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”?
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 actually 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.
Don't try to change your partner!
Someone recently asked me what I thought was the best piece of relationship advice.
I have one. But it needs to be hedged about a bit with disclaimers, because there are all kinds of different situations in relationships. If you have a partner who is, for example, abusive, addicted, unfaithful, or suffering from problems such as ADHD or depression, then that’s a different situation. I’m sure you can think of other situations where the following advice doesn’t apply!
But in general, if you are unhappy with some aspects of your relationship, don’t assume it’s all about your partner. Assume it’s something about the way the two of you are interacting. Don’t assume that they are trying to annoy you, or don’t care about you. And especially don’t try to change them, because that rarely works, and usually just annoys them.
Start by trying to figure out what you are doing that keeps the pattern going. It may be not so much what you say as how you say it. Make changes to yourself and see what happens. Try to change yourself, in the direction of not getting caught up in whatever it is. Change your reactions. Don’t try to figure out your partner’s thoughts, feelings, motivations, or causes for how they got to be how they are, but focus on trying to understand your own. Don’t try to control or cure your partner. Do not ask for, or accept, promises to change from them.
This doesn’t mean I’m saying it’s your fault. Quite the opposite. If you are blaming yourself, that’s part of the pattern that you need to change. Whatever “the problem” is, you need to stop participating in it, because that’s all you can do.
If you succeed in distancing yourself from “the problem”, see whether you get a corresponding change from your partner. If they respond in turn, that’s good. If they don’t, it may be time for counselling, or thinking clearly about whether the relationship needs to end. If it ends, you will leave it with the benefit of knowing that you’ve grown and improved for whatever’s next, and that you gave it your best shot.
I am nervous writing this, because no advice is ever applicable to every situation. Nevertheless, this applies to a lot of things I see.
Find something to agree with
If your partner is “giving you a hard time” criticising you, see if you can find something, anything, in their point of view, that you can agree with.
Most people do the opposite. If they don’t like what they are hearing, they’ll look for any little point they can correct. “It wasn’t a Tuesday, it was a Wednesday”. If it’s in writing, they’ll point out a typo or a spelling error. If they can’t deal with the point, then they’ll say “you’ve said this 100 times before”, or “you’ve never said this before”, or “there’s no need to shout”. Or “now is the wrong time to bring this up”. They look for any irrelevant reason to reject the message.
My recommendation is, look for something in what they are saying that you can sincerely agree with. Not sarcastically. Ask for more information if you need it.
How does this work? Suppose your partner says “whenever you get in from work, you just slump down and watch television”. You can tell from the tone that it’s intended as a criticism. The worst thing you can do is say “not every night”. Getting all defensive, contradicting over pointless details. Or saying “but you…” and counterattacking. Slightly less bad would be to explain: “I’ve just got in from a commute where I’m on the train for an hour and I don’t even get a seat” or whatever. That may be a good point, but it’s not good tactics.
It might be better to agree. Say “yes, I guess I do” and see what comes next. If more information doesn’t follow, ask: “does that bother you?” It’s important that these enquiries are sincere. Find something you can agree with. If your partner says “it’s really annoying”, perhaps you could say “yes, I can see it could be disappointing”. Keep your sentences short and non-defensive. A similar approach might work if the criticism is "you always talk so much", or "you never say anything", or "you eat too fast", or "you eat too slow" ... start by acknowledging anything that you possibly can.
Ideally, at some point, they will stop trying to prove to you how bad you are, and come up with an actual request for things to be different in the future, which you can then discuss.
How to Apologise
Suppose you’ve done something that upsets your partner. An apology is required.
If you don’t regret what happened, then you shouldn’t give an insincere apology. But if your partner is upset, it probably was regrettable. It’s no defence to say that you wouldn’t mind if they did the same to you: you are not both the same. And it’s no good trying to counter-attack by saying that they are making too much “fuss”. It has to be an apology. Not a defence or minimising it.
What is an apology? It doesn’t mean just saying the word “sorry”. It means that you show that you really understand how it affected them and how upset they are. It means responding to their pain. In order to do this, you may need to ask them questions to understand better what is going on. That may seem like the exact opposite of what you feel like doing. You want to tell your side of the story. Don’t do that. Ask more about the effect on them. “I need to understand more about how you feel about it”.
Validate what they say. That doesn’t mean agreeing with it: it means saying that you can understand it, it makes sense. If you can’t say that, then you need to find out more. Validating it is the opposite of trying to prove that their feeling is “illogical” or unjustified. If you think they are over-reacting, then your task is to ask more questions to find out why it’s such a big deal to them. Then you can say sorry.
And finally, explain how you intend for things to be different in future.
If you are afraid of apologising because you think that it will be held against you for ever, it may be a case for some counselling.
The drinking-glass -- or why is it always about the dishwasher?
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.
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. 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 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