Most couples come see me with some version of a similar dance. They are trying to find the problem in their relationship and they are looking in the wrong place. It is so easy to see how your partner creates your misery because you have a front row seat to the action. You watch it happen, you feel the consequences, and you are unable to get them to stop. So frustrating. The games of finger pointing, find the bad guy, and somebody fix my spouse start getting played and everybody loses.
It turns out that your marriage is caught in a negative feedback loop in which both parties are cooperatively sabotaging the relationship. It is much more useful to think of couples problems in a circular manner (chicken and egg) than as a ping pong match(He said, she said). Basically, if you can define the problems in your marriage by starting a sentence with “We have this cycle where I do this while he does that and both of us lose”, you are getting closer to the truth and getting closer to peace.
The key to unlocking couple’s negative cycles is to uncover the two interlocking behaviors, beliefs, or feelings that pull both people down. They always interlock and they only get better if improvement happens on both problems at the same time. If you take turns working on your part of the problem, it never gets better. And if you only focus on one person’s part, things never get better.
THROW OUT THE PIE CHART
I encourage couples to let go of defining fault by using percentages of the problem. It doesn’t matter. If you are in a marriage where your partner is %90 of the problem, the therapy is the same. You have to work on your %10 just as hard as she works on her %90 or things don’t get better. This is why I don’t listen to the “problem” story from the past, I look at the solution story going forward. Let go of the unfairness of this concept and get to work on being happier. “You can be right or you can be happy.” It’s printed on my business card. I don’t care if you are only %1 of the problem, own your %1 and get to work. Don’t compare. Don’t bring out the scales of justice. This is not the justice system, this is marriage, and when they meet, it is very ugly. Go watch The Marriage Story on Netflix for an excellent portrayal of oil meets water.
DON’T CHANGE THE PROBLEM
Your partner will have a concept of what your part of the problem is. Try to listen to it. Try to not defend. Try to actually see it as a real problem EVEN if you don’t agree. Then work on your real or imaginary problem as hard as you can while your partner obliges you with the same. This interlocking effort to work together to de-escalate a cycle rather than defend our innocence is what gets couples back on track. If your partner says you are controlling, or selfish, or have an anger problem, accept it as truth and get to work on it. I don’t care if nobody else sees it. I don’t even care if I see it. We still have to work on it.
You nag so I avoid. I avoid so you nag.
You control so I rebel. I rebel so you control.
I get mad and you get cold. You are cold so I get mad.
I cling so you go away. You are gone so I cling.
I pursue and you withdraw. You withdraw so I pursue.
On and on, around and around, it only stops when both people join hands, make a commitment to jointly own the problem and start stopping it. Like the chicken and the egg. Nobody starts it, it just is, and it has to be stopped. Put away your righteousness, put away your innocence, and get to work on your part. That’s all you can do anyway. Change yourself and hope your partner does the same. You can’t make people change by yelling, threatening, or avoiding. It just doesn’t work. Or if it does, they will make you suffer in some other secret way.
People change at different speeds. If you compare the rates at which the two of you are altering your behavior, you will fall back into the same patterns of blame and percentages. If your partner is trying, if your partner is improving, don’t rock the boat, just keep working. You may finish first, your partner might feel happier, you may still be miserable. It’s not a competition, it is a solution. Be supportive, help out, be a cheerleader for change. Point out the positive changes and ignore the relapses.
PLUS ONE MENTALITY
When you grade a 10 question test, you can either say you got 9 wrong or you can say you got 1 right. Studies have shown that if you tell a person, “Hey, good job, you got one right” they are far more likely to try hard and improve. They may only get two or three right the next time, which is still an F, but it depends on what your goals are. If you are assessing knowledge, it’s good to see how many a person got wrong. BUT, if you are motivating learning and change (i.e. marital growth) you are far better served using a plus one mentality.
Your partner is working on anger management. They snapped at you this morning, they raged at the children in the afternoon, and at night when you said, “Can you help me with something” they started to redden, take a breath, and unload, but they don’t. They stop. They breathe. They take a timeout. They choose not to get angry. They cool off and then come help. That is a Plus One moment. You could throw it away because they raged twice that day or you can motivate by saying, “Good job, thanks for not getting mad, I know it is hard, and I can tell you are really trying, keep it up.” You have to allow incremental change to work, to have an effect, to show that it is worth something or your partner will give up or stop trying.