Relationship Therapy for Couples & Individuals

Tony Davis, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist

Category: relationship


Could just one question really save your relationships? It could, depending on the state of things. But the time to “save” your relationships is not when the ship has already sunk. The question I want to share with you is about saving them from sinking in the first place, which means that it works best when you are still above water.

Even so, this question is useful in nearly all circumstances, since it will give you just a moment to review what you are up to with your communication. Sometimes that “pause” can be the difference between making it or breaking it!

So let’s find out what I am talking about…

THE QUESTION: As a therapist who focuses on relationship issues, I notice that many clients want to know the “why” of another’s behavior. “Why did they do this? Why did they do that?” While these are understandable questions, I am always looking for whether a question will lead one on a journey of discovery or to a dead end. “Why” questions may get you a reason, but what do you do with that information? You might feel better knowing another’s intention IF they actually share it with you, but I notice that these answers rarely lead to greater understanding. Besides, questions starting with “why” can often come across as critical.

The questions I suggest is actually not about the other, it is about you! Without further ado, here it is:

“What is the purpose of what I am about to say or do?”

WHY THIS QUESTION WORKS: Remember how I mentioned the “pause” earlier? Well, this question requires a pause, because we have to think about the answer. When we are feeling upset, our left brain is often “off-line” and we are motivated by our feelings. This can backfire if we then say something meant to create distance rather than closeness.

When we ask what the purpose is, we trick our brains into bringing the left brain back online so that we can think of an answer! This alone can be enough to prevent us from saying something regrettable later on. Additionally, it causes us to review exactly what we are up to at the moment. If you truly want to hurt someone, then you will go ahead and unleash your fury. But if your want someone to know that you are hurting or upset, then you will express yourself differently and talk about what is going on with you.

HOW DOES THIS CHANGE WHAT WE SAY/DO?: Most people I know don’t want to push those they love away. But we do this if we feel that we won’t be responded to in a caring way. If getting a caring response is your goal, then clarifying that purpose will influence your actions. Instead of criticizing or withdrawing, you might say something like, “I am so angry at you right now, and I really want you to hear me out so that I don’t get angrier!”, or, “I would like to talk with you about something that is bugging me before it becomes a big issue.”

Statements like these have a better chance of being responded to positively than critical statements. If your purpose is to be heard, have someone understand you better, diffuse resentment or anger, re-connect, clarify a boundary, then you will be best served knowing that and acting/speaking accordingly. All it takes (with practice!), is taking a pause to ask yourself, “What is the purpose of what I am about to say or do?” This question focuses on your actions, not what the other is doing, and can change your communication from being distancing to being connective. It will also give you a good shot at getting what you really want from another. In other words, it works!


“You had me at hello.”

It sounds simple, doesn’t it? We come home and see our loved one, thinking that it will be a reprieve from the stress of our day. Why then do so many couples struggle with greeting one another? I have noticed that rather than feeling relieved, some feel the pressure of meeting needs or getting needs met. Many couples report feeling as though it is a “competition”.

Things are not as simple as the old days (see picture above), when men worked and wives stayed home. While not a fan of that template (it had its own problems!), I suspect that the rigid structure made it simpler to attend to each other at times, or at least simpler for men to get their needs met! Men brought home the bacon, and women fried it up in a pan. (Again, not a fan!)

Nowadays most households have both partners working, and often with opposing schedules, so who attends to whom? If both are bringing home the bacon, who does the frying? Does it have to be a tug-of-war? Is it possible to greet one another in a way that reconnects and refreshes rather than it feeling like a task? Yes it is! And it has to do more with your intention than your actions.

IT DOES NOT HAVE TO BE A COMPETITION: I often hear how tired people are–the demands of work, family, and relationship can contribute to all three feeling like tasks, rather than the first serving the latter two. If you have a job where you are meeting needs for others all day long, it is reasonable to want your needs met when you get home! But is that what your partner is for? What about their needs, their tiredness? Does it have to be YOU vs. THEM?

If viewed as a competition, the choices made will serve the individual. There is nothing wrong with getting individual needs met, but many couples favor this and neglect the needs of the other and the relationship. Conflict can happen if one relies on the other for ALL their needs, seeing the relationship as a vehicle for getting some of the things that they could and should be providing for themselves! If both partners are doing this, it can cause a sense of competition to get what is wanted, with the relationship and connectedness suffering as a result.

