When a couple starts relationship counselling the therapist spends time trying to get a clear idea of the issues that are causing strife. Often the couple is stuck in a repetitive pattern of blame and complaint and feel frustrated that they have not managed to break out of a corrosive state of disappointment. Sadly, when trapped in a fog of negativity, each partner can get in their own way of happiness. Dissatisfaction causes a perpetual own goal. Although the intention of criticism is an attempt to revive the relationship, create change and reconnect lovingly, instead it creates resentment and is almost destined to fail.
An added difficulty is that a couple often comes with the perception that the other is the cause of the problem. They hope their partner will see the error of their ways and will be the one to make the necessary changes
However, there is optimism in the hope that the relationship can be more loving, lighter, more relaxed and less fraught. They long for ways to soften the hostile interactions.
But Michael Stanier* warns about the ‘Advice Monster’. Fixing the other is not the answer. ‘If only he/she was different everything would be fine.’ Instead of getting caught up finding solutions to the myriad of surface irritations, it is important to spend time investigating the root of the problems. The need to search more deeply is always flagged when a couple admits ‘It seems so trivial but…’ These trivialities become significant because of what they reveal about a hidden more serious issue.
The counsellor will continue to explore the meaning attached to the behaviour that annoys and upsets. It is not until the ‘raw spots’ are revealed, when the wounds and hurts are acknowledged, and the core anxiety understood, that change can be addressed. Very often unpeeling the layers can expose a deep attachment insecurity or fear. There can be a direct line from wet towels left on the bathroom floor, to then feeling taken for granted, to then feeling not seen and cared for, and to then feeling alone and not loved.
The couple therapist Ellyn Bader suggests experimenting with an ‘Initiator – Inquirer’ process to begin a more effective style of communication. It may seem rigid and artificial but, in fact, it can help to create a freer more open dynamic. The couple take turns in each role.
The first aim is to give the upset partner (the ‘initiator’) the space and time to explain and feel heard
The second aim is to gain understanding. This partner (‘the inquirer’) is to try to manage any reactions of resistance or urges to dismiss and minimise, and stay listening. This should be helped by keeping to a script of questions:
1. ‘What’s upsetting you?’ ‘What’s worrying you?’ ‘What’s on your mind? The ‘initiator’ is limited to choosing one specific issue only. Keeping to ‘I’ statements they explain what it is they find upsetting. This is an attempt to break a loop of criticism/self-defensiveness. Instead of the ‘inquirer’ leaping into retaliatory tit-for-tat argument, the requirement is for ‘passionate listening’. It is not about refuting or agreeing at this stage. There will be an opportunity to explain reactions later.
2. ‘Tell me more.’ ‘What is it about that?’ ‘How does it make you feel?’ ‘Is there more about it?’ ‘Is there something else?’ Expressing an intention to listen and understand shows concern and this, in turn, encourages the other to be more introspective and self-explanatory. Name-calling, character assassination, critical blame or a negative list of complaints is not allowed. The one explaining has to explain the specifics of their struggle and pain. The listener needs to remain curious and avoid either flaring up or shutting down.
3. ‘What is the real challenge about that?’ ‘Why is that uncomfortable?’ The focus is on the person feeling hurt to identify specifically what they find disturbing. Are they making value judgements? What links and associations are being made? What if they reality test? What are reasonable expectations? Are the expectations shared? Is it possible to make a request (but not dictate or demand)?
4. ‘What do you need right now?’ ‘What are your needs in our relationship?’ ‘If we begin to make changes how will things feel better for you?’ ‘In which ways do you think it will be better for me?’
The couple then reverse roles with the hope that mutual understanding allows the possibility of negotiating change. Keeping to the script is an attempt to break the deadlock of antagonistic emotional volatility and avoid the usual critical attacks. Previously, despite the couple feeling desperate for relief, the more hostile a relationship the more each partner remained fearful of letting go of the self-protective responses of hot anger or cold silence.
Their challenge is to see themselves on the same side and relax into becoming the safe loving team once again.
(* ‘The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More, and Change the Way You Lead Forever’)