Maybe you’re in a relationship trough – arguments and hassle or disconnection and silent parallel lives. Or maybe it's less major: Your husband leaves his socks on the floor and it drives you nuts, or your wife doesn’t help you get the kids to bed.
Big or small, you have a few options. You could try and sort this out on your own (you’ve probably already tried that); do nothing and see if it somehow gets better (probably not), or you could take the plunge and go see a professional – a couple therapist (a decidedly better if somewhat scary idea). The therapist has a leg up over the other options in a few ways. One is perspective – she is looking at your relationship from the outside, rather than in the emotionally stuck middle that you are undoubtedly in. Not only does this make it easier for her to be a voice of reason and reality, but she can also see the greater gestalt that, up close, you cannot. But the other big advantage is that she probably thinks about relationship problems and solutions a bit differently than you might.
And that may be your fourth option – try thinking like her. While there are different styles and orientations to therapy, here are 10 general tips for thinking like a relationship therapist:
1. Think patterns, not people. When thinking about relationship problems it’s easy to think in terms of people, specifically who is right, who is wrong, who is screwed up, and who is really screwed up. This isn’t usually helpful and only leads to a blame game. Instead of people, think patterns. A does something, this triggers B, who in turn triggers A, then B. Some patterns are beneficial and help us stay sane and stable, others are neutral habits, and some are deadly and capable of damage.
The therapy mantra is that the pattern is more powerful than the people. (Try sitting in someone else's seat at dinner tonight and see what happens – just make sure all the knives are out of sight). So rather than wasting your time worrying about who is right, use it to try and decode the dysfunctional pattern. Once you do, change it. A good way to do that is to talk about it (the pattern) rather than the people: "I notice that a lot of times that when if I ask if you could pick up your socks you say you will but then don't, and then I get annoyed and nag you and then you blow up. I'm wondering if we can do this differently." But even if you can't do that, for whatever reason, just try changing it and if you can, let the other person know your intentions: "I'm doing this because I'm worried that ________." The beauty of patterns is that if you hold your ground, the pattern has to change. You, all by yourself, become the change agent of the relationship. Certainly a good and important start.
2. Think how, not what. Therapists tend to divide communication into two parts: Content (the what) and process (the how). In an argument about Tuesday vs. Wednesday, the facts you line up to make your case about Tuesday are content; the fact that you are both getting upset and arguing is the process.
The rule here is that process always trumps content. When emotions heat up, the problem in the room is the emotions, not whatever you are arguing about. Unfortunately, when emotions kick in, we’re tempted to ramp up the content as a way of dealing with emotions – you want to get the other person to understand, damn it, and you’re likely tempted to fight to the death to make your point. Anything you say is like throwing gasoline on a fire – it's likely to be misheard, misinterpreted.
Put out the fire by focusing directly on the process, the emotions and actions. We’re beginning to argue, I’m starting to feel angry. Fix the emotion – your anger – by breathing and calming yourself down, by walking away. Do your best to stay out of the weeds of content; if you don't, you'll wind up talking about Christmas '08 again, and you know where that leads.
But process too follows patterns. You and your partner each have your own ways of dealing with tension and conflict. Your overall way of handling stress and emotions – withdrawal, anger, passive accommodation – invariably and consistently triggers the M.O. of the other person, which in turn fuels yours. Quickly you both get into a negative loop that becomes your combined standard way of dealing with conflict and tension: anger/withdraw, withdraw/withdraw, anger/anger, etc. Your goal again is to break the pattern.
The easiest way to do this to try doing the opposite of your instincts. If you tend to withdraw, try stepping up and speaking up; if you get angry, calm down and listen; if you accommodate, figure out what you really want and say it rather than walking on eggshells. Again, your behavioral-emotional change will encourage the other to do the same.
3. Think adult. Adult here means being responsible with your emotions – using them as information rather than spraying them around the room. It is about being responsible in action – not harming others or misbehaving. It is about being responsible for your problems – that is, you ultimately need to deal with and fix them rather than expecting others to do it for you. It is realizing that it isn't always about you; it is not taking everything so personally; it is understanding that the other guy may be struggling inside in his or her own way. It is about being reasonable. It is… well, acting like an adult.
Most of us are generally able to pull off being adult at work, or when we're in a good mood. Trouble happens when we're at home, when the mood is sour. It's then that we're apt to slip into feeling like a 10-year-old and get all sulky or angry or powerless. As soon as you realize you're slipping into that 10-year-old feeling (and you know when you are), it's time to remind yourself that you, regardless of how you feel right now, are a grown up, and map out in your mind what a responsible adult may do. Sure, there’s an element of “faking it till you make it,” but by doing your best to adhere to an adult stance you can gradually train yourself to feel empowered rather than frightened or small. It's a matter of catching and changing it; with practice, the catch and change will become easier, more automatic.
