I work with are convinced, when I first start working with them, that their spouse/ partner is 90% (or whatever the high percentage is) at fault for the problems in their shared relationship. Sometimes they feel unfairly criticized, misunderstood, misinterpreted, and/or defensive when I give them feedback on what I perceive to be their own contribution to what might be “going wrong” in their relationship.
A person needs to be relatively nondefensive in order to be able to distinguish between constructive and non-constructive criticism. A person also needs to have relatively high self-esteem and self-worth in order to be able to learn from experience, and learn from another. People can run into trouble when they usually are convinced that they are “right” and the other is “wrong.” Too much “certainty” about what is “reality” and what is not, can lead to unresolvable problems. For example, it is not infrequent that people during a heated argument with their partner say such things as: “That’s not true…You’re not remembering correctly…You don’t know what you are talking about…That didn’t happen that way…I can’t believe you think that way…”, and so on.
When I talk about viewing intimate discussions through a magnifying glass, I am urging partners in close relationships to pay a lot more attention to what is being said directly, what is not being talked about, and what is being communicated non-verbally (as through facial expressions, bodily movements, and tones of voice). This kind of issue can be viewed or perceived from the perspective of information processing. The more information you both are aware of — coming from yourself and from the other — the better you will be able to accurately decipher, decode, and understand what is going on within yourself, within your partner, and between the two of you. In a more thorough examination (or analysis) of interpersonal communication, one first starts from the surface, and then goes deeper if necessary.
At times, couples I work with record some of the serious and emotionally charged (containing strong emotions) conversations they have, and then slowly play back bits and pieces of this for their mutual exploration with a psychological magnifying glass. Not infrequently, partners “hear” and understand conversations differently when they have a second chance to listen to the dialog they had participated in. This is often hard and challenging work to do, but it can provide important and valuable dividends for those who use this tool in an attempt to learn about themselves and their “significant other,” and improve their relationship.
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So much happens, so quickly, with such intensity in couple therapy! Words, feelings, sensations, reactions, and counter-reactions (reactions to others’ reactions) fly back and forth — faster than our minds can process. Emotional ups and downs (crescendos and decrescendos) rapidly follow one another. Sometimes a relative calm is suddenly shattered by a volcanic-like eruption. This may be the result of a “straw that broke the camel’s back,” we can speculate. Sometimes tears subtly emerge or pour forth unexpectedly. Sometimes a disturbing memory or image surprisingly floods into consciousness. Shifts of attention and focus can sometimes be rapid. One thought or idea expressed may be responded to, or the new speaker may change the subject to something seemingly unrelated.
Where did that come from? Why are we now feeling so intensely negative towards one another? Why does he/she now seem like such a stranger, adversary, or enemy? What happened? How can we understand this sudden deterioration in our communication skills? “But we were doing so much better!” How can we account for what is getting played out in the office? How are we to make sense of all these confusing, disturbing, and unexpected feelings, thoughts, associations, and interactions?
Couple therapy can be a messy and unpredictable affair — very distressing, but also very gratifying and hope building. Since so much happens in such a short period of time, and since the consequences of what happens are so important, I decided, as a therapist, to slow the process down when meeting with couples. My aim was to help my couple clients get more meaning and benefit from their usually emotionally intense interchanges.
Below is an example of how this approach could be applied in practice — working with a fictional couple. What follows is a brief part of an imagined couple session. After each person speaks, I may provide my comments (– what I may be thinking at the time, but not necessarily sharing this with my clients.) My aim is to give you “an inside look” into how I think, reason, and understand what is going on during a session.
Be aware that in a typical, actual session, I do not interrupt or say as much as I do in this kind of interaction. Neither do I go into as many details as to what I think might be going on between the partners in a couple, and between the partners and me. I’m presenting what I am now as an (psycho)educational tool. I am providing ideas here for the reader to consider. Further, I am not presenting what I am saying as facts, the truth, or the only way to understand what is being presented. Everyone on his or her own can determine what is, and what is not, helpful and beneficial to him or her.
At times, I ask the partners to talk to one another while I observe their interactions. Prior to therapeutic “exercises” (also called “enactments”), I get both participants’ permission/ consent to interrupt them frequently. I explain to them that I think it could be beneficial to them to hear my observations about their interactions together.
A Portion of a Couple Therapy Session
Rob to Sharon: So, what would you like to talk about today?
Therapist: Let me stop you here. (Said first looking at Rob and then at Sharon.) Do you know why am stopping you already?
Comments: I want this couple to begin to think about and reflect upon what might be typical patterns between them. For example, does Rob typically not assert his own agenda in approaching Sharon? Is he beginning to show a pattern of shifting the focus of conversation from himself to her? Is he possibly not saying a feeling he is having at the moment? Does he feel more comfortable taking a more intellectual approach? These are some of my first thoughts when hearing what he says, and how he is saying it.)
Rob: I have no idea.
Sharon: I don’t know.
Therapist (To Rob): How typical or not is it for you to not assert your own agenda with Sharon?
Rob: I don’t know. I never gave it much thought.
Sharon: He usually waits for me to take the lead in a conversation about our relationship.
Comment: Now Sharon is beginning to look more closely at how they usually interact with one another.
Sharon: I have something I’d like to bring up for discussion. (She then turns to Rob.) You never spend time with me when you come home from work.
Therapist: Let’s pause here to reflect on a couple of things. First, I think it is a plus that you have asserted what you would like to talk about. However, I suggest that before you start talking about a subject, you first get Rob’s agreement to talk about it.
