Some recent blog posts
It’s a common problem that I see in couples. One or both partners has fallen into a destructive habit of trying to score a point, as if that might finally get their partner to change. Some people call them “zingers”. It can become almost a reflex, which is why in sessions I’m often trying to get people simply to slow down. This is not like ping-pong or tennis where you need to react lightning-fast with your “strongest” response!
And the thing is, point-scoring doesn’t work! Nobody ever got their partner to be nicer by landing a good zinger on them. We love people who make us feel good about ourselves. (I believe I first saw it put that way by Ellen Wachtel). Some therapists theorise that we first learn this bad habit in our very early years: whatever worked to get mother’s attention. Maybe – I don’t really care where it came from. It has to stop.
Part of what keeps it going may be a feeling that if you don’t respond instantly, then you won’t get your point in. That your partner will go on talking, or will assume you have accepted what they have said. And indeed, I see some partners who seem capable of going on talking almost for ever. Neither silence nor monologue is useful, so one of the “communication skills” I want to emphasise is taking turns.
Another way this point-scoring happens is "you're not perfect either". One partner talks about something, and the other changes the subject by bringing up their own complaint in retaliation. Again, this never works!
One of the main things I want to have happen in a session is for you to explain to your partner, not in a point-scoring way but in a real way, what the situation is like for you. Not what you think about it. But what is your struggle, what is your dilemma in the relationship? I can guide you in having that conversation.
Growing apart or drifting apart?
Two rather different ways of seeing it! One of the commonest problems for couples is feeling that they are no longer as close as they used to be. This is almost inevitable in a relationship. Sometimes circumstances change, such as: parents, children, or employment, or illness. But as well as that, there is an inevitable movement from together, to further apart, and sometimes back again. People do go through stages.
If you think of it as drifting apart, then there’s an implication that you have not paid attention. That nobody has kept an eye on the relationship, and you have just “drifted”. If that’s the case, it might be time for some serious thought about your life’s direction, and what you really want. Individually, and as a couple. Do you really like each other? Do you want to be together, and why? There can be huge benefits in being in a stable long-term relationship.
If you think of it as growing apart, that seems rather different. Maybe you each have grown, perhaps aided by the shelter of the relationship, or the challenge of the relationship, and you are now both rather different people. I want to emphasise that this is normal, and indeed absolutely necessary, in a long-term relationship. Growth and change has to occur. It may be time to take stock of where you are, what you each want, how you manage differences, and what you mean to each other.
Or, maybe one feels that they have grown and their partner hasn’t. Things may have got a little out of step. It’s as if they are on a walk and one is saying “come on, walk a bit faster” and the other is saying “let’s stop and enjoy the view”. You know what I’m going to say: let’s talk about it. We can explore the situation.
Blame and responsibility
This question often comes up about infidelity and affairs, but can actually apply to many things. If someone has behaved badly, they will often want to talk about the context; about why it happened. “Yes, I had an affair, but our relationship was in a bad place”. And of course, the context, the bad place the relationship was in, will be partly the “innocent” partner’s responsibility.
My answer to this is as follows. Yes, we have to look at the context. But that’s step 2. Before that, we have step 1, which is where the person who behaved badly acknowledges that they should not have done it, and the damage and hurt it has caused. That doesn’t mean saying one word “sorry”. Step 1 may take hours, or days, or weeks, until it’s clear that they fully take responsibility for what they did, and clear that their viewpoint has really changed.
When they say “Yes, I had an affair, but our relationship was in a bad place”, that’s true, but the time gap between the “yes” and the “but” is only two seconds. It needs to be much longer. And it’s for the injured party to say when it’s time.
Only then is it possible to look at step 2: what had gone wrong in the relationship, if anything, and what was each person’s part in that? And then, how do we build a new, better, different relationship?
Responding to your partner's bids for connection
John and Julie Gottman, founders of the Gottman Institute, famous couples therapists, and authors of many books on the subject, wrote this: "we’ve found that successful couples turned toward their partner’s bids for connection 86 percent of the time. A bid can be something as simple as saying to a partner, “Wow, look at that beautiful boat out the window.” Then the partner can turn away by either ignoring the bid or responding, “Would you stop interrupting me? I’m trying to read.” Or the partner can turn toward the bid with even a simple acknowledgement, like “Huh, look at that.” Every time people turn toward each other in relationships, they’re building up an emotional bank account."
John Gottman loves his numbers, like the "86 percent". I don't know about that, but the point is, if your partner is asking for your attention for a moment, and you brush them off, it has a bad effect. You don't need to be available to them all the time. It can be good to set aside some "apart time", hard as that may be under lockdown. "Please don't talk to me during this TV programme" said in advance, can be legitimate. But, if it becomes a habit to brush them off or close them down, then that does serious damage. Gottman has the numbers to prove it! Try to be aware of the pattern.
If you can't escape from this pattern, it may be worth having some couples counselling.
I meditate. I do not offer meditation teaching, but there are plenty of places you can learn for free.
The first purpose and benefit, in my opinion, is to learn something about yourself, your mind, and your thoughts. Other benefits may follow: calmness, lower blood pressure, more positive feelings, concentration, that kind of thing. But it starts with seeing what’s currently going on “in there”. Observing yourself.
It’s the simplest thing in the world to start. Ten minutes a day, say. No equipment, no costs, no way to get it wrong, nothing to achieve. (Please don’t try to sit in a full lotus position, and don’t try to “stop thinking”). Who knows, you might attain Nirvana! Just sit as still as you can, for a few minutes, and observe what’s going on in your body and mind. I recommend not becoming too dependent on a recorded track or “app” while meditating; it’s better, at least some of the time, to be alone with your thoughts, rather than listening to someone else.
Sit (or lie) really still, be aware of your breathing, and notice what else arises in body and mind. If you get distracted, and realise that you’ve gone off into some train of thought, just notice that that has happened, and observe it, watch it. Your thoughts are just thoughts. You didn’t choose them. Don’t like them or dislike them, don’t believe them or disbelieve them.
For me, the thoughts are often about “what I’ll need to do later”. I might even make a note of it on a piece of paper, and then return to meditation for a little longer. I sit and observe that feeling of "there are things I need to do". It's like a little child nagging me. I can be kind to it, but I don't need to respond right this minute.
Assertiveness part two
Last time, I wrote about an assertiveness technique of sticking calmly to your point. This means you need to be clear, in your own mind, what your point actually is. And I said that part of this skill is not allowing yourself to get drawn into being unreasonable – because then you’ve lost!
In part two I want to talk about asking good questions. What if someone, particularly your partner, approaches you with a criticism, a comment you don’t like, or a request that you don’t want to agree to? The most assertive thing to do is ask for more information; to explore what’s behind it. The worst thing to do is to try to shut it down. (Those with sales training may recognise this as like how we handle so-called “objections”.) It’s vital to find out whether what’s being said is the real point, or is only the tip of the iceberg.
A very good general question is “tell me more”, or “can you say some more about that?” Suppose your partner says “I hate it when you have to work late”. The worst thing you can say is “yeah, but I have to.” You've shut down the discussion.
“Tell me more” would be okay, or “what is about me working late that’s bad?” (Note I didn’t say “…that you hate”; I want to accept their point of view). You may discover that they hate it when they get a meal ready and then you miss it; or that they need more help; or they’re worried that you’re avoiding them; or that they just miss you; or that they’re worried about your attractive new Personal Assistant or colleague. You need to know. And when that concern emerges, don’t squash it. Keep asking for more.
It’s important not to say “why do you think…” or “what makes you think…” because those imply that you don’t agree.
Does all of this sound weird to you, allowing the other person to make their point, not shutting them down, and even agreeing with it? You’ll be amazed how it takes the heat out of other people.
Assertiveness part 1
The BACP and RELATE did a study of nearly 30,000 people who came for relationship counselling. The most common issues people brought were: “communication problems” (79.7%), “rows and arguments” (68.8%) and “managing conflict” (67.8%). Now to me, those sound like three ways of saying pretty much the same thing: When we disagree about something, we don’t handle it well. And figuring out the pattern of how it goes wrong is the basic task of couple counselling.
Fortunately, there is a set of techniques called “assertiveness” that can help with communications. People often have the wrong idea about assertiveness, that it means being loud or demanding or even rude! It doesn’t. Put as simply as possible, it means sticking to your point and refusing to get side-tracked. Of course, first you have to know what your point is!
The habit that partners often get into is trying to nudge each other to be UNreasonable. That may sound surprising. Why would someone want their partner to be unreasonable? Well, because then it’s easy to feel that you are in the right, and you don’t need to take what they seriously. This can happen unconsciously, and I see it in almost every couple. They know each other well; they know each other’s “hot buttons”; and they try to push their partner into being unreasonable. Children will play this game too. Being assertive is all about resisting this.
This week: technique 1 – sticking to the point
• If you have something you want to talk about, make sure you are very clear in your mind what your point is. What do you really want? Take your time before you bring the subject up. Then don’t allow the conversation to stray onto a different topic. (But do allow your partner to delay the conversation if they need to.)
• Avoid throwing in "and another thing....."
• Maybe all you want is to be listened to. In that case, say so, right up front, otherwise your partner may think you are asking for advice, or asking for action.
• If it’s your partner who’s bringing something up, and it’s complicated, ask for time: “I need some time to consider what you are saying, before I can reply”. Give them a time when you’ll get back to them, and then keep your promise. That can cool both of you down. Think carefully about the problem in the time in between.
• Usually, assertive statements are short.
What if your partner doesn't want to do couple counselling?
There could be a lot of reasons why! Maybe they are worried about the cost or time. Maybe they’ve heard bad things about counselling, or maybe they’ve already had counselling and it wasn’t good. Maybe they don’t think they’ll be good at being in counselling. Maybe for some reason they expect the counsellor to take your side. Maybe deep down they worry that the problem is really them, that they aren't good enough.
Or, maybe they are tired of your attempts to “fix” things. Perhaps you’ve bought them books, or shown them articles on the web. Perhaps you’ve tried to set up conversations to talk about it. And they’re thinking, just leave it alone already, if you keep picking at it, it won’t get better. Their stance may be that constantly focusing on what’s not right, is draining the hope and energy from the relationship. Maybe they are thinking, let’s just be nice and enjoy each other. Stop treating me like an improvement project.
I have no way to know whether it’s one of the above reasons, or which one. I’ve seen them all many times. If they can tell me one of those things, I’m going to say thank you for being so open, that’s really good, I can understand that. Let’s talk about it.
What can you do? I have some suggestions. (1) Show them this article. Maybe they’ll recognise something above. (2) Back off a bit. Act as if you’re happy and friendly towards them. Avoid disapproving of anything, and see what happens. And (3) you could come for one session of counselling with me on your own. Don’t try to get them to come. Tell them you’re planning to do this, and they may decide to come along. That would be perfect! But if they don’t, we can try to understand what might be going on.
What is EFT?
I often use EFT (Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy) which is an approach based on attachment theory. It tells us that in relationships, people have legitimate emotional needs, such as feeling safe and feeling respected. In EFT, the therapist does not give practical advice to couples on how to solve their problems (money, in-laws, parenting, allocation of chores, whatever). We assume that, with goodwill, they are intelligent enough to solve these issues between themselves, once they feel safe in the relationship. The therapist does not decide which one of the couple is right or wrong.
The assumption in EFT is that when people do unhelpful things, like verbally attacking one another, changing the subject, or withdrawing into the silent treatment or their phone or the pub, it’s because of underlying discomforts that may be hard to express – not because they are bad people. (If it is an abusive relationship, then EFT is not appropriate). And these uncomfortable feelings set up repetitive patterns of interaction in the couple: one person’s emotional response triggers the other’s emotional response and vice versa, in a persistent cycle that neither can control. It goes round and round, spiralling out of control. This pattern is the problem. And it’s why “rules for communication” may often not be enough to solve it.
I will help the couple to understand this pattern that they fall into. I will also help the couple to clarify and express to each other, in the cool of the counselling room, what is really behind their behaviours, and what they need from each other, in a new constructive non-blaming way. To say what it is that they’ve been trying to get across to their partner all this time. And to listen.
Do you want to understand your partner?
Sometimes a couple come along, and they each can’t understand why the other is acting the way they are. It doesn’t seem to make any sense. Maybe they have arguments about tiny things, like loading the dishwasher. One or both of them may be starting to think that their partner is irrational or autistic, ill-intentioned, unreasonable or just incompatible.
We can carefully unpick what happens in those arguments, like a slow-motion action replay, examining each frame. And usually it turns out that each of them is making perfect sense, given the story of their life and their values and beliefs. They’re not perfect. They have hot buttons, sore spots that can get triggered. But it all makes sense. This is what I do.
There are two ways you might react to this, once you discover that your partner makes sense. You might say, good news! Now I understand what’s happening. They’re not crazy or broken. And now I can see what we need to do to fix this.
Or you might say, bad news! Mike, if you’re saying that their behaviour is understandable, and that there are reasons why they react the way they do, then does that mean you’re saying they don’t have to stop it?
The truth is that understanding what’s happening greatly increases your ability to change it.
Just give us some tools!
Sometimes couples tell me that what they want are “tools” – they don’t want to go into all their “stuff” – previous relationships, childhood experiences, all that. They don’t want psychoanalysing, they just want to know how to stop arguing. They want advice, or some rules for good communication. I totally sympathise.
I generally follow a “brief” model of couple therapy, rather than a psychoanalytic approach. (I tried that and it didn’t work well for me.) I generally avoid spending a lot of time on people’s childhood history, unless they want to talk about it.
But here’s the good news / bad news. Most of the problems people have in relationships are patterns of behaviour that they go into, even though they don’t mean to. They go onto some kind of auto-pilot, and start doing their thing: shouting, harsh words, or stonewalling silence, placating, or drinking or eating, or disappearing into their phone. Whatever it is. The bad news is: the reasons for these knee-jerk unhelpful reactions are probably somewhere in the past. And the good news is: the best way to work on them is by working on them in a committed relationship here and now.
So yes, let’s work on the relationship in the here and now, not on what your parents did when you were growing up. That will mean looking at your auto-pilot reactions to your partner. But let’s not pretend this is just a matter of having “rules” and “tools” for how to handle disagreement between you. If I just give you instructions without engaging emotionally, you won’t know how to follow them. You may need to develop a bit, as a person. And the further good news is that this will benefit you in other areas of your life too.
About the Avoidant
The word “avoidant” describes someone who typically “doesn’t do emotions.” Do you know someone like this? If there’s a disagreement, they try to calm it down, or calm themselves down, perhaps by withdrawing to another room or going out for a walk. Or doing something on their phone or computer. Certainly not by talking about it. They don’t seem to take the problems in a relationship very seriously. They just try to smooth it over. They may point to all the things that are going well, or they may point to external circumstances, but in all cases, the message is, “surely we don’t need an argument”? If "the problem" hasn't been talked about for a while, they see that as progress!
Couples where both partners are avoidant don’t tend to show up in my room for couple counselling. That’s the last thing they want! So if you have an avoidant partner, it may be hard to get them to come along. Perhaps you could even ask them to read this! They typically don’t see how they can be part of the solution. They may expect counselling to be like a telling-off.
Let me explain about typical avoidant people. (Like all generalisations, this doesn’t apply to everyone). First of all, they mean well. They are trying to protect the relationship by avoiding hurtful arguments. They usually care deeply about things, and they experience deep emotions, despite what some may think.
Usually they very much want their partner to accept them. They fear being judged as incompetent, they fear being unable to please their partner. They may feel they can never get it right. Like all of us, they want safety. At this point, you may be exclaiming “Really? If they fear being unable to please me, then why don’t they try a bit harder?! I’ve told them exactly what I need!”
There are many answers to this. Perhaps the way you’ve told them, hasn’t worked. Perhaps they feel that you in turn are not meeting their needs. Very likely, as the situation escalates, they get flooded and their brain shuts down. Very possibly you’ve described your own needs at a surface level and not explained the underlying emotions. These are the things we can work on in couple counselling.
Many relationship books and counsellors will tell you that having clear boundaries is vital to any relationship. This is true. But the concept is often misunderstood.
To start with, let’s imagine a workplace situation – imagine you find yourself working in a place where everyone swears a lot, and you really don’t like swearing. Maybe you gradually find yourself picking up their habits. Oh dear! That would be a lack of boundaries on your part – you’ve allowed yourself to be influenced. You’d need to think about whether swearing really matters to you or not, whether you are happy to “blend in”. If you are, then that’s fine. If not, then you need to have a boundary with yourself that you will not join in. You don’t have to tell them about it – you just have to be clear with yourself about your own values. And the same applies, whether the negative habit is swearing, drinking too much after work, eating chips every day, spiteful gossip, or having workplace affairs. You make your own decision what you will allow yourself to do, and stick to it. You don’t have to moralise to the other people about what they do.
One of the purposes of this is to lay down a boundary, well in advance, that stops you gradually slipping by tiny steps to a place you never wanted to be. If you don’t make clear rules for yourself, you can gradually get yourself into trouble without noticing it, by influence from another person or people, one little step at a time.
Ideally, setting a boundary should be like screening your own phone calls - not like telling people they mustn't call you. It’s not up to other people to enforce your boundaries. In many cases, you shouldn’t even be telling other people about your boundaries. You can’t tell your workplace colleagues not to swear – just don’t join in.
However, there are also cases where you have to tell other people assertively to stop. If they are touching you in a way you don’t like, for example, or borrowing your things without asking. It’s your boundary because it’s your body or your spanners or whatever. Be clear what you are not willing to accept.
Or it may be that you have boundaries with a relationship partner. For example, “I can’t be in a relationship with someone who doesn’t brush their teeth”. Notice that it’s “I can’t …”, not “you have to…”. You can’t tell someone else what they have to do, but you can tell them what you can and can’t tolerate. It’s best to reserve this for serious matters. Anything else is better treated as a request or a negotiation. What can you live with, and what can’t you? You need to know, early on.
The drinking-glass -- or why is it always about the dishwasher?
If I had a penny for ever dishwasher story I've heard, I'd be rich. I was reading a blog post by a chap called Matt Fray about how he ended up divorced. He would leave his used drinking glass on the side in the kitchen because “I’ll probably use it again soon”, whereas his wife wanted it put in the dishwasher at once. I have to say I’ve had similar disputes in my own life. He believes his attitude to this was one of a number of cumulative little injuries that led to divorce. A costly and painful divorce.
On the face of it, the situation seems symmetrical. He and his wife each have a preference about the glass. Why should he give way? Does he have to do every single thing his partner asks? Where will it end? Why does she think she’s always right? How can it be that important anyway?
His view, now that he is divorced, is that it was important, because she had strong feelings about it. It mattered more to her than it did to him. Note that the “feelings” don’t make her preference “right”. The reason he should do what she wants is not because she’s “right” but because it matters more to her than to him. Sometimes being grown-up is doing something even though your partner asked you to.
And sometimes you should not do what your partner asked! But even when you decide not to, it should not be done by ignoring or disrespecting the request, or saying you “forgot”. It has to be a respectful “yes” or “no”. Your partner has to feel that you give serious consideration to what they want. I think this goes equally for men and women. Without that feeling of being taken seriously, a person cannot feel safe.
Quotations and useful links
In memory of two of my favourite writers:
“Love doesn’t just sit there, like a stone, it has to be made, like bread; remade all the time, made new.” - Ursula K. Le Guin
“A marriage is always made up of two people who are prepared to swear that only the other one snores.” - Terry Pratchett
An article about how to make a success of couple therapy, with some useful ideas.
An interesting website/blog from another Relate counsellor, with lots of useful resources.
An interesting Youtube video about communication. What stops us communicating?
Should you try counselling? From Talk about marriage website. (You don't have to look like the couple in the photograph to benefit).
Interesting article from the New York Times. 13 Questions about marriage . These are all questions we might well explore if you meet with me!
A long, detailed article about marriage for those who like a solid read: Twenty ideas on marriage from "The Book of Life"
A nice "should you divorce or should you stay" guide from Shirley Glass: Hang in or hang it up?
An interesting article from Dr Kelly Flanagan's blog. I agree with him that "communication" is often not the big problem: The 9 most overlooked threats to a marriage