The expression “the work” comes up from time to time in working with couples. And at times, couples talk about working on their relationship. In couples therapy, “the work” can mean many things, but it often comes down to getting at the “core” or “deeper” issues that are causing problems for the couple. Couples (and we do the same as individuals) often avoid “deeper” work, “harder” issues, and that often includes confrontation of the other. But it also involves confrontation of the self: one phrase I find myself saying now and then to each party in the couple is that I have to get you to change (when they are often thinking that their spouse/significant other is the one that really needs to be doing the changing). Couples often spend time talking in a session—I let them talk when they are really “working,” when they are getting at important issues or talking in intimate (personal, vulnerable) ways with one another. I sometimes also let them talk when they are focusing on issues that are not important. They often think they are talking about important things when they do that, but there are times when they are not really getting to what they need to. And so there are times when I try to cut off a conversation (or monologue) that is really not getting to the work, is not getting to something that is important, problematic, or getting in their way of functioning well as a couple.
Different couples have different issues that are important to get to, but the most important almost always have to do with deep seated values they have. They may argue about the trash, but if there is a fight going on over a “little issue,” it often means that larger values are behind the trash issue. Sometimes it means they don’t know how to fight about what they really need to fight through and so the trash becomes the vehicle for getting out feelings and even values. It comes down to working on or talking about in a meaningful way the problems and differences in values to a point of acceptance or resolution whether that occurs in couples therapy or at home (or even with a friend or relative). If a couple is not reaching resolution enough (in their eyes), it is probably time to go to work in couples therapy.
Keep working on it when you can…
The holidays have come and gone and a number of couples have talked about how they went as we worked in couples therapy. Everyone seemed to try and talk about the good things that happened but there seemed to also be an underlying current of disappointment. In getting the couples to talk about that, it seemed that a theme was present in every case: taking care of others, which is not really a bad thing and is something that is a part of this holiday season, but there was also a denial of self and of immediate family. And this is an issue that I see causing a lot of folks in my practice problems—taking too much care of others to the exclusion of taking care of one’s own self. When that happens over a long enough period of time, things start to unravel, at least in my practice and with the people that come in and talk with me. They don’t always see it and they often don’t even understand that it is happening. Taking care of others is a good thing for them and for you; doing so to the exclusion of also taking care of yourself causes problems.
So what kinds of solutions did couples come to in the therapy to go about getting some lasting change? The couples that seemed to get the most out of this area of discussion began to realize that they needed to do both, that is, take care of themselves, the couple, and others. Next year they are carving out time at home, alone with just their family, to have the holiday they want. That thought, that plan seemed to make some sense to the couples that wanted that for their holiday.
And a couple where one is always taking care of others and not taking care of him or herself suffers, in the long run if not the short one. So when one party in the couple began to see that not only did he/she need to take care of her/himself better but to make sure that the other half of the couple needed to have some care of self as well, then things were really getting better for the couple. When both are doing better in caring for self and other, the couple often thrives.
Keep working on it, your self and your significant other.
I ran into a situation in my office again today, working with a couple in couples counseling, where a “little thing” was the focus. Couples often say after some small issue has come up that they are fighting about (like laundry, taking out the trash, loading the dishwasher, stuff in the car or on the dining room table, etc.) that they shouldn’t fight about this issue, it is too small, and they should let it go. I, at times, jump in and tell them that almost all couples that come for couples therapy bring little issues. Oh, sometimes they bring big ones (like an affair, a death, divorce, etc.) but most of the time they get into small issues—and I emphasize how important the small issues are. Yes, it is important that they learn to let go of some small things, and when they can, that is good; when they can’t let go, when something keeps bothering them, then the small thing most probably is important and is the way the they are trying to get at deeper values.
Let me emphasize how important it is for most couples to be able to get at and talk through little issues, the small things, when there are important values behind them. Sometimes we work through the small issues without the help of a couples counselor and sometimes we don’t know how to work through the small, value laden issues without that kind of help. If you find that you, as a couple, are too often arguing about small issues, it will important to work to clarify what is being argued about and that will include what are the feelings, values, issues behind the little issue. And what are you really saying, what are you really wanting, when you are arguing about the dishes (or whatever you are arguing about)?
Don’t always dismiss the little things. Of course, let go of them when you can, but when something little keeps nudging you, what is behind it? And can you as a couple talk through that “small” issue?
I hope your relationships are growing…
There have been a number of important issues that have come up on a regular basis during my years of couples counseling in Omaha, whether that is a married couple, non-traditional couple, or even a work couple (that is, coworkers). Couples talk about these issues in therapy itself and they refer to examples in their lives outside of the office.
It often is spoken of as a need for “better communication” or “bad communication” (which lack of clarity can be a part of) and there are multiple aspects of communication that can need work, but being clear and clarifying are a couple of issues that many couples can work on to help decrease arguing and make what arguing that happens be more effective.
I find myself, a number of times each week in couples counseling sessions, where I hear one of the “arguers” make a powerful and effective move by neutrally (without a sarcastic tone for example) clarifying what he or she just said or clarifying what the other just said. I will point this out when it happens – I will mark it as something important that occurred.
