Couples Counseling: First Things Clients Need to Know
For a few years now I have made a habit of summarizing my work in couples counseling, so I can send to a couple and help them remember what we talked about. It occurred to me today that I might as well post these summaries to my website so others might benefit from it and I can simply direct new couples to the proper link to read it themselves.
What follows is information about relationships that is so important I will not be able to do effective couples counseling until both partners understand it.
Move from focusing on “making points” to focusing on understanding feelings
Couples counseling is a process of helping couples move from where their communication is primarily content-focused to where it is primarily context focused. “Content” is the words that are said, and “context” is the the reality/emotion/subjective experience underneath what is said. We know that context is usually far more important than content, and that couples who are masters of communication tune in closely to context. The more context is neglected and partners focus on content and simply agreeing or disagreeing with it, the more volatile a conflict will often become.
You might even say that when it comes to having a healthy relationship, feelings and subjective experiences are not only important, they are determinative. That’s a fancy way of saying the extent to which you can tune into your partner’s feelings and experiences will actually determine the extent to which your relationship is happy and healthy.
You must learn to pay attention to context, what your partner is saying about their feelings and perspectives, and must validate feelings even when you cannot validate facts and details your partner is conveying.
- “It makes sense that you would feel that way.”
- “I can certainly understand at least a part of that.”
- “Given where you come from and your experience, of course you feel that way, why wouldn’t you?”
Feelings are not just more content to be opposed and argued with, they are the relationship itself – the place where connection is either deepened or damaged.
As I put it in a recent blog post: “A relationship can never benefit from a demand from one partner that the other simply stop feeling a certain way.” Feelings don’t work that way.
Facts About Arguments
69% of all conflict is unresolvable—your way of talking to each other has to match this reality. If there’s no objective right or wrong perspective, why do couples argue as if there is?
95% of the time the first two minutes of an argument/disagreement predict how it will end, so there’s nothing more important to focus on than making sure arguments/disagreements begin properly.
How to Start an Argument
- “I feel/felt…”(alone in the relationship)
- “When you…”(forgot to take the garbage out again this morning)
- “I need…”(you to be really consistent with this)
No criticism, attacking, high levels of negative emotion, sarcasm, or martyrdom.
You might say, “Dave, I don’t think I can control my emotion and stay calm with my partner.”
I would suggest you can. After all, I’ll bet you do when you have to have a difficult conversation with your boss. Or with a close friend.
In fact most of us control our emotions with pretty much everyone in our life except the person we’re supposed to love most. The truth is you’ve gotten into the habit of speaking to your partner inappropriately, and you’ll have to break that habit. It will be hard, but you can do it. And you have to, if you want to communicate more effectively.
How to Respond to Your Partner
When you respond to something your partner shares with you, you must respond not to your thoughts and feelings about what they have said, but to the feeling/emotion (i.e., subjective reality) they have conveyed. Arguments are what happens when partners are not responding to the subjective reality that is being shared, but rather to their own feelings, judgments, and evaluations of the content.
When one of you brings up something they need to talk about, the other person’s job is to listen, validate, and show empathy, not to argue or express their own point of view. The better you get at this, the closer your partner will feel to you and the more deeply they will love you.
Everything contained above is counterintuitive and difficult, and takes practice, and that’s why so many couples struggle.