Relationship Therapy for Couples & Individuals

Tony Davis, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist

Category: communication

HOW DO YOU KNOW WHEN TO GO?

They say that most couples remain in a relationship for six years after the problems start before breaking up or seeking therapy. I have had couples in my practice who have waited longer than that before coming in! When they do come in, part of my job is to assess if there is still an emotional connection–it is sad when there isn’t anymore–and I often need to share this observation with them (and then let them decide what to do). The absense of emotional connection does not mean they have to split–it just lets them know realistically where they are. No matter what they decide, I work to create movement–because the only sign of failure in couples therapy is when nothing changes.

Why do people stay together when they are not happy with each other? This is perhaps harder to understand than why couples break up–but don’t assume that this is because breaking up is easy. It rarely is. Other than a few clear-cut markers, it is difficult to know when to goStaying, on the other hand, can be due to multiple factors: biological, financial, environmental, even political. Marriages and relationships are not just about “being happy” for most people, though it does seem that “relationship happiness” is becoming more important than it was in the past.

So when do you know when to go? In this article I will address this by looking at the clear-cut reasons for leaving, the less than clear-cut reasons, and when the problems instead signal that the relationship would benefit from some work. Let’s get into it…

IT IS TIME TO GO:  Sometimes when it is clear-cut that we need to go, we still don’t. This is because the brain needs time accepting what it does not want to accept, especially when it is trying to accept unpleasant conclusions about our partner. There are a few situations that are definite red flags when assessing the chances for relationship improvement, because these situations rarely correct themselves. They include: alcohol or drug abuse and/or dependence (and yes, this includes chronic marijuana use); violent behavior toward one another; mental disorders; severe PTSD in an individual or shared trauma; or an ongoing sexual or emotional affair.

If any of these situations are happening, leaving the relationship certainly should be on the list of options. But even when it seems clearcut, the course of action can be complicated. Anyone could decide to live with any of the above issues, but accepting something and tolerating it are two different approaches. Often the most difficult aspect is when partners still love each other, despite the issues. Accepting that things may not ever change is not only letting go of our loved one, but also letting go of a part of ourselves. We lose a bit of our identity when we break up, whether we want to or not.

The bottom line: if any of the above issues are happening in your relationship, you will need help to sort it out.

IT MAY BE TIME TO GO, BUT MAYBE NOT:  A good reason for staying if any of the above issues show up is when the one with the behavior issue shows a desire to change, and then acts on it. Perhaps they join AA, or go into a treatment program. Perhaps they enter an anger management program, or start going to individual therapy. Perhaps they get prescribed medication by a doctor or psychiatrist that helps with mental issues, perhaps they finally end the affair. Perhaps they agree to begin couples therapy. Any of these actions are an indication that it does not need to end, but the change has to continue, and it has to stick, or the relationship is back to square one.

Other issues that can cause trouble but do not have to be deal breakers include: lack of sex or desire; performance anxiety; a one-time act of betrayal; breaking a promise; lack of agreement; changing values and changing goals. However, these issues can be difficult to discuss–these are conversations that could be aided by a skilled couples therapist. Dr. Walter Brakelmanns, my mentor at UCLA, once said that couples never get together by mistake, but they often break up by mistake. This is because difficult issues feel like dead ends–but they don’t have to be! They could be opportunities to become closer and build a stronger connection, while allowing you to appreciate how your partner is different than you and an individual in their own right. You may not have to go!

IT IS TIME TO DO THE WORK:  Most of the couples who come to see me in my practice complain of “communication issues”. What this means to me is that they don’t know how to talk to each other when they are upset. Well guess what–not many of us do! Conflict is one of the best things for relationships, because during conflict, vulnerabilities can be presented and responded to–if the couples knows how to do that. This is why, when a couples comes in complaining about communication as the main issue, it is time to do the work.

