Marriage and Relationship Counseling

by Alan Brandis, Ph.D.

Having worked with hundreds of couples over the last 20 years, I have developed a set of beliefs or ideas which, if adopted, help to ensure that a relationship will last. Here is a list of them.

1) Arguing helps nothing, so don't do it.

I like to say that I never met the person who started the fight! When two people argue, each of them believes that he or she is merely reacting to something the other one did or said. Neither one believes that they started the fight; but it started somehow, didn't it?

I also like to tell couples that, if they are going to argue in the office they might as well not be there, because they already know how to do that and they are so much better at it than I could ever train them to be. They are in the office to learn something else they can do when they disagree. I will consistently interfere with their argument pattern, so that they can try some new behavior instead.

Arguments start when one person says or does something without awareness of how it impacts the other one. The second person reacts with anger, defensiveness, etc. and is perceived by the first one as provoking a conflict, since the first person does not know how his or her actions affected the second one. According to this view, then, the antidote for arguing is to become more aware of one's impact on one's partner, and vice versa.

We become more aware of, or sensitive to, our impact on each other by having our assumptions about each other challenged. A therapist trained in family therapy techniques can assist family members to incorporate this new information and use it productively.

2) It is better to be close than it is to be “right.”

Blaming each other for the argument is counterproductive. So is trying to change the other person's opinion. Most couples who argue, argue about whose perception is "correct," whose way of doing something is the "right" way, and so on. The only possible outcome of these arguments is that someone will be "right" and someone will be "wrong." Do you know anyone who enjoys being wrong? Most people will fight tooth and nail to avoid being "wrong."

The only way to avoid this type of conflict is to get out of the framework of right vs. wrong . As Kurt Vonnegut wrote, in The Sirens of Titan, "That is the Wonder of the Universe - that two people can both be right and yet never agree about anything."

The way to resolve a conflict is not to convince the other person that you are right! Rather, the way to resolve a conflict or disagreement is to accept the fact that you see the issue differently, and then to work from that point. There are various ways to reach compromise, once the attempt to change the other person's mind is abandoned. Remember, each time you are "right" you create distance between you and your partner.

3) Commitment is the Foundation of the Therapy.

(A Joke:) All the animals of the barnyard got together to discuss Breakfast. The Cow said, "I think that Breakfast is important, and I'll support it." The Chicken said, "I agree, Breakfast is a worthwhile cause, I'll support it, too." The Pig, who had been listening to all of this, said, "Well, you guys may be willing to support Breakfast - but I'm committed!"

One of the first things that needs to be discussed in relationship therapy is the relative commitment levels of the partners. If one partner is afraid that the other one may "bail out" if things get too intense or uncomfortable, they may not be completely honest about their feelings in order to avoid confrontation, and the real issues will never get addressed. That would doom the therapy to failure from the start.

Commitment implies that you are in the relationship "come Hell or high water," barring certain behaviors your partner might do such as having an affair (although I have seen a number of relationships recover from those, too) or being an ax-murderer. Sometimes we discover in therapy that the real reason the couple is having difficulty is because they have never really resolved this most basic issue, and they are struggling because one perceives the other's commitment level as being less that complete.

4) Communication is more than sending words through the air.

"We just don't communicate" is a very common complaint of couples, as well as of families. Usually what people mean by this is that they talk to each other but fail to get issues resolved.

Most folks think that communication is like being a TV station: you send out signals and then it is up to others to tune in and "receive" them. If someone doesn't get the signal, it's their fault and they should tune their set better.

Communication is more of a two-way process, though, like using a CB radio in which you talk, wait for acknowledgment that the other person received your message ("10-4, Good Buddy") then listen, then acknowledge that you received their message, then talk again. There is a good reason that CB radio evolved the way it did - messages can come though only partially, or with static and interference they can sound like a different message entirely. So, the accuracy of the receiver has to be constantly checked and rechecked.

It is amazing how often we fail to do that when we talk to each other. We assume that, because our partner uses familiar words, we know what they mean and we attribute intentions to them based on our interpretation of their message. We almost never ask, "When you said that, did you mean X-Y-Z ?" We assume that they meant it, and react as though they did. Then we don't believe it when they are surprised at our reaction.

Effective communication is achieved in part by calibrating our interpretations to our partner's stated intentions. It is essential to discuss what was meant by various remarks, in order to understand the speaker's true intentions, as well as for the speaker to understand how the receiver tends to interpret certain types of messages.

Learning the techniques of effective communication can take time, because we have to break lifelong habits, but once learned it makes a tremendous difference in the level of conflict and misunderstanding between partners.