What I live for being a psychotherapist are individuals and couples who come into my office ready and wanting to work. People who want to roll up their sleeves and change their lives because they know they have some destructive habits that are preventing forward movement. They know they have issues to work on that are impeding their happiness and are eager to take them on. The hard part of my job is watching people stubbornly remain stuck in destructive thought patterns or behaviors, holding onto what they know (despite the pain it causes them) in favor of the temporary discomfort of trying something new.
When couples come into my office my job is to identify behavioral and communication ruts they have formed that lock them in a place of frustration, hurt, and disappointment. So after getting to know what brought them into my office and what they identify as the “problem,” I start to focus my observations on how they interact. It’s not long - generally 15 to 20 minutes into the session - before they begin to exhibit communication pitfalls they have formed that are causing them not to feel heard, but rather dismissed and devalued. Once we have identified these pitfalls, my job shifts to coaching them on new skills. This is the hard part; we are all innately wired to resist change – even though change is a constant and often for the better. But when we refuse change, unrest and dissatisfaction can set, our quality of life suffers, and we begin to blame others, or circumstances, around us for our dissatisfaction. We take on the thought process of a victim, blaming outside forces for situations causing us to feel angry, depressed, stressed, unloved, unheard, etc.… instead of taking ownership for a thought or a behavior that creates the negative emotions and perceptions.
One question I often ask couples, as they are disagreeing in front of me, with their communication pitfalls on full display, is, “How often have you had this conversation.” This tends to disarm them as they look at each other and say, “Thousands of times!” So I ask, “And what solutions and fixes have you come up with to the problem?” to which they almost always reply, “Well, none.” I continue to focus the couple on forward movement from their destructive communication patterns by asking, “So the manner in which I just watched you two interact… is that how it usually goes or was it more intense than usual?” and they generally reply it was “actually much calmer.” But even if their interactions are more subdued in my office than when they’re alone, from what I witness I often find predictors in their exchange the tell me they are headed for divorce. The final question is built to break down resistance and defenses in the couple. It triggers thinking in the pre-frontal lobe area of the brain which is important to engage problem-solving skills. I ask, “When you have these arguments where you raise your voices, talk faster, purge your feelings on how you have been wronged or criticize each other, how often do you walk away feeling the problem is solved and you emotionally feel good?”
The response is always “Never!”
It is at this point in the session that I am able to move onto building important survival skills that will set a couple up for success and begin to break down behavioral patterns that have become destructive ruts. I start to educate them on how to fight fair.
Impact of Words
Word choice is paramount in an intimate relationship! With even a single word you can build someone you love up or crush them in an instant. The opinion you have of your partner means more to them than anyone else they encounter. They want to know you love, honor, and respect them all the time even - especially - when you are frustrated or angry with them.
Choose words that reflect your love more than your criticism. The number one reason I see for divorce are the hurtful words people choose. They will eventually cause someone to walk when being around you causes more pain than being apart. My homework for couples is to only use positive words with one another, for this is the first step in healing wounds, building trust, and moving forward. This is challenging for couples in chaos, but an imperative first step in moving forward.
Engage your Verbal Filter at All Times
For some people this is really hard for them to understand: Just because you have a thought or feeling does not mean it needs to be expressed!
One of the gauges of emotional maturity is the ability to filter your words and emotions and control adolescent impulses. In understanding your partner wants your approval, respect, and love; know that when you harshly criticize or spew unfiltered thoughts deep wounds are created and stockpiled with other unresolved hurts and relationship carnage continues without a chance to heal. And if you’re one of those who proudly “tell it like it is” or takes pride in being “brutally honest,” other people may experience you as unpredictable or a loose cannon. Frankly, people like a little varnish on their truth! If you are perceived as more interested in being “brutal” than simply “honest,” eventually people begin to walk away rather than waiting for the next ambush. Loving someone means committing to filtering your words so that your partner feels emotionally safe around you at all times, especially when they feel vulnerable. Filtering gains trust. A person who is unfiltered is untrustworthy.
Never, Ever, Ever Raise your Voice… Ever
Unless someone is about to step in front of a speeding car (or something equally dangerous), there is no reason to raise your voice. In an intimate relationship, a loud voice is used only to communicate physical danger. Conflict is never solved because someone talks loudly and fast. Instead the other person begins to tune you out, raises their voice in return, or completely shuts down. I instruct couples once a voice tone is elevated it is time to stop talking and to come back and try again later. Nothing is going to be solved by talking over one another.
15 Minute Rule
When discussing a problem in need of a solution, try to keep all discussions to 15 minutes. Once it goes past that point other issues start to enter the mix, confounding the problem-solving process as the discussion goes off-topic and increases frustration. Set a timer. Once it dings, walk away and come back to it another time. The problem does not have to be solved in one sitting! In fact, it likely won’t be.
After establishing these guidelines to follow the couple is sent on their way to “practice, practice, practice” these skills, setting forth the process of building a relationship that will succeed in solving challenges instead of staying stuck in destructive habits. Intimacy is tender and loving. Always treat your partner/spouse as someone you vow to love, honor, and cherish in all things you do.
This is what will set you up to last.