This work includes not only learning how to talk and listen differently, but also education about how the brain works when it senses a threat. Sometimes the couples work is helped along by individual therapy for each partner–as long as the individual therapist does not “villanize” the absent partner. It includes reinforcing what already works well, and increasing the amount of small things that you do for each other (strengthening the foundation). It means practicing the new skills that are learned, not just when there is conflict, but when you are both calm and able to explore upsets that have not been talked about.

***

The options explored above are less of a rigid template and more of a loose guide to help move couples in a direction that makes sense, given their circumstances. There is a lot of grey area between being madly in love and hating one another, and since a good relationship is hard to find and harder to build, why throw in the towel when you don’t need to? On the other hand, you have to know when it is time to go.

We all want to believe that love is enough to make things work, but it is not enough–it is just the start of the race. The fuel that keeps a relationship going is interest in each other and a level of caring that accepts that you are both individuals, together. They may not sing about this in the love songs, but they should, because if we prioritized these qualities above physical attraction and romance, chances are we would be staying more often than going!

HOW TO APOLOGIZE SO IT WORKS

 

“I’m sorry!” Who has not heard this a million times. And yet I wonder how many of you have felt that these two words are enough to make you feel better, let go of the hurt, and forgive another. I notice that usually the one uttering the phrase is actually more interested in getting off the hook than attending to hurt that may have been caused either intentionally or unintentionally. It is as if the “I’m sorry” really means “I didn’t expect for you to feel the way you feel, and I am sorry that you feel that way.” This is not the same as expressing remorse for our behavior–it actually makes the hurt person feel guilty about hurting!

So what is so hard about apologizing? Well, unlike the Elton John song, love does mean saying you’re sorry from time to time, but the mistake that most people make is that they forget the first step, which is not about apologizing. So what is this step?

WHY “I’M SORRY” DOES NOT WORK BY ITSELF: When we are hurt by something our loved one does or says, our natural reaction is to pull away from them and protect ourselves. The thinking that often goes along with this reaction is that we can’t trust the other to care for us in the way we like to be cared for in the moment. This may or may not be true, but what is important to know is that our thinking can work against us letting the other know about our hurt. Because of this, the other person has to “guess” at why we are upset, and since this is a dicey undertaking, they will usually just default to saying “I’m sorry” without any idea of why we are actually hurting! In these instances, the apology is received as an empty gesture, one that has no intention of actually repairing anything. This can then lead to frustration for the apologizer, creating even more distance between the two people. No fun!

WHEN TO USE “I’M SORRY”: You can’t put the cart before the horse, as they say, and that applies to apologizing before we even know what we are apologizing for. “I’m sorry” can only come after there has been some interest in how your actions or words affected the other person–not how you think they affected the other, but how they actually did. This requires sitting with them and asking what it felt like when you did or said the hurtful thing, and then listening without defending or justifying.

This is hard to do, because we are wired to protect ourselves. And yet what works in the outside world often backfires in close interpersonal relationships because in the latter the goal is to get more connected, not less! The good news is that if you are successful in exploring the feelings of the other, it won’t be long before they are no longer talking about the offending behavior, and instead they are talking freely about their inner world–what happens to them when they feel attacked or criticized. Only after we hear this information and reflect back our empathetic understanding can we then successfully offer an apology that lands. Only then will our apology address the hurt and be received. Only then is the apology an act of relational responsibility and not a way to get us off the hook.

APOLOGIES EQUAL ACCOUNTABILITY: Mark Manson writes a lot about responsiblity and accountability in his essays, and he makes a valuable point about how to clean up a relational mess. In his book, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ckhe writes about how important it is to be able to say to someone, “I am selfish. I care about myself [sometimes] more than the relationship.” (p. 185) Admitting that is the first step in being responsible for your behavior toward others, and accountable for the effect it has on them.

