We love the joy of closeness in an intimate relationship and few things leave us more miserable than the alienation of ongoing conflict.
Couples come to see me for hundreds of different reasons. It almost always involves their partner behaving in ways that they find upsetting, and they want their partner to change. They believe that their difficulties are due to the inconsiderate, hostile, or uncaring behavior of their partner. Sometimes, people acknowledge their own shortcomings or misbehavior, though this is often explained as being an understandable reaction to how their partner behaves.
I do all of the chores
She never wants to have sex with me
He never helps with the kids
Sex has become boring
He spoils the kids and makes me look bad
She never really hears me
We fight about everything
He never talks with me
She cheated on me again
He’s always flirting when we go out two parties
She’s always shopping so we’re always in debt
Sometimes he hits me when we fight
She never appreciates me
He criticizes everything I do
She has such a terrible temper
He’s so selfish in bed
She’s always out with her friends
He’s a workaholic
He’s always looking at the TV/his computer/his phone
She always has to get the last word in
He’s too harsh with the kids
She always threatens to leave me
He drinks too much
The big secret, as most experienced couples therapists will tell you, is that the “problem” isn’t really the problem. It is never really about help around the house. It is not really about drinking too much alcohol. It isn’t about the affair. And it is certainly not about how they squeeze the toothpaste tube.
It isn’t that people don’t find these things distressing, but that we misunderstand why they are distressing. For example, we would not complain if our partner did not help around the house if they were paraplegic, even though we would still be left doing most of the housework. And while we might resent our partner drinking too much, a different person might complain that their partner doesn’t drink enough, that they won’t join them in “having a good time”.
The real reason that couples come to see me is over not feeling loved, not believing that they matter enough, are desired enough, are respected enough, are valued enough. It doesn’t matter how much our partner actually loves and respects us, just that we experience that they don’t seem to care at times. And because this is our experience we will feel hurt. We will also tend to feel inadequate, or somehow badly about ourselves, though we may deny this. We may also be scared over not feeling loved, as we’ll fear losing the relationship and the security it offers.
If you want to save yourself a lot of upset, begin by considering that what your partner is doing isn’t really the source of your distress. Your upset and hurt feelings matter a lot, so I am wanting you to put your efforts towards things that will actually get you relief. If you keep believing and doing things the same way then things will stay the same or get worse.
It is certainly true that when your partner does, or doesn’t do, those upsetting things that you end up feeling badly. So it is entirely understandable that we are inclined to believe that our partner’s behaviour caused our distress and that if we could only get them to change then we would feel relief. Unfortunately, we are making two big mistakes that only keep us stuck.
The first is that although our partner’s behaviour evokes our upset, most of our distress is actually intrusive feeling from a long time ago. As explained in the video series, Understanding Our Difficulties, most of the distress in our current lives comes from overwhelming feelings from childhood that get triggered by situations in our lives now. Although this may seem difficult to believe, consider that most approaches to couples therapy now recognize that our early lives have a profound effect on our adult marriages. Indeed, because we usually feel most attached to our partners, they are able to evoke these distressing feelings more than anyone else.
The second problem is that the ways we go about trying to get our partners to change usually backfire. We tell them that what they are doing is making us feel hurt or angry. We tell them that they are being selfish, mean, inconsiderate, hostile, or critical. We call them a bitch, an asshole, stupid, lazy, fat, crazy, or an addict of some kind. We may manipulate them to behave differently by yelling at them, withholding affection, threatening them, complaining to others in front of them, giving them the “silent treatment”, or warning that we will divorce them. None of these improve our relationships.
The good news is that there are ways of relating to both your own feelings, and to your partner, that virtually guarantee a better relationship. The very good news is that you don’t have to change anything about how you feel or what you want. The very, very good news is that you get to be yourself, and express yourself, even more!
Expressing Ourselves Responsibly
The place we must begin, however, is to accept responsibility for our feelings, and never to blame our partners for them. We can feel as hurt, angry, jealous, frustrated, or invisible as we do, and we need to recognize that someone else in our shoes might feel differently. This does not mean that we are wrong for feeling as we do, and indeed our feelings are never wrong. It is just that our feelings of distress almost always include intrusive feelings from childhood, so to blame them on our partner is profoundly unfair. If you want more information about this, I invite you to watch the video series, Understanding Our Difficulties, and visit this page.
As we accept responsibility for our own feelings we actually begin to take them seriously. We truly listen to our own feelings and honour them, and we talk about them in ways that compel others to care about them as well. Listening to our own feelings is a skill that is covered in Feel Good – For You. Here I’ll focus on how we can express our feelings and desires to our partners. Unfortunately, if we don’t learn to take our own feelings seriously then our partners won’t tend to either.