Sharon (to Rob): Is it okay if we talk about this issue?
Therapist: Before we move forward, I want to suggest to you that you be aware of using exaggerations in what you say to Rob. I have found that most people start having defensive reactions when their partner uses words like “never,” “always,” and “all the time.” These are exaggerations. Also, I think you would be more direct and be on safer ground if you used the word “I” instead of “you.” To me, for example, there is a big difference between saying “You never…” and “I feel.”
Comments: Particularly in the beginning of a course of therapy, the therapist can usefully provide psychoeducation (psychological education) to clients. The therapist is being pro-active in heading off (nipping in the bud) the use of dysfunctional (ineffective) communication styles, and providing more functional (effective, workable) alternatives to the less effective wording typically used.
Sharon: I get upset with you when you ignore me when you come home from work.
Commentary: Since this statement is somewhat an improvement over the previous version of what she said, the therapist decides it is best at this point not to interrupt any further the flow between them.
Rob: I’m exhausted when I get home. Why can’t you cut me some slack?
Therapist: Rob, what were you feeling when you just said that to Sharon?
Comments: The therapist intervenes (interrupts) here because he senses that the couple is soon headed for a negative interactional cycle — a repetitive (repeating), dysfunctional dialog that will only drag them down further. The therapist is also shifting the focus here to see how well Rob can identify and express his feelings, and can distinguish between feelings and thoughts. I find that most people tend to tell me what they are thinking when I ask them what they are feeling.
Rob: I felt put off, annoyed.
Therapist: (After Sharon does not respond for about ten seconds, the therapist says:) “I’d like you to respond to what Rob just said.” (As an alternative to this intervention, the therapist could have asked Sharon how come she didn’t respond to what Rob last said. I might at times even ask the listener what it is she just heard her partner say. Sometimes, it turns out, the “listener” can’t remember what the speaker just said. I then think that the person in the listening role never registered (took in) the communication in the first place. [One cannot “remember” something said if it wasn’t even heard in the first place. Sometimes the “listener” is so preoccupied with his or her own thoughts, concerns, and perspectives that (s)he has no internal space present to focus on what the other is saying.] This suggests to me that we need to work on listening skills as much as, or more than speaking skills.)
Sharon: You’re always thinking about yourself!
Therapist: Let’s step back now to understand about what you just said and the impact it may have had on Rob.
Rob: See how impossible she is? (Said in an exasperated manner, as you probably realize.)
Therapist: Please let me talk to Sharon about this matter for the next couple of minutes. This is going to be in the best interest of both of you. (Slight pause.) They both remain quiet. The therapist then continues, looking at Sharon.) I’m planning on saying some things to you that you may have a negative reaction to. Do I have your O.K. to say these things to you?
Comments: The therapist is modeling here, in part, practicing “meta-communication.” This is a form of communicating about the communication process itself. It has the effect of de-escalating the emotional tensions that are starting to build up between Rob and Sharon.
Sharon: That’s fine with me. I’m open to hearing what you have to say. That’s why we’re here.
Therapist: I appreciate your non-defensiveness about this. (The therapist gives reinforcement for valued, therapeutically helpful responses.) (A slight pause.) A couple of minutes ago you said to Rob “You’re always thinking about yourself!” How were you feeling when you said that to him?
Sharon: He’s so self-centered. Why can’t he think about what I’m going through, for a change?
Comment: The therapist decides to bypass (not focus on at this time) what sounds like Sharon’s blaming, attacking, and sarcasm. He wanted to control the “dosage” of his constructive criticism at this point. Challenging her further at this point would probably be counterproductive.
Therapist: What you just said is not your feelings. I have found that a large majority of people have difficulty distinguishing between feelings and thoughts. What was your emotional reaction to Rob?
Sharon: I felt fed up with him.
Therapist: That sounds like you are starting to see the distinction between feelings and thoughts. (Slight pause.) I also want to point out to you that you started your sentence off with the word “you,” and you used the exaggerated word “always.”
Therapist continues: Listeners to this form of communication often become defensive when they hear these words. Let’s try to avoid this kind of negative interaction between the two of you. Before we continue, I want to ask you, Sharon, if you are aware of having any negative feeling towards me about what I have just said.
Comments: The therapist wants to check in with Sharon to see how she is reacting emotionally to his confrontation of her. (I believe that the relationship of the clients to the therapist is very important. However, in couple therapy — as opposed to individual therapy — the therapist tries to remain focused more on the relationship between the partners than on the relationship of each individual to the therapist.) Timing, tact, and sensitivity are always important in a situation like this. The therapist wants to move the therapeutic process forward but not to the point of antagonizing the client. This would be counterproductive (that is — work against therapeutic progress). This type of confrontation is usually not appropriate during the initial sessions of couple therapy. Engaged in prematurely, it can lead to negative (adverse) reactions, such as clients prematurely leaving therapy.
Sharon: I’m all right with this. I’ve been in therapy before.
Therapist: Good. Now let’s play the scene again with Rob where you start off your sentence with “I,” and don’t use words of exaggeration like “always” and “never.”
Sharon (To Rob): I realize I wasn’t being as constructive with you as I could have been. It’s just that I get so upset and frustrated when I see you not taking my needs into consideration.
Therapist: I think that’s much more constructive. I’m impressed! (After a slight pause…) Rob — Sharon and I have been talking for a while together. How left out have you been feeling about this?
