The Power of Checking Your Assumptions With Your Partner

In many ways, human beings are narrative creatures. We make sense of our world by telling stories about it, by picking out patterns and weaving them into the overarching narratives of our lives. Stories help us understand who we are, and how we fit into the world. They help us create meaning, identity, and connection.

Sometimes, though, you may find yourself telling a story that hurts you. You may attach your identity to a narrative that diminishes your self-worth: “I’m always passed over, always second-best.” “When people see what I’m really like, they leave.” “I’m such a disappointment. I never do anything right.” These stories can start from a single bad experience or a series of painful interactions, or they can come to you in messages from your culture. But as you retell them over and over, they start to feel like they reflect an essential truth about who you are and how you relate to the world.

These stories are pernicious because they color your perceptions of how other people interact with you. For instance, if your narrative is “Everyone gets sick of me eventually,” how will you react when your partner says, “I would really like some alone time tonight”? Will you think, “That’s ok, everyone needs alone time now and then, and I’m sure she’ll want to see me soon,” or will you go down a dark tunnel: “She’s finally started to get bored with me and now she’s distancing herself. She’s probably preparing to dump me.”

Telling this story prevents you from hearing what your partner is really saying, which is much more likely to be about them than about you. This then creates unnecessary stress, pain, and conflict. You’re acting out a conflict with yourself through your partner–and your partner may not even know the role that you’ve cast them in. But how do you fight a narrative that feels so instinctively true?

The first step is recognizing what negative stories you tell yourself. When you’re feeling bad, what messages do you give yourself? Once you identify the harmful narratives, it will be possible to notice when one of them starts running through your head.

Being more aware of the stories you tell yourself will give you the opportunity to pause and check your assumption with your partner, before you start to spin out. “Sweetheart, sometimes I worry that (fill in the blank.)” “Sometimes when I’m down, I start to think that (fill in the blank).” By doing this, you’ll give your partner the opportunity to let you know what they’re actually thinking in those moments–and it’s likely to be much, much less scary than you think. It requires a leap of faith to share your scary, vulnerable, revealing fears, but it’s worth it.

Why Helping Your Clients Find the Joy is a Crucial Part of Couples Therapy

It is tempting to spend a lot of time in therapy working on making the things that are going wrong in relationships go better. But what exactly is that effort supporting, if the partners don’t connect, are constantly at odds, and becoming fatigued by all the conflict?

In my opinion, at least half of therapy must be about creating, improving and multiplying positive interactions. If your clients don’t feel like their relationship is worth the effort, of they don’t get joy out of each other’s company, hopelessness will win in the end.

Therapy is hard, because working as a team in an intimate relationship involves becoming more curious and less reactive. Nobody is going to work hard to modify their automatic responses in a marriage where fun has become extinct.

There are a number of ways you can help your clients rediscover the joy in their relationships. Here are some strategies to consider:

  • Help your clients remember positive interactions. Consider: What made them positive? How can the mood of those past interactions be re-created in current circumstances?
  • Create a positive interaction in your therapy room. I start most sessions by asking each partner to express appreciation or gratitude to their partner for something fairly specific they did or said recently that made a difference, and why. (A tip of my hat to the Developmental Model, once again!)
  • Remind your clients that positive aspects of their relationship continue to exist even when they’re not agreeing about something. Help them pay attention to those aspects of the relationship that are really working, and develop a practice of noticing and appreciating those moments.
  • Help clients create a daily positive interaction habit. Many clients already have at least one positive interaction each day, in which case it can be expanded to more, longer, or more meaningful. However, some clients many need to start small. Small or large,  being able to deliberately create a positive interaction is an indispensable skill for a strong relationship. It requires self-control, compartmentalization, making a clear choice, emotional regulation, motivation…all the skills couples need in order to function as a team.

As clients become better able to deliberately choose, create, and change the tone or atmosphere of an interaction, it becomes increasingly possible to help them have more productive conversations about tough topics. Helping each partner focus on their own individual interactional goals (for instance, responding with curiosity rather than defensiveness) will help them experience one another differently when they discuss their differences–as teammates and collaborators rather than adversaries. Creating positive experiences builds positive regard as well as goodwill and motivation. In the end, the couple will find themselves with the opportunity to build something MUCH better than either has ever imagined.

The Case For Going “Slow and Steady” To Resolve Couple Conflict

One of the most important skills I help couples build is the ability to tolerate tension between partners. The impulse to hurry up and find a solution is undeniable. Being in tension with a disagreement or two different points of view is extremely anxiety-producing and, for some, excruciating. If only there were a simple solution or a quick resolution, the pain would end, right? But when couples rush to a resolution, they often make mistakes that end up damaging their relationship in the long term.

For instance, one person may give way, and decide to “just let go of it” or “agree” in order to get their partner off their back. This stops the conflict in the moment, but it’s a recipe for building resentment over time, as well as for broken promises down the line.

Any big difference of opinion will take time to resolve. Your clients are likely to want a quick fix, but allowing things to move too fast will end up either entrenching both partners in their positions, fanning the flames of conflict, or forcing one partner to give way.

Instead, try these strategies:

  • Normalize the disagreement. Every long term couple has substantial differences, and there is nothing that makes that an emergency, in and of itself.
  • Remind them that a solid functional resolution is the goal, not a fake agreement or glossing over something important.
  • See if you can help them get curious about why their partner might see things they way they do. This is an exciting stage of relationship. This is how partners learn about their differences.
  • Support the curiosity, and guide the conversation deeper, holding space for tension, not resolution. This will create an atmosphere of creative thought and empathy rather than anxiety and hasty attempts to soothe.
  • Breathe. This can be challenging for therapists, who also would feel better if there were a simple resolution. Be gentle with yourself and go slow.

By taking time to consider the issue from multiple perspectives, rather than rushing to an imperfect solution, your clients will learn more about each other and themselves, and build the skills they need to handle the next conflict that comes up. Guiding your clients along this process is the key to nurturing their relationship’s long-term growth, rather than simply rehashing the fight of the week.