Expressing our feelings and desires responsibly makes a world of difference in terms of how our partners respond to them. Anything we say that suggests that our partner is to blame for our feelings takes us away from responsibility and away from our partner actually listening to us. The most common example of this is, “You made me feel…”.
“You make me so angry.”
“Stop making me feel guilty.”
“You’re hurting my feelings.”
Instead, we could simply say, “I’m really angry.”, or “I’m frustrated.” Or “I’m pissed off”.
If we are clear about our intention not to blame our partner, we can also express the relationship between our partner’s behaviour and how we feel: “When you… I felt…”, or actively stating our responsibility such as, “When you… I make myself feel…”.
Rather than, “You make me mad.”
Instead, “I get so mad when you don’t tell me where you’re going.”
Or, “I get myself so upset and angry when I don’t know where you are.”
Rather than, “You’re making me feel guilty.”
Instead, “I feel guilty.”
Rather than, “You scare me.”
Instead, “I get scared when you laugh like that.”
Rather than, “You’re hurting my feelings.”
Instead, “I feel really hurt when you criticize my cooking.”
Or, “I feel really sad when you’re disappointed with me.”
Rather than, “You are so irritating.”
Instead, “I am feeling really annoyed.”
Or, “I get very irritated when you talk during a show.”
Rather than, “You make me feel so happy.”
Instead, “I am so happy being with you.”
Notice that in these examples we are not minimizing our feelings at all. Indeed, once we really get our responsibility for our feelings, and our partners come to realize that we are not blaming them, we gain incredible freedom to express ourselves that much more fully. Blaming involves pointing our finger at someone else, at their behavior, and that person is predictably going to follow our lead and talk about what they did or said. This will usually involve them explaining themselves, correcting our “misperception”, defending themselves, or attacking us in response. We usually find this to be disappointing, discouraging, or infuriating.
The biggest benefit in expressing ourselves responsibly is that we are instead directing attention to our own feelings and desires. “I am feeling really annoyed.” “I feel really hurt when you criticize my cooking.” “I feel guilty.” “I really want to make love tonight.” Along with reinforcing our own sense of responsibility, this directs our partner’s attention to our feelings as well. After 30 years of working with couples I can tell you that our partners almost always care about our feelings. Although we may doubt this, the main reason that our partners may not seem to value us or our feelings is because we have not been truly responsible in talking about them.
The longer we have been together, the more that our partners will tend to hear what we say based on how we have spoken to them in the past. So, initially at least, you may have to fight for your responsibility. If you say, “I feel hurt.”, and your partner becomes defensive as if you were blaming them for your feelings, you may have to become a bit insistent and say something like, “I’m not blaming you! I’m just telling you that I feel hurt.” That will usually surprise them and elicit their caring.
Sometimes, our partners will say something silly like, “Well, you shouldn’t feel that way.” They are trying to be helpful, but it doesn’t help. We can instead help them understand by letting them know, “I’m not sure what ‘shouldn’t’ means, but I still feel hurt.” or “Someone else might not feel this way, but you married someone who does.”
There is more direction about how to express ourselves responsibly, along with practice examples, in the free e-book
eBook: The Language of Loving: A Way of Communicating (ePub format for most e-readers, including Kobo, Kindle Fire, iBooks, Google Books, Adobe Digital, Sony, and Blackberry).
PDF: The Language of Loving: A Way of Communicating (PDF file)
Express Your Appreciation Too
There are things you don’t like about your partner, about how they behave, but there are also things that you like and appreciate. Unfortunately, when our partners behave in ways that trigger our upsetting intrusive feelings, this tends to carry the day. We tend to focus on the things we don’t like with a certain sense of urgency because we want relief from our distress. Also, to the extent that we are feeling resentful towards our partners, we become emotionally withholding of our positive feelings. We can become emotionally punishing towards our partners, not wanting to acknowledge all of their positive qualities until they have acknowledged their shortcomings and apologized to us for our distress. Unfortunately, this means that we aren’t fully expressing ourselves and our partners get a distorted picture of how we actually feel about them. The solution is quite simple, though often emotionally difficult for us to do. In big ways and small ways, we need to make a point of telling our partners the many ways that we appreciate them. This ranges from thanking them for the small tasks that they take care of to make our lives together work, to general aspects of their personalities or physical attractiveness that we appreciate.
“Thanks for making dinner tonight. I was really tired and it felt great to just come home and eat.”
“I really appreciated how you were with Sarah over her homework tonight. I know she was feeling really discouraged and your helped her to turn it around.”
“I realize I can complain about how much you work, but I really do appreciate how dedicated you are to doing a good job for your clients.”
“After all these years I still think you’re a really sexy man. (That’s part of the reason I’m prone to feeling jealous.)”
Expressing your appreciation is simply expressing what is true for you. I’d never encourage you to say something false for the sake of flattery.
As I noted earlier, couples’ underlying struggles are always over a sense of not feeling loved, valued, and appreciated. Expressing your appreciation frequently can go along way to healing this. Also, if they feel loved and appreciated, they will be much more receptive to hearing about the things you don’t like. The research on this is very strong, and if you put yourself in their place it is pretty easy to understand why.
There is more direction about how to express our appreciation in the free e-book:
eBook: The Language of Loving: A Way of Communicating
PDF: The Language of Loving: A Way of Communicating
Listen with Compassion
I have more good news: you are not to blame for your partner’s upset. I don’t encourage you to say this to them, unless you want to fight, but I want you to set yourself free with this awareness. Just like you, and all the rest of us, your partner is going to be triggered by some of the things that you say and do, or don’t say and do, and will tend to believe that your behaviour caused their distress. It is profoundly valuable for you to be clear that, while they are indeed upset and warrant your compassion, someone else in that situation might not be. The more that you remain clear on this the less reactive you’ll be and the more you will be able to hear about their distress, and acknowledge it with compassion.
(You are, of course, responsible for your behaviour and choices, and you can certainly choose to do things that you know will be upsetting for your partner. What I am writing about here assumes that you are wanting to work towards a closer, more fulfilling relationship, and are not intentionally provoking your partner.)
Listening with compassion simply means that we listen to our partner’s experience and convey that we understand. We do this by acknowledging, in words, the essence of what they have expressed to us.
Oliver: I can’t believe how you were flirting with him tonight! What do you think our friends are going to think?!?
Fatima: Sounds like you thought I was flirting with Raheem, and felt jealous and embarrassed. That must’ve been awful.
Or, Fatima: I get that my flirting with Raheem was really upsetting for you.
Jane: I’m fed up with you leaving your clothes and garbage around the house.
John: I get that you’re annoyed with my messiness.
Or, John: Finding my stuff around really bugs you.
The vital phrase from Avatar, one of the most popular films of all time, was “I see you.” We are all born wanting to be deeply seen by another person. It is painful for us when we are misunderstood or misinterpreted. We feel good when we are understood by another person, particularly by our partners. The only way that our partners will realize that we understand them, however, is if we tell them what we have heard.
This does not mean that we agree with their perceptions of us or our behavior. John doesn’t have to agree with Jane that he is messy, just understand that she doesn’t like finding his things around the house. Fatima doesn’t have to agree that she was flirting, just understand that Oliver interpreted it that way and felt badly.
Next, consider how you would feel if your partner briefly acknowledges your experience and in the same breath adds, “But…”. “But” pretty much erases what came before it. So it is crucial that after you acknowledge your partner’s feelings and experience that you not rush into explain or defend yourself. Instead, continue to hear your partner out, and continue to acknowledge what they say. When they are done they will be dramatically more receptive to hearing about your experience then if you try to force it on them too soon.
“Do you know what people really want? Everyone, I mean. Everybody in the world is thinking: I wish there was just one other person I could really talk to, who could really understand me, who’d be kind to me. That’s what people really want, if they’re telling the truth.”
Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook
There is more direction about how to Listen with Compassion, including practice examples, in the free e-book:
eBook: The Language of Loving: A Way of Communicating
PDF: The Language of Loving: A Way of Communicating
The Prescription for Happier Relationships
The problems that couples think they have are usually problems because they trigger distressing intrusive feelings from childhood. We are usually completely unaware of this. We therefore persist in trying to get our partners to change how they behave in ways that do not help and typically make things worse.
If you want a genuinely happy relationship, these practices will get you there. It is not that you have deficits in communication but rather that skilled communication will be necessary for us to navigate whatever distressing feelings come up for us.
- Practice using these communication skills in your day-to-day life with your partner. Along with the direction offered here, you will find more in the free e-book: The Language of Love: A Way of Communicating. The e-book also includes exercises for you to practice the communication skills. After that you can begin practicing using real life examples from your relationship where the interaction did not go well. You can download the Create Better Relationships worksheet here.
- Along with using these skills day-to-day, it is extremely valuable to set aside a couple of hours per week to listen to each other. In this weekly dialogue you will be more successful at using the communication skills because the time is specifically set aside for that. It will also promote deeper closeness and connection between you. I call this Listening Time, adapted from the Imago Dialogue developed by Harville Hendrix, and it has specific steps that are described and demonstrated here.
- Enjoy each other! I encourage couples to spend at least a couple of hours each week doing something enjoyable together. This involves something where partners can still talk and interact, such as having dinner together or going for a walk, rather than watching a movie where the focus is on something else.
For fun, below is a rating scale developed by a psychologist in 1939. It shows how dramatically our expectations of marriage have changed over the last 80 years.