Rob: I’m O.K. with this. I know it’s for my benefit as well.
Comments: We certainly could continue with this dialog much further, and in greater depth. But we’ve covered a lot of ground here already. There’s plenty to think about. I want to emphasize that this session segment is somewhat artificial and condensed. In an actual session, the therapist probably would have made major modifications in what was said, how it was said, and the pace at which it was handled. The clients too probably would have handled the dialog differently as well.
What I think could be helpful to the reader is to imagine yourself from the vantage points of the three people engaged in this interchange. (Put another way, it is important to identify with each of the three people present in the room.) What can you learn from identifying with several different perspectives simultaneously? How could doing this help you get the most from your therapy sessions with your couple therapist?
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Martha: You are so irresponsible! I’m tired of your leaving things around the house. You expect me to clean up after you. I’m not your maid. Why don’t you grow up?
Jason: You’re always criticizing me! Why can’t you cut me some slack? You don’t appreciate all I do for you.
Al: Something has been bothering me. Is this a good time for you to talk? (If the answer is “yes”): I get upset and frustrated with you when you leave your clothes and other things around the house. I would appreciate it if you would pay more attention to putting these things where they belong.
Alice: I feel a bit defensive, but I appreciate that you told me this constructively. I think you have a reasonable point. I will try to remember to put my things away so you don’t have to pick up after me.
Clearly, the couples in these two situations are communicating very differently with one another. The partners in Situation #1 are using a communication style which could be characterized (described) as nonconstructive, dysfunctional (failing to serve a useful purpose), and emotionally reactive (automatically reacting in an emotional way without thinking through the consequences). These consequences may include how their partner might react to what they said — and how this, in turn could affect the nature and quality of their subsequent (later) relationship.
In contrast, the partners in Situation #2 appear to be relating more constructively and functionally (working effectively and well), and more in control of their negative emotions. Put simply, the partners in Situation #2 are using a style of communication that is more effective and constructive than the one used by partners in Situation # 1. Some implications (or consequences) of this are that the partners in Situation #1 will be much less likely to be and feel satisfied, safe, and content, together — or even remain in their relationship — than the partners in Situation #2.
A Wider Perspective
Some authors and therapists recommend that partners in committed relationships avoid criticizing one another. Their rationale (explanation or underlying reason) is that criticizing one’s partner undermines and erodes the quality of their relationship. I think this can sometimes be the case, but often not. From my point of view, it is vital to distinguish (differentiate) between constructive and nonconstructive criticism. Without this distinction being made, something very important will be lost in the quality and potentials of these relationships.
Here’s an analogy (similarity) to help communicate my point: When many people think of eating foods high in “cholesterol” they think of cholesterol as being all bad. However, nutritional science and physicians makes a distinction between “good” cholesterol (HDL) and “bad” cholesterol (LDL). To eliminate all cholesterol from one’s diet would not be a wise or healthy thing to do. We want to stay away from the “bad” cholesterol but eat more foods containing the “good,” health-promoting cholesterol.
This kind of distinction can be made with criticism as well. It is my strong belief that there is relationship-building and enhancing (increasing, strengthening) criticism, and relationship eroding and destroying criticism. Put another way, there is good and bad, and mentally healthy and unhealthy criticism. In evaluating the use of day-to-day criticism in intimate relationships, this distinction — between the two varieties of criticism — is crucial.
An important key for building and maintaining the quality of intimate (including romantic) relationships is the emphasis on sharing many more positive than negative interactions. Examples of positive exchanges include such things as expressing appreciation, love, caring, gratitude, admiration, respect, valuing, interest, and desire. So-called “negative” exchanges include such things as expressing anger, criticism, disappointment, frustration, resentment, envy, jealousy, and disillusionment. The expression of both positive and negative feelings, thoughts, evaluations, motives, inclinations, impressions, and reactions have their legitimate place in close and growing relationships.
From my point of view, what is most important is that these positives and negatives are, and remain, in balance with one another. Therefore, from this perspective, two opposite forms of imbalance can occur: Relationships can be imbalanced on the side of an excess of negative interchanges, and, on the side, of an excess of positive interchanges.
For many people, it is much easier to understand how an excessive use of negative interchanges can damage relationships. When one treats one’s partner poorly, or especially abusively, it is easy to see how the mistreated partner’s self-esteem and self-worth can be reduced as a result. In addition, the mistreated partner tends to build up (often not expressed directly) many negative feelings and attitudes towards his/her partner. It is also easy to understand how being treated well, respectfully, considerately, etc. can help that partner feel good about himself/herself. So, it follows that people who have high self-worth and self-esteem will be less defensive and more constructive and positive in their interactions with others.
What is sometimes more difficult to understand (grasp, comprehend) is how problems in relationships can come about when, for whatever the reasons, one or both of the partners feel they must hold back from saying (or even thinking) how they really feel towards the partner. Some partners who get locked into daily verbal and emotional combat with one another, have many resentments built up towards one another — both consciously and unconsciously (out of awareness). Under these circumstances, they withhold verbalizing their positive feelings towards one another. They sometimes do this because they don’t want the resented partner to get the satisfaction of knowing that they are needed, desired, and depended upon.