Needing another is NOT co-dependence! We have evolved to prosper from healthy inter-dependence, which means that as I attend to you, I attend to myself. “Need competition” can only exist in relationship when a couple is disconnected, because in this state the main concern is protecting the self–there is no “relationship” to fight for. When you are connected, the relationship is as much a concern as individual needs, so attending to the other and the relationship means you both win!

WORDS CAN GET IN THE WAY: Granted, modern living can make it difficult to do this, especially if our individual needs have been neglected all day long. What can make this easier?

If you are in a relationship, how do you greet your partner(s) when you get home? Is it a kiss on the cheek and an inquiry into how their day was? Do you launch into your day, with the expectation that they will be interested and engaged in listening to you? Do the words you say often end up looking like a demand or a criticism? Are you interested in each other?

Words can get in the way of connecting meaningfully. I notice that the things many couples talk about are about everything except what would connect them: their boss, the traffic, the kids, the plans for tomorrow. All of that can wait until you actually spend some time finding out who the other is in this moment and what is going on with them, while letting them know the same about you. How is this done? Without words, sometimes! I regularly assign my couples clients the exercise of GAZING, a simple and effective way to connect to the other without talking. You simply spend a few minutes looking into their emotional world. (Click HERE for a link on how to do this exercise.)

If you want to use words, I suggest getting curious about the other who you are seeing “anew”. Some questions you could ask include: What did you find out about yourself today? What have you been waiting to share about your day? Did you talk to anyone interesting today? Where are you at right now? You can even use the time-worn “How are you?”, if you are willing to really hear their answer! Let your interest guide you as you consider what you really want to know about this person who you haven’t seen all day. Think about the effect it would have if you set aside the thought that there were exactly the same as when you last saw them.

ATTENDING TO SELF AND RELATIONSHIP: They say that how we think about reality defines our experience of reality. If you see your relationship as a place where all your needs must be met, then it is likely that you will spend a lot of time being resentful and disappointed. If, however, you see your relationship as an entity with needs of its own, apart from individual needs, then your approach will be relationship-serving as well as self-serving. The relationship will refresh you.

The result is to keep it feeling new, to stay away from the thought that there is nothing more to learn about your partner and nothing new to offer them. I see the greeting as a way to ask one another, “Who are you now?” If you ask this with genuine interest, you might be pleasantly surprised by the answer, and find yourself looking forward to reconnecting!

NOTE: Connection doesn’t always happen simultaneously. It helps to be curious about what the other needs before diving back into the relationship. How these needs are communicated is key, however. If you are one of those people who needs to “unwind” for 30 minutes before you listen to your partner, then let them know that, with the added information that you will be available in 30 minutes. Don’t leave them hanging! This is a way to take care of yourself AND take care of them!



Heart inside brain


It seems that people who seek out therapy are usually fairly intelligent. After all, it takes some mental effort to examine one’s life! I like to think of myself in this way as well, yet to this day I am regularly asked why I go to therapy (implying that I should be able to “figure it out” myself!) While that is often the case, there are instances when it is difficult to even know what is in the way of change! We can’t always “see” everything, because some of the obstacles in our lives put themselves in the way without even being noticed, and then continue to “hide” behind expectations, cultural trends, and family tradition. 

This dilemma fascinates me, and has led me to make it the  direction of my practice. How can we become “smarter” in our life and relationships? Read on…

The Brain
Intelligence is a double-edged sword, don’t you think? On one hand, it makes available a way of thinking that can include greater skills of critical thinking, reasoning, and insight. However, it can also lead to frustration when we have difficulty “thinking” our way out of a problem. Not all solutions in life are found in books!

Our brain does not always work in our favor. Because it has evolved over time from initially one to now three main parts, it can be thought of as a computer that uses both new AND old operating systems. What this means for us in the world is that our intuitive nature and our reason don’t always line up on the same side. For instance, we might find ourselves drawn to an ex who we know is not good for us, or we might be confused at why we stay at a job where we are treated badly. In my youth, I regularly beat myself up for choosing people and places that were not good for me! Often, I see clients who place the blame on themselves when this type of thing happens, as if they “should have known better”. Well what exactly does “knowing better” mean, and is that possible?

Smart Lives 
Shame and embarrassment tend to stop the process of reflection and insight cold. Who wants to think about change when the thinking about it makes one feel worse about themselves? In my work, I get curious about why we should know better–who would have told us the information? I notice that most people do the best they can with the limited and mostly misleading facts we are given regarding human nature, relationships, and the brain. If you are going to start making smarter decisions (intuition and reasoning line up), then you need to know what you are dealing with and how to interpret what your head is telling you. You need to know what you are doing that and whether or not that is getting you where you would like to go.