Note that this is different than being responsible for the effect–you are not responsible for what they feel, but you have accountability, which means that it is up to you to clean up the mess (respond)! But here is the good news–it works! Not only will you find that your apologies are accepted more often, but you will have less actions held over your head for all time. In addition, you will find yourself being more in control of your experience in the world, since you will be focusing on what you have control of (you!), and not on what you don’t (how others feel!).

To sum up, remember that the apology is what comes after a deeper understanding of how your actions/words affected someone. The apology works best if it is a indication of empathetic understanding, and it can lead to feeling connected and cared for. The best way to approach this is to get interested in the other and what they are feeling, without feeling responsible for those feelings. You are the trigger, not the cause. Your role is to care, not to fix. If you learn how to properly offer an apology, you might just find that you are needing to offer them less often!

 

HOW TO KEEP TEXTING FROM RUINING YOUR RELATIONSHIP

I have written previously about how to grow your communication skills. In this post I want to key you in on what can interfere with the implementation of these skills. In order to succeed at anything, you have to know what the obstacles might be!

Have you noticed–some thing just never change! Despite the advances in technology, humans are still, well, human animals, with newer and older operating systems running our brains. One area where we have advanced technologically at a rate not met by our physiological and developmental advancement is communication. Technology is not ideal for all purposes–sometimes the best method is old-school!

In this article I briefly look at “texting” as something that, if used ineffectively, can cause serious damage to relationship communication. While I have no issue with the use of texting per se, I do think that certain communications still need to be done face to face.

So let’s take a look at the guidelines…

USE TEXTING FOR THIS: There was a joke a while back that pretended that texting was not the only way to communicate–that there was this new wonderful thing called “talking”! As silly as that is, if you think about it, it could make sense. Texting in itself is a weak way to communicate because it keeps us from getting vital information that is relayed by tone of voice, facial expression, body language, etc. It would seem as though talking to one another, even on the phone, would be an advancement. So then why don’t people do it much anymore? I think that the answer is convenience.

Texting is a great way to do information exchange. Things such as where to meet, when to meet, changes to plans, or requests for information are easily communicated using texting. But that is about it! The reason why texting works for these things is because they consist of information, or content, and not emotion, or process, and also the communication is interactional. If you check into why emojis were created, you will find out that they were an attempt to insert emotion into text. They do accomplish this, but in a very limited way. One person’s smiley face is not necessarily another’s. Texting works best for simple exchanges of information.

DON’T USE TEXTING FOR THIS: Relationships get into trouble when they extend texting outside the boundary of information exchange. Granted, there are benefits to sending a partner sweet nothings, such as “I love you”, or “Thinking about you”, but trouble happens when upset or anger is communicated using texts. The reason for this, based on what I have heard in my office, is that there are so many chances for misinterpretation. Also, any conversation about feelings is doomed if it is interactional–this is why they are best done face to face where a talker can be a talker and a listener a listener.

When we listen in person to someone who is upset, we hear not only the anger, but often also the pain. This experience of their pain can serve to kickstart empathy in us; we can avoid defending ourselves and respond to what is being said. In texting, we usually just see the anger, and couples have reported responding in the expected ways: with counter-attack or defensiveness. It doesn’t work if your goal is to resolve conflict and build intimacy, trust, and closeness! This is why I suggest that once you feel yourself getting upset at what you are reading (OR sending), STOP TEXTING, and instead either call the person or arrange to continue the discussion when you can meet in person.

Avoid using text when discussing a conflict or disagreement, or when you are agitated, angry, or very upset. The best thing to do in these cases is to let another know that you would like to talk by phone or face to face as soon as possible.

HOW TO RESPOND IF SOMEONE BREAKS THESE RULES: I always remind my couples clients that there will be times when they do not make the best choices in their relationships. I even remind them that I don’t always adhere to what I know works well! As my teachers have told me, it is not so important what happens, but what you do about it afterwards that makes all the difference.