In addition, sometimes they withhold verbalizing or sharing their positive feelings towards one another because they feel vulnerable and weak just having these needs! To further complicate matters, research shows that when people are in tense, conflicted, and unhappy relationships they actually misperceive (or even dont notice) half of all the positive expressions that their partner is actually making. In other words, due to “negative bias” — picking up (selectively) on negatives from others much more than picking up on positive communications — they end up with a “self-fulfilling prophesy.” That is — whatever they fear experiencing with their partner, they are more likely to actually experience due to their mindset – their pre-existing expectations and anticipations. This is a biased “template” or script developed in early childhood. So, if you expect something bad to happen to you, you will be more on the lookout for the “bad.” But, if you have a general tendency to see the good in others and situations, you will more likely find the “good.” Note that much of this process happens unconsciously (out of awareness); there is a lack of conscious choice going on here.
It is important for partners in close relationships to be authentic and genuine with one another. For relationships to be truly intimate (not restricted to surface communications), it is necessary to allow oneself to be vulnerable by sharing on deeper levels. There is some risk taking involved with opening up about oneself — particularly in relationship with your partner. You hope that your partner will reciprocate (return in kind or degree), but there are no guarantees that this will happen.
You may need to be an initiator of intimacy and blaze new emotional trails. This kind of opening up may be unfamiliar or even scary for your partner. The rewards can be great, though, if you can both (respectfully and sensitively) talk about things that are bothering you about the other, and your relationship together. Sometimes your partner may respond to your disclosure by saying something like: “I never knew you felt that way. I’d be glad to make the change you are suggesting. I want you to be happier with our relationship.” This is one of the joyous rewards of an intimate, respectful, and caring, ongoing dialog and relationship.
In an opposite situation, there are so-called “pseudo-mutual” (falsely mutual, just apparently close) couples who avoid conflict at all costs. They need to maintain the illusion that they have an ideal or perfect marriage/relationship. They cannot tolerate differences of opinion, or different points of view, preferences, or beliefs. They unconsciously are seeking a fused or merged relationship. They have great difficulty distinguishing between self from other. They share a strong philosophy and inclination to not rock the boat or make waves in their relationship. They avoid risking a change in the status quo. They have an almost phobic-like fear of disagreeing and arguing with one another, and experiencing themselves as separate individuals.
One or both of these “pseudo-mutual” (or falsely close) partners may predominantly (or mostly) have a “false self” — an outward appearance or psychological “mask,” originating in childhood as a survival mechanism — that is designed to adjust smoothly and non-conflictually with the important people in their environment. Hidden beneath this surface, “people pleasing,” veneer, is a “true” (more real and authentic) self, waiting to be found, liberated, and developed.
Since these conflict avoidant partners are threatened by differences, and by simultaneously being both part of a couple and being separate individuals, they will suppress, repress, block out, deny, or avoid all (or nearly all) criticism of their partner – even constructive and helpful criticism. What results from this form of adjustment is a superficial shell of a seemingly intimate, but actually non-intimate, distanced relationship. They hardly know one another because they find comfort, familiarity, and value in maintaining rigid, unchanging (and therefore non-growth producing) idealized or restricted beliefs about one another.
They may stay with one another for long periods of time — even a lifetime — but at the cost of cutting off the possibilities of experiencing a more enriching personal development and having a more gratifying and satisfying life together. For these types of couples, learning how to be constructively critical of one another would open many doors to a more energized, vital, fulfilling, and goal oriented, shared life.
An important question to ask is: What happens to one’s negative feelings when they are never expressed (directly and overtly) towards one’s partner? I believe that the individual who keeps so much inside (unverbalized, and not even thought about) ends up with a variety of unpleasant symptoms. These symptoms usually are not mentally linked or connected to the unresolved issues in their primary relationship. (Such symptoms include bodily, physical and medical problems — as with psychosomatic problems [as relating to sleeping, eating, digestion, sexuality, etc.] which do not yield or respond to medical treatments); mood and mental disturbances and disorders — as with anxiety and depression, alcohol and other drug problems; accidents; and a large variety of other problems and difficulties.)
With regard to partners’ use of criticism in close relationships, there can be relationship-based problems on two ends of the spectrum (continuum). There can be too much criticism, and too little criticism. There can be too much negativity, and too little positivity. There can be a lack of clarity (clearness, differentiation) of the distinctions between constructive and nonconstructive criticism. One needs to consider the advantages and disadvantages of both expressing and deciding not to verbalize (or even being aware of) one’s criticisms of one’s partner. Every relationship and (almost) every interaction within a relationship is different. What works for one couple may not work for another couple. What works in one circumstance (including their stage of life) may not work well in another.
General communication related principles that could be helpful to you with regard to the issues talked about in this article are as follows:
- Reflect carefully on what you say before you say it. Consider the potential consequences on your relationship if you decide to say something, or not say something.
- Even if you feel you are in the right in saying something to your partner, and you say it in the most constructive way you know how, your partner still might react defensively and either ignore what you have said, be unduly threatened by this (as due to a pre-existing sensitivity), or retaliate against you.
- Seriously consider backing off if you see that your good intentions and motives are not having a good effect. Consider bringing the issue back up at another time when you think the circumstances may be more to your mutual advantage.
- Be prepared to stop pushing your partner to change when you see from repeated attempts that your efforts to accomplish this are producing more negative results or consequences (to the entire relationship) than they are worth.
- Ask your partner if s/he would be willing to read this article.
- If you get stuck and find you can’t get past this problem together, consider seeing a professional couple therapist to help you and your partner get past your blockages and stuck points.
