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 13 Questions about marriage. One or both of them may be starting to think that their partner is irrational or autistic, ill-intentioned, 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, 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.
Growing in a relationship
The therapist David Schnarch describes relationships as “people-growing machines”. I’m not sure I like that phrase, but I have to agree that relationships often push people to grow. In a relationship, you may be pushed to think about who you are, what you like or dislike, what your values and principles are. You may be pushed to express yourself more, or control yourself more. This is often uncomfortable.
It’s easy in a relationship to blame the other person. If you’re dissatisfied with life, sad, or fearful, it’s easy to think that your partner is causing this. Maybe it's a relationship problem. That’s one way of viewing it. On the other hand, a Buddhist psychology might say that dissatisfaction is inevitable, that it’s an innate characteristic of existence. You are a fallible being, in a relationship with another fallible being, and all you can control is yourself, and often not even that.
And to me, this is both good news and bad news. It’s not your responsibility to “fix” your partner, but it is your responsibility to look at yourself, and to be clear to your partner. Sometimes the way forward is this: challenge yourself to grow; see what your limitations are and tackle them; see how your partner responds. If things get better, that’s good. If they don’t, it may be time to call it a day, having learned more about your own limitations.
Sometimes in a relationship, things have got to a point where one or other partner needs to make a concession. Both are afraid that if they give an inch, their partner will take a mile. Someone has to go first. Both are asking “why me?” And I have to say, “why not?”
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.
Selected older entries
I’ve noticed a thing on South West Trains. When your train arrives at the platform, where you’re waiting for it, there’s a button you have to press to open the doors. It lights up when it’s ready, you press it, and the doors open. And yet for some people, it doesn’t seem to work. They press the button, and the doors don’t open for them. As far as I can see, they are pressing too tentatively, too briefly.
I find myself wondering, where did you learn this? That you mustn’t ask too loudly, state your needs clearly, press the button firmly. That it would somehow be “needy” or “greedy” or “bossy” if you were to press the button firmly for a couple of seconds, so that the mechanism actually works, just like everyone else does? It’s only a train door! You’re not going to break it. Everyone is allowed to use the button.
Such a person can be a nightmare as a road-user. If you’re driving behind them, they are the ones who won’t proceed at a junction even when they have right of way, confusing the other traffic. And it’s the same in relationships – the rest of us feel confused, and perhaps frustrated, by someone who can’t be clear about their request. Both partners in this situation feel aggrieved.
As I said, I’m going to be wondering, where did you learn this?
Why would you even want to be in a relationship? Differentiation or attachment?
The main difference of opinion these days amongst couple and marriage counsellors, is about how self-sufficient a person should ideally be. Some experts (for example David Schnarch) say that in order to be in a relationship, a person really needs to be differentiated, meaning they know who they are, can stand on their own two feet, and don’t expect the other person to be their emotional caretaker. He sees a relationship as a place where people grow. I like that idea. He says a marriage should not be like a parent-child relationship, it should be a relationship of two interdependent equal adults who are each capable of looking after themselves.
The other main school of thought (Sue Johnson) is that people are in relationships to get their emotional needs met, and yes, even adults have legitimate emotional needs. She sees a relationship as a shelter from the storms of life, and she helps people understand and meet each other’s needs. This is called attachment. They can lean on and rely on each other – or else why would you even want to be in a relationship? I like her work too, and it (EFT for couples) is the most evidence-supported successful form of couple counselling, with a high success rate. I have some training in David Schnarch’s work, but more in Sue Johnson’s approach.
There may also be a gender difference here: although this is a generalisation, men often want or are expected to be self-sufficient, and like the sound of the “differentiation” approach. Underneath all that though, men too have good reasons why they want to be in a secure relationship. All the evidence says men do better in every way (health, happiness, career) when they are in a secure relationship. Self-sufficiency goes only so far.
I went to see the film Wonder the other day. The main plot is about a young boy, Auggie, with a mild facial disfigurement, and his struggles to make friends at school and avoid being bullied. I’d say the film makes everything seem a little easier than it is in real life: his parents and his teachers are all wonderful, and on his side, and so on. The bully appears to realise the error of his ways and show remorse at the end. In real life, things are not always that easy. I guess it’s a feel-good movie.
However, one of the other themes it raises is about Auggie’s older sister. Because of Auggie’s problems, his parents are totally focused on him, so his sister grows up as something of a loner. She’s too self-sufficient too early, learning not to ask for what she needs.
Freud talked a lot about the effect our parents have on us, but I think the impact of brothers and sisters can be huge too. Sometimes, just as in the film, one of the children in a family can get all the attention, because of sickness, special problems, or special talents, and the others have to fend for themselves and learn not to express their needs.
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