The Key to Effective Relationship Therapy

As a relationship therapist, my job description includes destabilizing the status quo of relationships that aren’t working. No matter how much you want your relationship to change, change is uncomfortable. It involves trying new things, adjusting to new ways of being and relating, digging deep for empathy and generosity of spirit, and generally wading into the unknown. 

Relational therapy also involves a commitment to personal growth. That often requires quite a deep look at oneself, which can be surprising and unsettling. Usually people start therapy when they feel very frustrated and dissatisfied with their relationship. Often this shows up as a strong desire for change in one’s partner: “If only my partner would change this, that, and the other thing, our relationship would be great.” So then, it might come as a bit of a surprise when you arrive in my therapy room, that the first thing I want to discuss is what you might want to change in how you are showing up in your relationship. 

I start there because, in my opinion, this is the difference between relational therapy that does work, and relational therapy that does not work. If each partner is able to identify at least one or two things they are doing that aren’t working very well in their relationship, that is a good start. The next step is to find individually-motivated reasons why each partner would want to change those things. “Because my partner wants me to” isn’t as effective a motivator for change as (for instance) “because it is the kind of person I want to be.”

It is so easy to look for external changes to circumstances (my partner changed and our relationship got better) rather than internal ones, but here is the unfortunate (and hopeful!) truth:

You can’t be the same person you are in the current non-working relationship and expect to have a relationship that DOES work. You have to become the person you want to be in the relationship you want to have and then observe what happens next. Hopefully, you will find that the relationship transforms as well.

When Partners Encourage Each Other To Lie

Of course, we all want our partners to be honest with us. But, at the same time, there may be some things we just don’t want to hear.

There’s a concept in the Developmental Model of Couple Therapy: “lie-inviting behavior.” What this means, basically, is that if you flip out when your partner tells you something uncomfortable, you’re sending them a message. Without meaning to, you’re saying “Next time, either don’t tell me at all, or don’t tell me the truth.”

Flipping out in any of its forms–yelling, crying, storming out, shutting down, name-calling–probably won’t stop your partner from doing or thinking the thing you don’t like. It will almost certainly stop them from bringing it up to you, however. That leaves you with a choice: would you rather do your best to withstand the discomfort in order to be able to hear the truth? Or would you rather push your partner to go underground, in exchange for feeling more comfortable?

If you want to truly know your partner, then you will need to be prepared to hear them talk about what is true for them, and what their perceptions, feelings, and desires are. If this is what you want, you will need to show your partner that you’re capable of handling hearing their truth. It’s your partner’s responsibility to be honest–but you can make that more likely by listening without judgement, holding steady through difficult emotions, and framing your responses as being about you, your feelings, beliefs, and the meanings you have learned to make. It’s particularly powerful if you can find it in yourself to thank your partner for telling you the truth even if it was hard for you to hear.

If you’ve been very upset in the past when your partner has told you a difficult truth, you may want to take the time to make a repair. You can go back to your partner and say, “I realize that my reaction to what you said may have made it hard for you to talk about this topic. I want you to know that, regardless of what I said in the heat of the moment, I appreciate that you trusted me enough to tell me the truth. I want you to be able to be honest with me, even about difficult topics, and next time I will do my best to take it in stride.”

If you’re a therapist, keep your eye out for lie-inviting behavior. Holding steady through a difficult conversation is a real differentiation-of-self challenge. I like to tell my clients that their efforts will be rewarded with the deeper intimacy that comes from truly knowing one another. Most of us want that, and being able to tolerate the discomfort of having differences is a big part of creating that closeness.

The Key To Resolving Couple Conflict? Uncovering Internal Motivation to Change

In my last post, I wrote about one of my strategies for working with couple conflict when partners strongly disagree. This week, I’m going to talk more about how I make space for partners to shift and grow by taking pressure off of gridlock, and creating a more creative, fluid space for collaboration.

When a couple disagrees about something, they often get gridlocked, meaning divergent positions become more and more solidified. As they argue, the partners can become completely polarized. This is the opposite of the flexibility, collaboration, creativity, flow, and teamwork that are necessary to work through a conflict in a way that strengthens a relationship rather than damaging it.

When couples are polarized, one partner is holding down position A, and the other is holding down position Z. It feels like a complete no-go. Only one can “win”, unless both give up something big, and they reluctantly and resentfully compromise to meet at position M. But if we can go a little deeper, we’ll discover that nearly always both partners can actually relate to both positions. They just feel like they need to really stomp on their position, because otherwise their partner will grab that slack and pull on it and “win.”

When I see this kind of situation, I focus first on one partner, and ask, “Is there any part of you that can relate to what she’s saying? Do you kind of see why she thinks it would be great to (save money, have kids, get a kitten, keep the kitchen cleaner)?” Then that partner can say “Well, I don’t agree, but I do see that there are probably advantages to having clean kitchen counters.”

I can continue that conversation, creating space for Partner A to have both positions. “This part of me thinks it would be great to have clean counters for all the reasons my partner says. But this other, much larger, part of me says ‘Hell no, this takes too much time, and it is not necessary, and I have more important things to do. If she wants cleaner counters, she can clean them, but not me.’”

As the dialogue progresses, both partners explore multiple perspectives within themselves. I help them go a little deeper into each part, exploring why this feels important and how the issue gets under their skin.

The key is that when the focus is on Partner A, one part of Partner A is talking to the other part of Partner A. Partner B is not yet in this discussion, and neither am I, other than coaching it along. The beauty of this is that it becomes apparent that the impasse for Partner A is within Partner A, and then when partner B does a similar exploration, we see that the same is true for Partner B. Often it turns out they agree far more than they disagree.

Sometimes I tell people “You are blaming this impasse on your partner, but the disagreement is actually inside of yourself. A part of you wants this, and another part wants that. You’re letting your partner argue for one position, while you argue for the other, but really you both hold both points of view.” Then I ask, “Can you get curious about what your partner thinks about this issue from a really creative, fluid place, rather than a polarized place? Can you express your thoughts to your partner from a fluid place where you can see multiple aspects of the dilemma?”