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Talking constructively and effectively with your primary partner in life is both a skill and an art. It takes much deliberate effort, good judgment, and good intentions to make it work well. We are not born with these abilities — but only with the potential to develop them. We need to learn specific communication, conflict resolution, emotional regulation, and other relationship skills to enable us to reach our goals. We also need to develop certain emotional, mental, and communicative competencies (capabilities of consistently communicating constructively and effectively). That is, we need to become increasingly capable and competent — both verbally and non-verbally — in what we say, how we say it, when we say it, and in what we do. We need the abilities to reflect on our interactions together, be curious about what we observe — both about our partner and our self — and be as non-defensive, open, responsible, and psychologically mature as possible throughout the process.
A relatively small percentage of partners in committed relationships have had the opportunities to learn, practice, and master these skills — either in the families in which they grew up, or subsequently as adults. One of the reasons for this is that our educational system, society, and even some of the most popular and dominant counseling and psychotherapy methods that have been available to us have been over-focusing on cognitive (intellectual) knowledge and skills versus social and emotional skills and abilities. The current research in neuroscience (brain science), I believe, confirms this point of view.
So, it is time for many of us to re-focus our efforts and learn what is necessary to be able to communicate much more effectively and productively with our loved ones. I believe you can do a great deal on your own to improve the quality of your serious conversations together. While some of the ideas I will be sharing with you on this topic can be found in self-help books and magazine articles, others may be new to you.
Recall that the first word in the title of this article is “guidelines.” Consider the points I have outlined below to be ideas available to talk out with your partner. These are not “facts” or necessarily the “right way” to handle your discussions. Rather, they are suggestions for you to think about, and then decide for yourselves how helpful and beneficial they could be for you in improving your relationship. If you don’t particularly like some of the ways I have organized, structured, or presented the conversational guidelines below, you can modify them to suit your unique and specific needs. The most important bottom line is what works for you.
*** The first step is to agree with your partner that it is worthwhile, and in your best interests, to make a deliberate effort to work on improving your shared relationship skills. Key goals here are to enhance and improve the quality and satisfaction levels of your discussions, and to increase your levels of intimacy.
*** Next, it is important to plan well when you will be engaging in these focused conversations. Agree on a specific day and time period to talk. It is important to arrange for a talk that is neither too long nor too short. Then make sure you do not talk longer than planned. (You can later plan for longer talks if you see this as advantageous.) You will need time after the talk to reflect on how it has gone; this will involve what has gone well, and what has not. Make brief written notes so that you do not forget key points discussed and experienced. This written record (which may not seem “natural” for some people to do) could be quite useful before, or at the time of, or at your next talk.
*** Be sure to arrange your discussion so that you will have a minimum amount of distractions. (Examples: Turn off your cell phones and television before your talk begins. Make sure you fulfill certain work, household, and personal obligations and responsibilities prior to this prearranged, relationship building discussion time.)
*** Agree beforehand to honor the “equal time rule.” That is, each one of you will be talking (and then listening) 50% of the time. Talks usually are much more effective when they are true dialogues — not monologues.
*** Also, these kinds of conversations usually go better when you keep your turns of talking short. Try limiting your turns to a few sentences at a time. This allows the other to remember what you have said and then to respond to you. On the other hand, if let’s say that during your turn you make a half a dozen different points, your partner may then only respond to two or three of these — which is a natural tendency. Be careful to not fall into this trap.
*** Before your talk, agree on whether or not you might benefit by recording your conversation. One advantage of recording your interchange is that you can later listen back to it after you have run into a problem. You then might be in a better position to be more objective about yourself and your partner, and the conversation you have just engaged in. This might be a good way to learn about yourselves. On the other hand, you may decide together that recording your conversations has more drawbacks than advantages for your particular situation together.
*** Prior to your first intentionally planned, serious discussion about issues in your shared relationship, consider reading two other articles I have written (and posted on this website page): “How to Improve Your Communication Skills in Your Committed Relationship” and “What to Avoid Saying and Expressing in Your Intimate Relationship.” Reading these articles will increase the chances that your talk together will proceed more constructively and productively.
*** When you first start your talk, it is important to agree on an agenda. Both of you have equal responsibility to come into the discussion prepared to propose or suggest a particular topic, issue, or previous interchange to talk about. Usually, the more specific you can be, the better.
*** As far as deciding on the content of what you will be talking about, different partners and different couples have different preferences and strategies. Some people prefer to start off with a minor and noncontroversial issue — that is, one that is least likely to lead to significant conflict between the two of you. Other people, though, prefer to start off with one of the most important unresolved and pressing problems between the two of you. This may seem more relevant and satisfying to you. Whichever approach you take — or one in between — will play an important part in how the discussion may turn out in the end. After having several planned talks with one another, you may wish to experiment with different approaches to setting the agenda of the discussion. You can be creative, imaginative, and flexible in this regard. You might, for example, decide to take turns with regard to which one of you sets the agenda at each of your planned talks. The bottom line is to find an approach — sometimes by trial or error — that works best for both of you.
*** When you are talking back and forth with one another, place a special emphasis on saying and expressing many more positive than negative messages to the other. Examples of “positive” messages/ communications are:
* Giving your partner compliments
* Expressing appreciation
* Telling them that what they just said helped you feel better understood
* Letting them know the ways in which you value and care about them
* Recognizing their good intentions and the ways in which they have changed for the better
* Being non-defensive in response to what they have just said to you
(Note: As you can realize, being positive in these and other ways will only be constructive and effective if you are authentic and genuine in what you say.)
