If you’re in a troubled or disconnected relationship, there's good advice available, based on research of what makes relationships succeed and fail and what people actually do in real life interactions. But relationship advice offers limited value - with a distinct probability of doing harm – when its focus is on tactics and maneuvers rather than strategy.
Strategy embodies what you want, tactics concern how to get what you want, and maneuvers are the actions you take to get what you want. Unless there is agreement on a strategy to repair the relationship, anything that either party does will seem like manipulation, no matter how benignly they might describe their efforts: e.g., trying to “get my needs met” or “communicate” or “be fair” or “hold you accountable.” This is not because either party is manipulative or controlling by nature; rather, it’s an unavoidable result when tactics and maneuvers supersede strategy.
Failures of tactics and maneuvers, when they have the imprimatur of authors or therapists, are almost always blamed on the partner’s “insensitivity, selfishness, stubbornness, laziness, immorality, mental illness, or personality-disorder,” thereby draining the life from any repair strategy, if not the relationship itself.
The most egregious example of putting maneuvers and tactics above strategy is the overemphasis on communication skills. Many therapists and self-help authors love these, because they are easy to describe, albeit almost impossible to enact effectively during heightened emotional arousal. But even when successful, they are likely to weaken a viable strategy of relationship repair. If you subscribe to communication skills as a cure for distressed relationships, ask yourself this: At those times when you felt heard in your relationship – when your communication skills worked – did you then feel closer, more connected, more valued? Did you feel more loving, caring, kind, and compassionate? If not, your partner probably felt on some level that your “communication” was an attempt to manipulate or control, when the real problem was tactics and maneuvers undermining the desire to repair.
Agree on a Strategy
A strategy for relationship repair should explicitly describe the kind of relationship both partners want to achieve. Tactics and maneuvers must be directed toward maximizing the agreed upon strategy and should never undermine or subvert it.
The following are examples of relationship repair strategies we’ve developed over the past decade in our boot camps for highly distressed relationships. Most of the 4,000 plus participants so far have chosen the first option, 13 percent go for the second, and 10 percent agree on the third:
Strategy 1: Build a connected, loving relationship, featuring teamwork, cooperation, equality, respect, compassion, kindness, affection, tolerance of differences, and mutual growth.
Strategy 2: Build a companionate relationship of mutual respect and support.
Strategy 3: Establish compassionate co-parenting upon the dissolution of our relationship, which we have come to regard as too damaged.
The following are the tactics developed in our boot camp to achieve any of the above strategies.
- Develop self-regulation skills
- Behave in accordance with your deeper values
- Practice binocular vision.
Self-regulation skill usually means the ability to regulate impulses and emotions sufficiently to act in your long-term best interests (so you don’t shoot yourself in the foot). I believe that self-regulation skill in love relationships must also include the ability to maintain self-value when we don’t like our partners’ behavior - so we do not feel devalued by it - and the ability to hold onto value for our partners, when we don’t like their behavior or they don’t like ours - so we don’t devalue them. When tactics subvert strategy, both parties feel they can neither sustain self-value nor value for each other without getting their partner to do something. At best, this amplifies the emotional intensity that tends to lock couples in power struggles. At worst, one or both try to get compliance by making the other feel shame, fear, or anguish, which is a definition of emotional abuse.
We’re especially prone to emotional dysregulation when concerned with what to say to get our partners to do what we want. It’s wiser to focus on the emotional state we’re in when we speak or act. Abundant evidence shows that people primarily react to the emotional tone of communication rather than the choice of words. These are non-verbal cues such as body language, tone of voice, facial expressions, tension, distractedness, hesitations, impatience, discomfort, eagerness, or enthusiasm, and behavioral impulses to approach, avoid, or attack. In fact, we most often react emotionally before the brain processes the meaning of the words. Thus good communication follows from self-regulation skill. But when couples try to put the cart before the horse, as many self-help authors imply they should (“You’ll feel better when you express how you feel!”), attempts at communication undermine self-regulation: i.e., both parties feel attacked (with their unregulated negative feelings as self-validating proof), while neither consciously intends to attack.
There is substantial reward for behaving in accordance with our deepest values: authenticity, conviction, long-term wellbeing. And there are painful reminders for ignoring or violating our deepest values: guilt, shame, anxiety, regret, feeling inadequate, or unlovable - whenever we fail to be caring, compassionate, protective, or loyal to the people we love. Unfortunately, we tend to blame these reminders on our partners (She’s laying a guilt trip on me!”), instead of viewing them for what they are: motivations to remain true to our deeper values. This is why blame never yields wellbeing and eventually makes us feel worse, as long as we continue to violate or ignore our more humane values.
Binocular vision is the ability to hold our partner's perspectives alongside our own, see ourselves through our partners’ eyes, and read our partner’s reactions to understand and compensate for our blind spots, which are things we inadvertently do to undercut our interactions or harm our relationships. With binocular vision, the heart of communication is to understand the partner’s perspective more fully, rather than control, manipulate, or negatively label it.
Never trust your own perspective, if you cannot see your partner’s alongside it. Even if very accurate, your perspective alone will provide an incomplete picture of your interactions. Worse, failure to see your partner’s perspective will render yours far from correct, as the brain tends to fill in gaps in data with negative attributions. In other words, you will assume the worst about your partner. Negative attributions usually start out wrong but quickly become self-fulfilling, as they intensify emotional reactivity and make both partners behave at their worst.
In our boot camps, we train participants in ways to develop new habits of self-regulation and interaction. Building new habits is crucial to repairing relationships, simply because well over 90 percent of emotional interactions between intimate partners, who live together for a significant period of time, run on autopilot, i.e., we tend to react the same way in the same contexts over and over. Under stress, habits dominate behavior. Due to state-deendent recall, when in aroused states, we're unlikely to remember what we learned in calm learning states. That's why Mr. Hyde can’t recall what Dr. Jekyll learned in self-help books or communication therapy.
Developing new habits is a tedious process, requiring high motivation to practice new behaviors daily for a period of six weeks or so – the optimal time-frame for habituation. Thus passionate commitment to a repair strategy is crucial to the recovery process.
The best way to evaluate advice on relationship repair is to test whether the recommended tactics and maneuvers advance the strategy to which you and your partner have passionately committed. If not, they are likely to undermine and subvert it.