Many people are braced for the fight, prepared to defend their position, accustomed to feeling wronged or slighted, and exhausted from repetitive fights that have gotten nowhere.
Separating the perception of criticism from ACTUAL criticism is key, and distinguishing between differences of opinion and criticism of one another’s viewpoints is part of this.
Defensiveness is one of many ineffective coping strategies people use when they feel threatened. It shows up when a person feels criticized, attacked, diminished, or slighted. “I did not!” or “You aren’t understanding what I meant to do there” or “I did the only thing I could do in that situation”.
When people get defensive, they become terrible listeners–and therein lies the problem in therapy. Defensiveness is human, as is its sister, attack, and and nothing makes people defensive like perceived criticism.
Sometimes people are so prone to feeling criticized that even their partner’s reasonable expression of a difference of opinion can feel like an attack. How can you help those partners lower their defenses so that they have a chance to listen?
- Normalize differences. Everyone is a unique individual, with their own set of preferences, feelings, and desires. Partners should not expect to agree on everything. Disagreement doesn’t have to be threatening–in fact, viewed through the right lens, it can even be exciting. Differences of opinion offer an opportunity to learn more about one another’s unique perspective and experiences.
- Help your clients access curiosity. Remind them, “Your partner is telling you something about themselves; who they are, what they think, believe, and prefer, and how they’ve learned to interpret things.” Framing things in this way helps clients stop seeing their partner’s expression of difference as a personal affront.
- Work towards empathy. I might ask the client, “Knowing your partner as you do, does it make sense to a part of you that they might view it this way?” By making room for natural ambivalence and differences even internally, I hope to encourage the client to have a genuine realization: “Oh! I get it now. Knowing you as I now do, it makes perfect sense that you would have felt like that. I would too, if that were my perspective.”
If you like what you read here, you should know that much of it is taken from the Developmental Model of Couples therapy. There are several great ways you can learn more….
- Read more posts here on my blog. I’ve written plenty about the Developmental Model before. Maybe you’d like to start with the story of how discovering the Developmental Model saved me when I was struggling and turned my practice around. Or if you want to dive right in, you can find all the posts with the Developmental Model tag here.
- Check out Ellyn Bader’s blog, and consider signing up for her mailing list. She sends out tons of great, free resources for therapists.