*** Keep in mind that even more important than the actual words you say are the verbal and nonverbal accompaniments (additions) to your actual words. Examples of these most important dimensions of communication are:
* Your tone of voice (which might indicate how interested, frustrated, or patient you are with your partner). Included here is the rate, intensity, and inflection (pitch and loudness) of your voice.
* Facial expressions
* Level of eye contact
* Body language — including gestures. (Note: To “gesture” is to use motions of the hands, arms, legs, or body as a means of intentional [conscious] or unintentional [unconscious] communication/ expression.)
*** Keep in mind the following points: When talking — be brief, clear, and to the point. Also, continually monitor yourself so that you can actually respond to what the other has said before redirecting (changing the subject) to a thought (or issue, concern, point, etc.) you preferred to focus on. When talking, pay close attention to how well your partner seems to be listening to and understanding you, and when s/he wants to reply to what you have just said.
It is also important to meta-communicate — that is, to communicate about the communication process you are engaged in. (An example of “meta-communication”: “I’ve noticed over the last couple of minutes that we have begun to talk faster, louder, and more intensely with one another. I wonder what that is all about.”
*** Over my years of doing couple therapy, I have found that partners in a couple relationship often tend to run into problems and get bogged down when they attempt to talk out their shared difficulties and other challenges. Self-help books can help, but they are no substitute for regularly scheduled sessions with a therapist specializing in working with couples. Many relationship problems, and many relationships, in my view, are just too complex and deeply rooted to be able to be repaired and transformed by yourselves without the help of a trained, experienced, and competent therapist. This being said, I want to share with you three key principles (outlined below) that I find stand out as being potentially very useful and helpful to you.
*** The first important principle relating to how to have more successful dialogues with your partner is to put a priority on process over content. By this I mean, how you talk to one another (the process) is much more important than what you talk about (the content).
I will now give you an example of what I mean by the difference between focusing on process (that is, the manner or form of communication used in conversation) versus content (what we commonly focus on when we try to discuss issues with an intimate other).
Let’s say Leslie says to Lou in an accusing and critical tone (with the facial expressions that go along with this): “Why didn’t you bring home the pizza like we agreed?” (There’s much we could analyze about this statement and potential interaction, but I want to limit our discussion now to a couple of central points.)
*** First, an example of a (dysfunctional, or nonconstructive) “content” response to this question might be: (Said in a casual, matter-of-fact voice) “I was very busy. It just slipped my mind.” We can usually assume that an interaction like this one has occurred previously (if not repeatedly) in this relationship. Notice that neither one them says how they are feeling (an important point I will expand on soon), and neither one of them makes an effort to avoid pushing the other’s hot buttons (emotional trigger points, areas of sensitivity). That is, we can see from the start where this “conversation” is going — and it sure won’t be constructive! Part of focusing on the process is to be very tuned in to how constructive or not is the course of an evolving conversation, and then interrupt (put on pause and step back to observe) this conversation before it deteriorates even further.
*** The second important principle to keep in mind is to give priority to focusing on the distinction between thoughts and feelings. This is a principle that is often minimized or overlooked in both self-help books and professional books and journals. Often, when I ask many new clients what they feeling at a particular point, they tell me instead what they are thinking. They are not differentiating (making the distinction between) emotions (feelings) and cognitions (thoughts, intellectual activities, etc.). This is a very important distinction with many consequences and implications. (For further clarification on this important issue, see my article entitled “The Primary Importance of Feelings in Couple Therapy.”)
*** On a practical level, when you are attempting to have a serious discussion about your relationship, it is crucial that you stop the conversation frequently to talk about the feelings you are having at the present moment, and the feelings you are perceiving (picking up on) from your partner. All too frequently, one (negative, unpleasant) feeling piles up after another until one partner reaches an emotional “critical mass” — “the straw that broke the camel’s back.” (That is, your or your partner’s unexpressed feelings and reactions will tend to “silently” accumulate until one of you either suddenly explodes or withdraws. This will end any attempt you have made together to constructively talk out your unresolved issues.)
*** If you find you have ongoing difficulties distinguishing feelings from thoughts (emotions from cognitions), distinguishing one feeling from another, finding the appropriate word labels for different feelings, accurately expressing the degree to which you are having a feeling or combination of feelings, expressing these feelings constructively, or being either overly emotional or lacking in conscious emotional reactions, I would suggest you consider arranging a consultation with a therapist who puts a priority on deeper self-knowledge, and these necessary, core communication skills. (Note that “communication,” as used here, refers to both interpersonal (external) and intrapsychic [internal — within yourself] exchanges and dialogues.)
*** The third important principle related to how to have more successful dialogues with your partner is to learn the skills involved with doing “detailed, slow motion analysis.” By this I mean, it is important for both of you to work together to pay much attention to seemingly small details in your verbal and nonverbal interchanges, and to considerably slow down the pace of your discussions. This communication principle involves effective information processing.
*** A great deal of meaning can be communicated in a short period of time — especially between two intimate partners. By slowing down your conversation you can give yourself the time you need to take in, digest, and metabolize (or psychologically work through) what has been communicated. Put another way, you can think of looking at your conversation through a magnifying glass, or think of how you can press the pause button on your DVD’s remote control so that you can freeze one particular frame of a “movie” so that you can examine it in a more detailed, and comprehensive way.
*** Often, (enthusiastic) partners attempt to accomplish too much in a particular conversation. This can be counterproductive — that is, work against your best interests. Be careful to not allow yourselves to become overloaded and overwhelmed. This can set you back rather than move you forward as you had intended. You can begin modestly (thinking small) before you attempt to tackle the central, most important, problems, difficulties, and challenges in your relationship — (what we might call looking at your relationship with a wide-angle lens).
*** At the conclusion of your present talk, you can decide when the you will talk next. An alternative to this is for the two of you to agree (if this is possible schedule-wise) to have a “standing” (regularly scheduled) discussion time. This way you will not have to spend your time renegotiating each time when you will talk next. You can then plan your schedules weeks in advance. Thus, in the big picture, you will be organizing and structuring your relational communication. Talking about deeper issues in your relationship will be given a higher degree of priority. Less of importance will “fall between the cracks” as a result.
Congratulations on coming this far in reading through these rather lengthy discussion guidelines. This in part tells us that you have the motivation and persistence to improve your relational life — and at least give it your best shot. With some couples, there is a certain amount of uncertainty and ambiguity (uncertainty of meaning or significance) concerning where this all will be going – where it will lead. While there are no guarantees that the particular relationship you are trying to repair and improve will work out, the ideas and skills you have learned here can always be used to your advantage in another, or other, relationships in the future. So, there will be valuable payoffs for you, down the road, no matter how this particular, current relationship turns out.
Hopefully, these proposed guidelines will help give you a foundation for putting together or devising your own set of guidelines that best meet your unique and specific needs and circumstances. This is a creative effort that will probably be subject to many revisions and fine tunings during upcoming, ever-changing circumstances. I wish you well on your challenging, yet exciting journey towards a more fulfilling and satisfying relationship together.
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First a definition (and there are many different ones): Anxiety concerns the fear, nervousness, or threat related to what might happen, or what is currently happening internally (in the inner world) — and/or externally (in the outside world).
Anxiety has gotten a bad rap. Many self-help books and popular articles focus on getting rid of, or overcoming anxiety. This approach to anxiety seems to be quite appealing to the readers of these publications. However, from the perspective of many psychotherapists, this is not the most helpful, beneficial, or balanced view. The goal of this alternative view is to learn how to master anxiety – not temporarily “get rid of it.” This is a more ambitious goal. It focuses on the medium and long term, instead of the short term. It focuses on insight, rather than distraction.
A more psychologically sophisticated view of anxiety can be gained — in a way — by comparing, anxiety with cholesterol. Just as there is good (HDL) cholesterol, and bad (LDL) cholesterol –there is good anxiety, and bad anxiety. Just as it isn’t in your best interests to reduce all cholesterol in your body, it isn’t in your best interests to eliminate all anxiety in your mind/ body. (That is, trying to eliminate all anxiety in your mind and body operating cooperatively — as a unit.)
Think about how it would affect you if you stopped having the ability to recognize or experience pain in your body. Specifically, think about what the consequences would be for you if you weren’t able to feel the pain from cavities in your teeth. The pain you feel from tooth decay is a signal that something is the matter and needs your immediate attention. Because you are able to be aware of this pain, you have a conscious choice of whether you will choose to see a dentist, or not. This signal communicates very important information to you about the state of your body. Anxiety is similar in how it works in your mind. If you ignore or minimize pain or distress in your body or in your mind, you could be putting yourself at risk.
Many self-help and psychological approaches emphasize reducing or trying to extinguish anxiety. This certainly has a very important place in managing our lives. It can be extremely distressing and uncomfortable to experience non-productive and burdensome varieties of anxiety. On one extreme end of the anxiety spectrum is panic attacks.
Sometimes, for example, people go a hospital emergency room due to the fear that they are having a heart attack. (And getting medical help is a very wise idea. It is extremely important to rule out physical and medical causes of your symptoms.) However, sometimes people experience physical/ bodily symptoms because they are unable to experience emotional and mental signals or symptoms. Put another way, some people, at some times, experience anxiety in their bodies, instead of in their minds. Emotional and mental issues and problems become transformed, and become located in their bodies. Effective psychotherapy helps people identify and put word labels on their feelings and thoughts and then communicate them to the therapist and others. The more you can verbalize your inner experiences, the less need you will then have to express them through your body, actions (behavior), and other symptoms.
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People experience anxiety in many different ways, forms, and intensities. It is helpful to think of anxiety as existing on a spectrum – from the mildest, to the most severe and extreme. So, for example, a person can experience slight anxiety — over a certain “trigger” — that quickly fades away, or can experience a full-blown and long-lasting anxiety attack that causes a great deal of unpleasantness, unproductiveness, and fear.
Emma experiences anxiety in many different circumstances, and in many different ways. “I’m usually anxious about one thing or another. So many things, so many activities, and so many people set me off, in so many ways, and for so long. I wish I wasn’t this way. But, I’ve been this way my entire life. I would like to find relief from being so sensitive and over-reacting.”
Noah, in contrast, experiences distressing anxiety only occasionally, and in very specific ways. “I so dislike having to speak in front of groups of people. I have bad test anxiety too. I hate the pressure of having to perform. I’m embarrassed to admit that this also happens around sex as well.”
The word “anxiety” can be used in so many different ways, and can have different meanings for different people. People can sometimes use other words – such as “nervous,” “uptight,” “uncomfortable,” and “sensitive” – to mean, basically, the same thing. This can make it difficult to understand what others are actually experiencing, and therefore, how to best respond to them.
To make communication and understanding even more complex – when some people say they are “anxious” they may be experiencing a mental (emotional) state, or a physical (physiological/ bodily) state or sensation.
Some ideas for you to consider to help yourself manage your anxiety:
- Keep a daily (confidential) journal where you can think about and reflect upon the anxieties of your daily life. Be specific about what you think has triggered off these anxieties, and try to connect your present reactions to emotionally similar past events in your life.
- Talk to a trusted and respected friend, spouse/ partner, relative, psychotherapist/ counselor, sponsor, physician, etc., about what you are struggling with. You might get important, helpful, and supportive feedback on this issue.
- Read self-help books and magazine articles, and watch television programs that can help you get valuable information, perspective, and insight into your problems.
- As an effective strategy, don’t allow your anxious feelings to build up without adequately processing (digesting, metabolizing) them. Being focused on, and on top of your anxiety (and all other feelings as well, for that matter) is a good prescription for a happier, less stressed life.
- Related to point 4 above, know your limits of how much anxiety you can tolerate and benefit from. Having too much anxiety – just as having too little anxiety – could work against your constructive functioning and happiness in life. Learn to take necessary breaks, and distract yourself when necessary (but not excessively), in order to maintain a healthy balance in your life. Keep to the middle of the emotional road, most of the time.
- Make it a priority to frequently distinguish between good and bad anxiety. Distinguish between anxiety as a (helpful) signal, and anxiety as a (harmful) symptom. Beware of trying to “get rid of” your anxiety by “self-medication”. (You will probably end up with more problems in the long run if you follow this strategy.) Keep in mind that anxiety, in one form or another, will be with you for the rest of your life. So, make your best efforts to try to understand it in a deeper way. Focus on transforming and mastering it! View it as a necessary tool for learning about and improving yourself.
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How much is stress good? How much is stress bad? How much do you distinguish between stress that is healthy, and stress that is not? What price do you pay in your efforts to make changes in your life? What price do you pay when you resist or avoid making changes? To what degree, do you think, is it healthy to remain the same? To what degree do you think it is unhealthy to modify aspects of your behavior and personality? What do you think are the advantages and disadvantages of making personal, interpersonal, and behavioral changes?
Additional questions to ask yourself: What is the appropriate balance between making internal vs. external changes in your life? How do you know whether you are attempting to make too many significant changes, too quickly? What are some of the warning signs that you are, or may be, pushing yourself too hard, too fast, and need to slow down? How well do you regulate putting your foot on the (metaphorical) brakes or accelerator? What symptoms do you develop if we don’t respect your human limits and personal limitations?
How do you know when you are attempting to cope with the stresses of life by excessively avoiding changing yourself? To what degree do you expect that others will change in order to better meet your own needs? Or, on the other hand, do you utilize a style of life wherein you tend to be over-accommodating to others? That is, do you tend to modify your own behaviors to meet the needs of others instead of focusing on your own needs? These are just some of the ideas to consider when thinking about the roles and effects of stress in, and on, your life.
Let’s look a bit into the life of Joe – an average sort of guy. He functions fairly well in life, and usually feels content with himself and his life. His relationship with his girlfriend is pretty good. “We all have our ups and downs –just like everyone else,” he is quick to point out. He has a couple of “good” friends, and occasionally knows how to have fun and enjoyment. He feels fairly good about his job, his income, and where he is living. If you knew Joe (and he was open to hearing what you had to say to him) how much would you make recommendations to him about how he could make certain changes or “improvements” in his life, so that he could live a better quality of life? Or would you not “interfere” with his points of view and personal lifestyle choices?
If the roles were reversed between Joe or another person, how open or not would you be to hear other peoples’ suggestions as to how you might make changes to “improve” your life? How open or not would you be to another’s (as a friend’s, partner’s, or spouse’s) “suggestion” or recommendation that you see a professional counselor or psychotherapist? To what degree do you view being in counseling or therapy as adding to or reducing your stress in life? Would you (much) rather take a (prescribed) medication or “self-medicate” (as with drinking alcohol) in order to reduce your level of stress (to relax, “chill out,” unwind)?
To what degree do you attempt to reduce your stress in life by both distracting yourself, or by using insight? There are many ways in which people reduce their stress by distracting themselves from upsetting and distressing (emotional and physical) feelings and states of mind. Some of these ways are planned and conscious, while other ways are unplanned and unconscious (out of awareness).
Examples of common distractions of daily life are: drinking alcohol and using other drugs (prescribed or unprescribed) beyond moderation, excessive involvements with social media, talking for long periods of time on the telephone with friends about casual issues, engaging in obsessive thinking and compulsive behaviors, watching television programs and sports events for several hours a day; over-sleeping, over-eating, over-exercising, and over-working. (You can probably think of many other ways in which people distract themselves from potentially distressing feelings and thoughts.)
Examples of engaging in insight producing behaviors (that is, activities that can produce or lead to increased understanding of yourself and/or others) include the following: reading a psychologically based self-help book, attending counseling/ psychotherapy sessions, writing in a personal journal, doing dream analysis; talking to a friend or relative about important events, interactions, and plans in your life; attending workshops, seminars, and self-help groups, etc.
As a result of reading this article, to what degree do you now feel more stressed out – and/or curious and intrigued about the possibility of attaining a more fulfilling future?