I gently emphasize that clarity helps get to resolution, sometimes eases the conflict, and can even change the direction of the argument. I spend a moderate amount of time in couples counseling sessions just clarifying what was said (“So you’re saying that she doesn’t hear you very well?” or “You are saying you can’t live with this anymore?”).
Being clear about what you say will help you in your life much of the time and will often help in communication with a significant other and even in arguments. You can specifically apply this principle to change the course of a conflict by asking (all of the examples need to be said without sarcasm), for example, “What do you mean?” or “How much did I hurt you by that?” or “I’m sorry; are you saying I am not doing enough around here?” You could also try, “What could I do to make this better? What are you saying you want from me?”
And you could stop yourself in an argument and say, “I am not sure I am being clear—what are you hearing me say?” If the person doesn’t hear or understand what was said very well, perhaps you are not communicating it well and need to be clearer. You don’t need to be in a couples counseling setting to use these tools to better your relationship.
Let me be clear: if you will work at being clearer, you will often make progress in solving arguments. There may be other issues and roadblocks that have to be overcome to resolve the conflict, but you will be advancing the discussion when you are clear and you help the other person to be clearer as well.
Keep growing your relationship…
One of the issues that comes up in couples counseling often is arguing. Actually, as a psychologist who works with couples, I see arguing every day. Sometimes I have to help couples realize that it is okay to argue, and what is important is how you argue.
In fact, some of the most difficult couples to help can be the ones that don’t/won’t argue. Conflicts happen and being able to deal with them and work them through is what is crucial for change to occur. Dealing with conflict and working through to a resolution in couples counseling is what helps a couple to feel good about the relationship (and their arguing). Every couple I’ve worked with who struggled with arguing did not like it: it was not productive, and that was at least part of why they had come to see me.
One of the goals of couples counseling can be to help the people in the relationship argue better, that is, to deal with their conflicts better and to reach some type of resolution with each other. There are at least a couple of ways to attack this: to decrease ineffective aspects or arguing and/or to increase agreement.
There are many ways couples argue ineffectively – here are a few:
The list could go on, but let’s look at these four.
Name calling inflames most arguments and does not lead to resolution.
People, often not knowing it, will change the topic of the argument. In fact, as I sit and watch couples argue, they will often change the topic numerous times and not realize how much they are getting in their own way by doing so.
When I watch two people in couples counseling argue poorly, I usually see each side doing a lot of blaming and how little they are hearing what the other is saying.
And it is usually not helpful to talk about how someone else sees it just like you do – I regularly hear one side saying that “all the children agree with me” or something like that.
So, in marital therapy and couples counseling, I will, at times, point out arguing weaknesses as well as move to help the couple to figure out what they are really trying to get to, what they are each trying to point out.
To put a different spin on this, you could work to change your relationship by arguing better: don’t use name calling, stay on one topic at a time, listen more carefully, and stick to your point (you are bringing it up, that is good enough—bringing in others usually increases defensiveness).
Working to a resolution needs to be one of your focuses when you argue, when you are trying to resolve conflict. Watch for more on this in an upcoming post.
Meanwhile, keep growing your relationships!
Prospective clients call or email me (through the secure & private contact form) and ask about couples counseling in Omaha – or marital counseling, family or sometimes relationship counseling. Sometimes the caller uses the term therapy instead of counseling, but they all seem to have the same desire: to get help with a relationship, whether they are married or not.
So, in one way, they are all the same. They usually come with the same kinds of issues, that is – some type of struggle with a relationship. As the person tells me more about the relationship (or the couple, or the married spouses) I can begin to help them with their issue, whatever it is, or refer them on to someone else if I am not the right person to help them.
Each couples counseling situation is unique, bringing unique problems and issues, and I’m always careful to listen to couples as they tell me about their unique problems and concerns. But we’re all human beings, looking for the same general thing from relationships, and requesting the same thing when problems arise. and I can begin to use what I know about relationships to help them.
This blog is going to be about couples counseling (and marital therapy, family, relationship counseling, etc.) and what happens in this type of therapy.
There are a number of issues that come up rather consistently. When I was in graduate school, another student told me that there were four types of problems couples will bring to therapy: money, kids/parenting, the larger family (in-laws), and sex. I shrugged that suggestion off — I had not read about those four issues being the “big four” anywhere and didn’t know if it was true.
It sounded good, but so do a lot of things people say. But as I have worked in marriage, relationship and couples counseling over the years, I have found that there is a lot of truth what my fellow student told me. Those are the issues that people most often come to see me about, and they are issues we can make progress on if both are willing to work.
There is another issue that couples come with, perhaps a fifth, and it is often hidden (but not always). Sometimes the relationship is coming to end, no matter what the problems behind that are. When one is really on the way out, we can often get work done, but we cannot always save the marriage (or relationship if they are not married) because that is not what they have both come for.
I’ll write more soon – I hope your relationships are growing,
– Dr. Bob Kraft