If you find that you and another have had a bad text exchange with insults and misunderstandings, wait a bit until you cool down. Then reach out to this person and ask if you can meet or talk on the phone to discuss what happened. Use the skills I shared about communication to talk about how you feel and be curious about how this affected the other. Apologies only work if the one offering has a felt sense of how hurt the other feels.

THE QUESTION THAT COULD SAVE YOUR RELATIONSHIPS

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!

THE ESSENTIAL COMMUNICATION SKILLS!

It would not be an exaggeration to say that nearly every couple who comes to see me talks about wanting to “communicate better”. When I ask them what they mean by this, I often hear, “We want to stop fighting and understand each other better.” Okay!

Why is this so hard for people to do? If it were easy, they would not need to come see me! It is easy if you know what to do and what not to do, but unfortunately we are not taught these things. I suspect that this is because there is a myth that if someone loves you, they should know what you need and want. This can happen, but certainly not all the time! What do you do the rest of the time?

Here is a quick primer of how to increase the chances that when you need to communicate, it will be received and understood by the listener:

REDUCE OR ELIMINATE CRITICISM: The most important task in communicating more effectively is to eliminate criticism. Criticism only succeeds at pushing the other away from you, or inciting criticism back toward you. It NEVER works if your goal is to connect and build trust!

If you hope to reduce criticism, you have to learn to recognize it either in yourself or in the other. Walter Brakelmanns defines criticism as including a judgement and a demand. So if you say, “I am angry because you left the towels on the floor”, this is not a criticism! It is simply an emotion connected to a person and an event. In order to be a criticism if would have to include a judgement and a demand, for example: “I am angry at you for leaving the towels on the floor! You are a slob for doing this–knock it off!” The italicized part is the judgement and demand.

The best way to reduce this from happening is to notice when you are getting overly agitated, and stop engaging. Research has shown it takes about 30 minutes to regulate back to normal, so let your partner know that you are too upset and you want to revisit the issue in half an hour or more after you have calmed down. If you notice your partner getting upset, you can be the one to suggest a break.

DON’T BE DEFENSIVE. INSTEAD, DO THIS: There is a way to respond to criticism that is key to avoiding a fight, and it takes some practice because it goes against our natural urge to defend when attacked. Defensiveness, like criticism, does not work if you want to resolve anything. But there is an alternative to staying silent.

If you are criticized, try to find out what the other is feeling underneath the criticism. Remember that criticisms signal that someone is hurt or upset, and as a result they often want others to hurt as well. Not fun! Instead, get interested in what the hurt is about. The challenge with doing this is to put aside your own desire to attack back or defend. This takes practice!! I always suggest to my clients that they practice this around smaller issues and not wait until a big problem happens.

Using the previous example, it does not really matter if you left the towels on the floor (unless you are problem solving, but that is another article!), so practice “taking it on”, and then get curious. Instead of arguing that you didn’t leave the towels, you could say, “When I did this, what happened to you?” If you stick with finding out what the other is feeling inside, you will be surprised how quickly they stop talking about the towels.

REQUEST INSTEAD OF DEMAND: Our “go-to” when we are frustrated is to tell someone what to do. Problem is, it rarely works! Requests have a much better chance of being met with cooperation! I notice that people resort to demands because they have sat on a need for a while, and now that need bursts forth as an angry demand: “Stop doing that!” Since demands are a part of criticism, you can imagine the results.

Requests succeed because they “invite” the other to accommodate, or make a change. Lasting change only happens if one wants to change, not because they are told to. But remember that the nature of a request is that it may not be granted! If it is not, then you have a chance to either accept that, or talk further about how you feel.

The benefit of learning and practicing these three skills is that they can turn conflict into a constructive event, rather than a deconstructive one! ALL relationships have conflict, but it is how you have that conflict that determines whether you get closer or further from the one you are engaged with. In my practice I work with couples and individuals to help them master these skills, and stop what doesn’t work! Try these out for yourself and watch your communications skills grow!

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén