Beyond Blame

Freeing yourself from toxic emotional bullsh*t

Couples: Overcoming False Helplessness

Couples: Overcoming False Helplessness

In my previous blog post, I discussed a reader who complained that his wife's use of sarcasm hurt his feelings. I wrote that the psychological roots of sarcasm are found in anger, distrust and fear, and if he wanted his marriage to survive and prosper he'd have to take action. I suggested he initiate a "couple’s conference on effective communication" in order to directly confront his, and their, problems.

Can a self-initiated couple's conference really help with such a difficult problem? We all recognize the potential limitation:  the power struggle that can quickly develop when one of them utters a complaint. All it takes is one "well, what about when you...!" and within seconds they're whirlng around in a destructive circular argument.

In addition, people tend to see themselves as helpless, especially within their relationships. They tend to live reactively and lack the confidence and drive to make meaningful changes for the same reasons they use sarcasm: anger, distrust and fear.

In fact, though, couples really can often solve chronic relationship difficulties by themselves once they recognize, deeply and profoundly, that the problems have grown to the point that lack of action will doom them to either separation or grim stagnation.

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While it would require several chapters to explore the idea of the couple’s conference in depth, here's the highly condensed version.

The resolution of a problem such as this first requires that both people involved concisely define both the issue and its severity. In this case, the husband’s issue is that his wife's use of sarcasm is intolerable. If he truly means that he cannot and will not tolerate living that way for the rest of his days, he must clearly communicate that, as a fact, to his wife. "If you continue regularly using sarcasm whenever you speak to me, I will either leave you or completely check out of the marriage." That's his bottom line declaration.

However, that’s only the first half. His declaration cannot be just another criticism-laced broadside in a relationship already filled with them. For him to be effective he must also acknowledge his own participation in their difficulties, as well as clearly state his heartfelt intention to examine and change his own offenses.

So he would immediately follow with something like this: "I can no longer tolerate the use of sarcasm because it's painful and makes me want to leave. I need to find a way to improve our relationship, and I want to know which of my behaviors you want me to change."

Please note that we're only talking about behaviors, the actions a person can control. Speaking is a behavior. Saying nothing is a behavior. So we're only discussing behaviors, not demanding that the spouse or partner undergo a new-personality implant.

Here’s the sequence for resolving a couple's problems as part of a couple’s conference:

1) each person must briefly clarify the issues from his/her own point of view, and assign a level of gravity, from irritating to severely painful.

2) Each person must be willing to listen attentively and then suggest ways he/she is willing to change his/her behaviors.

3) The couple then together designs a strategy for implementing the behavioral changes they've agreed upon.

A final note: We human beings are capable of making great changes in our attitudes, beliefs and behaviors. What's required is a clear understanding of what needs to be changed, why it does, and—extremely important—the support to proceed. With those three factors in place, surprising change can occur, and far more quickly than our anger, distrust and fear allow us to conceive.

Carl Alasko, Ph.D. is the author of Beyond Blame (Tarcher Penguin), and like his first book Emotional Bullshit, it has been published in five languages.

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