4. Think of problems as bad solutions. Whatever you see as a problem – the socks on the floor, the lack of sex, your partner’s anger – ask yourself how it may be a bad solution to some other problem. You want to be curious about the driving impulse. You don’t have to have the answer but you need to raise the question: "Help me understand why you leave your socks on the floor." "We haven’t made love in a long time – how come?" And because anger is often driven by worry and fear, ask “What are you worried about?” rather than “Why are you so pissed off?” What is important that you sound calm when you ask the questions – like Mr. Rogers. If you sound angry or irritated, expect shutdown or anger in return.
5. Think present, not past. When you are struggling in a relationship, it’s easy for your mind to automatically scan through the past, collecting further evidence of injustices and mistreatment. It may give you fuel for futile arguments, but will do nothing to solve the problem and will only further drag you down.
Instead, try to focus on the present. Push aside the temptation to go down that history road and zero in on the here and now – the current problem, your current worry, the present: What can you do now?
6. Think behavior, not emotion. Many of us falsely believe that we need to feel like it to do it, which means if we don’t feel like it, we won’t or can’t. But if you keep doing the same thing you will keep feeling the same way. Don't wait for your feelings to change, do something and then your feelings will eventually catch up.
Behavior is the key to creating change because, unlike emotions and often even thoughts, behavior is the one aspect of ourselves that we can truly control. Action gets you out of the emotional mud and is an excellent antidote to depression and feeling trapped. So give your partner a hug five times a day whether you feel like it or not and see if it doesn’t change the emotional climate in the house.
7. Think small, think success. The hug is actually a good place to start. Because change creates anxiety, both change and anxiety are best tolerated in smaller doses. Because the goal is to break patterns, to do it different rather than doing it right, you don’t need to think make-over or major campaign. Instead, you simply want to step outside your comfort zone and take concrete steps, however small, that you can successfully do. So try the hug, and if that seems too tough, start with ramping up compliments or writing a note letting the other know how you have been feeling just to get things rolling.
And should even these small steps seem too overwhelming to take within the relationship, try building up your skills and confidence in easier environs. If, for example, you are trying to be more positive or more open or more assertive, road-test these behaviors with friends, strangers or coworkers where there are fewer emotional triggers to derail you. Once you get your sea legs there you can move on to the heavies like your partner or parents.
8. Think support. You can make changes on your own, but it is a lot easier with support. Obvious supports are people in your corner – your friend who encourages you, your mother who calls up and asks how you’re doing, a therapist who coaches from the sidelines and keeps you on track. But it can also come from reading and learning more about relationship change, from the online support of others dealing with the same problems. Or even from within you. Take the time to notice not failure, but success, not doing it right, but taking risks. Pat yourself on the back hard and often.
9. Think you. In case you haven’t noticed, all these suggestions involve you, not the other guy. The stance that most couples enter counseling with is: "I have a problem with you and as soon as you change (or I or the therapist can get you to change), I’ll feel better." This doesn’t work. All you both wind up doing is fighting over who should change, creating a futile power struggle.
Skip the drama, the playing victim, the manipulation. Again, be adult. Think about you, what you can do to fix the problem. Yes, do your best to let the other person know what you need and what (s)he can concretely do to make things better, but then get to work. Buckle down and do what you can to make the situation and problem better without keeping score, tallying up martyr points, without any expectations of the other. Again, since the focus is on changing patterns, if you do your part the best you can, things will begin to change.
10. Think effort, not outcome. There is an inspirational saying that you see in the hallways of businesses: Good decisions come from experience and experience comes from making bad decisions. Mastering life and relationships is a long process of experimentation. Life isn’t Ready, Aim, Fire; it’s Ready, Fire, Aim. Try something – with mindfulness, clear intentions and a good heart – see what happens, adjust, and try again. That’s always the best you can do, and don't waste your time and energy with internal scolding or heavy-hearted regret. On any given day you're always doing the best you can.
Hopefully, these tips give you something to work with, and you will find something that can help you approach your relationship problems in a different way. You don't have to be Freud, you don't have to do it all at once; instead, see which of these ideas catch your attention. Then pick a situation, a pattern, a problem, and map out a different approach, a concrete behavior that you can put into place. Start small. Focus on you. One change will lead to another.
You can’t make a mistake.