While there are a lot of factors that go into working with couples on their relationship, often a basic building block that I focus on is communication. Couples, married or otherwise, straight or gay, come into therapy because of troubling issues. Often underlying these issues – be they about sex, finances or trust – is difficulty communicating with one another. More often than not, communication – real communication, where both people hear and acknowledge each other – has broken down. And with that break down comes a break down of hope as well.
Often it is the couples’ communication process that we address in therapy. In fact, even when addressing other more tangible issues, we are always addressing communication. Not infrequently couples have fallen into negative and hurtful patterns in terms of their communication. Often there is a sort of debate mode that couples come in with. After one person has made a point, expressed some opinion, the other will counter with her opinion. The first person thinks this; the second that. There is no acknowledgment of what either has said.
I will often intercede when I see such communication by pointing out what I observe and by showing a model of how to change this type of interaction. The point I make is that people begin to first acknowledge the other; then they can offer their perspective. And of course, I encourage each person to express their feelings. Feelings can’t be argued with.
Couples that I work with know that I will often offer them a different way of communicating and different words. It is my hope that each person will not simply parrot what I am saying, but put those words into his or her own. Instead of launching into one’s own position, I’ll encourage people to reflect on what they’ve heard and acknowledge what the partner has said. “I know that you are tired of living in our neighborhood…” “I get it that you are terribly worried about our finances.” “I hear you that you are worried and scared.” Of course there may be serious disagreement that a couple has, serious issues. Perhaps he doesn’t want to move and she does. Maybe one person feels the other is insensitive to their financial woes. There must be room for each person to express their view. When this is done – after acknowledging the other person – there is more room to meet and work together. Less divisiveness.
Sometimes I refer to this method as putting the horse before the cart. When a couple communicates this way, they are much closer to reaching real solutions to their problems than simply perpetuating disagreements. And in the process they generally feel closer to one another.