Smart Relationships 
Smart relationships come from smart choices! This means knowing what your intuition is telling you about someone (attach, attach!), and not putting meaning into that feeling that does not belong there (I’m in love!). It means paying attention to what your reasoning says (don’t get involved with an unavailable person!) and recognizing that that may go against the feeling of attraction. Smart choices come from considering all of that information, and then carefully weighing it out, over time, as you add more information to the mix. You do not need to make a decision right away, in fact, you can’t make a “smart” decision until you have more information! Along the way, you can “enjoy” the excitement of attraction while not letting that influence your decision about compatibility too heavily, too soon. Smart means recognizing that attraction is only one component of compatibility, and giving appropriate meaning to respective experiences with that person. Falling in lovemay be a romantic ideal, but it does not always lead to a smart relationship! If you are intent on running that race, I suggest you educate yourself about the sport!

Smart Therapy
My focus on Smart Therapy is a way for me to incorporate all my favorite approaches in the room: compassion for a client’s self-judgement; psycho-education and referrals for further exploration; and vigorous discussions that examine and deconstruct the stories that influence relationship decisions, with the opportunity to then choose smartly with awareness! Wouldn’t it be nice to find out that you can break painful patterns and increase the odds of reaching your goals? My focus is a way to help decrease the confusion, anger, frustration, and regret around your relationship choices. While no approach is a guarantee of a particular outcome, you can greatly increase your chances for having smarter relationships!


Chemistry of Love

There are some laws that require a closer evaluation from time to time, because laws in general are not irrefutable and often have to be adjusted. However, there is one law that we rarely examine, despite so many instances of misuse, and this would be the Law of Attraction. I often get the sense that this is a law that is frequently applied yet seldom understood, and as anyone can tell you, if you don’t read the signs before parking, you are asking for trouble!

I am not sure how you would define it for yourself, but I tend to split the law into two areas: physical attraction; and emotional compatibility. This makes it easier for me to point out where we “break the law” so often, and why we should not be surprised at ourselves when this happens. Everyone understands physical attraction because there are bodily sensations that usually go along with it: heart rate increases, skin flushes, stomach butterflies, etc.  And perhaps it is also easy to understand emotional compatibility for its benchmarks: shared values, common interests, mutual respect, attunement, feeling safe.  Where we get into trouble is when we lump the two areas together and allow a “Yes” vote in one area to influence or even override the voting procedure in the other.  For example, it is very easy to assume emotional compatibility because we find ourselves attracted physically to someone.  Some of it may just be wishful thinking, but it can really get us into trouble if we stop the evaluation process right there.

We all know people who drink Diet Coke, and then think that this action alone will help them lose weight without changing any of their other habits.  This is similar to the way most people approach finding a mate, thinking that physical attraction is enough to bring about a resulting “good” relationship. And yet we all know that in addition to drinking low calorie drinks, losing weight also requires healthy eating and exercise.  Comparatively, when looking for a partner, you don’t have to throw out physical attraction—instead just add to the process.  Maybe this is why it is referred to as “chemistry”, since it is a process of combined elements!

Like many people, I have made the “mistake” of deciding on someone’s compatibility without a more thorough evaluation period.  I suspect that the necessity of an “evaluation period” is one of the main reasons we lean more on physical attraction—it takes less time!  Determining emotional compatibility requires repeated exposure to the other to allow attunement to build, trust to develop, and vulnerability to rise.  All of these ingredients are important keys to compatibility, and though some might argue that something like “trust” is a decision, I would contribute that it is a decision we make based on supportive evidence.  We decide we can trust someone because we have a history of trusting experiences with them; we allow ourselves to be vulnerable because we have a history of feeling safe around them; and attunement builds through prolonged closeness and intimacy.  The common denominator in all of these?  Time.  This is quite different from physical attraction, which can often show itself in a matter of seconds—sometimes the actual person does not even need to be present!

To sum up, it helps to think of the whole process like a recipe.  There are certain ingredients that are required, and the others can be altered or replaced.  Unlike baking, which is often extremely precise, your dating recipe can change with the mood—add a little more fun activities here, a little less making out in the car there.  Throw in a dash of trying something new together, stir, and bake.  We all know what happens when we leave out key ingredients in our recipe—the result exposes shortcuts that were taken, and we are suddenly not so hungry anymore!  Resist taking shortcuts with the processes involved in determining emotional compatibility and you have a better chance of ending up with a result you can enjoy.  As everyone always says about a great dish: “It was worth all the time that went into it”!

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