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  • 5 Pushback Statements I Commonly Get in Couples Counseling and My Responses


    In this post I want to address the five things couples say to me most often in the counseling process that I have to stop and address with them. In their own way, each is “pushback,” not necessarily in the sense that they are said in anger, or a spirit of argument, but in the sense that they come out of ways of thinking that need to be addressed and corrected or the process cannot be successful. You will see many of these are closely related. They are as follows:

    • This exercise you’re having us do isn’t really us.
    • This feels awkward.
    • We don’t have time to implement what you are teaching us (usually, “We’ve been really busy this week”).
    • This won’t work, I have tried it before.
    • We kind of did what you suggested, but we tweaked it and made it our own.

    Here are my usual responses to each of these sentiments, and I’m going to write my response as if the couple has actually made each statement and I’m responding back to them.

    This exercise isn’t really us.

    I would assume that’s the case. After all, if it were more “you,” you wouldn’t be coming to therapy to begin with. The way you are currently addressing the issues in your relationship is a system that is perfectly designed to give you the results you keep getting. That’s why the exercises aren’t “you.” The idea is to practice them until they become you.

    Comparison: A student taking piano lessons says to the teacher, “This classical music you’re teaching me isn’t really me.” The teacher responds, “At the moment, “you” don’t know how to play the piano. Practice this music and you will learn how. Once you know how to play the piano, you can focus on how to do it in a way that uniquely expresses who you are.”

    When you come to therapy, learn what I’m teaching you first. Work on it until it isn’t awkward anymore. Then you can tweak it and make it your own. (I will address this same issue from another perspective when I deal with statement #5.)

    This feels awkward.

    It feels awkward because it’s not what you have normally done, just like trying to finger a guitar chord feels awkward at first. You almost have to place every finger on each specific string or fret. You wonder how you’ll ever be able to play naturally. But if you keep working at it, that’s in fact exactly what will happen. It’ll be less awkward, and more comfortable, every day.

    Give yourselves a break! This is new. It takes time to learn new things and there is always a certain amount of awkwardness when you are learning something. If there wasn’t, you wouldn’t need to learn it, you’d already be doing it.

    We don’t have time to implement what you’re teaching us.

    This is a problem. Change takes practice and practice takes time. There’s no way around it. 100% of what I will teach you that you do not practice and implement will fail.

    If you’re thinking about investing the time and money to get couples counseling, I’d suggest you and your partner get clear on whether you can really make that commitment. Very little I will be telling you will make your marriage better just because you heard me say it. Put it this way: I cannot help you, but I can help you help yourself. Do you have time to help yourself?

    Many of the exercises I’ll give you will require from 3-4 minutes up to 20 minutes a day.

    This won’t work. I have tried it before.

    I’ll bet you have! In most couples, at least one partner if not both have watched videos on YouTube, read books and articles, and tried other things to help the relationship long before they come to see me. But those often don’t work for a simple reason, and that’s because one or both of you have been trying new things without telling the other person you’re trying them, and/or trying them without a proper expectation of how long you’ll have to do them to see the results you want.

    A big part of the power of couples counseling is that both of you agree to it together. You attend sessions together, you learn new things together, you practice interventions and activities together. This coordinated approach where you are both on board is far better than the scattershot thing where one of you “tries” something a few times, don’t get the result you wanted, and conclude it doesn’t work. Under that way of doing it, most of the time when you’re trying something, your partner doesn’t even notice you are trying! When you attend counseling together, you both know what to expect and look for in the other, the signs that your partner is doing their work.

    We kind of did what you suggested, but we tweaked it and made it our own.

    It’s probably not going to work. The steps I give you for an intervention are set up the way they are for precise reasons. Typically the tweaking couples do are tweaks that take away some of the awkwardness of the exercise. The more comfortable you make the exercise is, the more you have tweaked it to be like what you were already doing before that wasn’t working. You’re in therapy because your old habits, as natural as they felt, weren’t working.

    Returning to my metaphor about learning the piano, if a teacher assigns a certain scale for the student to learn, and the student learns “kind of” how to play it, but not with the proper fingerings, it’s almost certainly going to cause problems down the road. It is taught the way it is taught for a reason.

    These are the most common things people say once counseling begins, related to the process itself.