2 simple steps that show couples therapy can sometimes be elementary

Making things better is about not getting stuck making things better

Lately, when I’ve been doing couples therapy, I realize that though the content is always different and the level of emotion varies, what the solution that both partners are seeking often boils down to this:

Step #1: Do more of what the other guy wants.

Step #2: Stop doing what the other guy hates.

And this, I think, is the core of what both need to do differently. I know, this sounds a bit simplistic; you’re thinking that there’s something more complicated than that, that there are all these problems, this history, some deep underlying issues, etc. But when you think about what’s at the center of “not getting along,” isn’t this what all those arguments are usually about — getting the other guy to do steps one and two?

Easy to say, but invariably where this all falls apart is getting both the partners to move forward on just these steps. Their heads make up reasons why they shouldn’t.

Here are some of the common saboteurs of real change:

1. I don’t want to do what he wants me to do, because he hasn’t made any effort to do what I want him to do.

You can feel the power struggle just reading this – this is a blink contest – who’s going to have to make the first move. Stop it: the power struggle, the saving face, the one-upmanship. Just make the first move.

2. After the way she has treated me, she doesn’t deserve for me to give her what she’s asking for.

This is a variation on the above with a bit more anger and judgment thrown in: You get some sort of revenge by withholding; You get to decide on the penance. Give it up, move forward.

3. What he wants is … not me, not in my personality, not my values, etc.

If you’re feeling that “what”, whatever it is, is outside your comfort zone, then it’s about your taking baby steps. If it’s about values, visions of life then it’s about compatibility, and these, admittedly, can be the really tough compromises. If you want to be “totally you” realize that the trade-off may be that you’ll have to live totally alone. Relationships require adaption. Decide how far you can go with compromise and change and see if it is enough.

4. There is no end to what she wants – she’ll never be happy, she’s only into control – why bother?

The all-or-nothing thinking here is the stuckpoint. As Benjamin Button said, “You can change or stay the same and stop whenever you want, there are no rules to this thing.” So you can go further and see what happens; you can stop when you want; you’re only controlled if you think you are controlled. Her being happy is up to her. You can only do the best you can do, and you can decide what that is.

5. He shouldn’t be so sensitive, get so upset, be so bothered,,,

Basically you’re saying he shouldn’t feel how he feels, that his feelings are not valid, are unimportant. This is where couples begin to argue over whose version of reality is correct to dismiss the other’s over-reaction – “I didn’t say that; yes you did, but I didn’t say that way…” — a stupid argument that goes nowhere and generally just fuels resentment. Maybe he is “over-reacting,” didn’t see it the way you did; yes, he can try adapting another perspective, but that’s his call and doesn’t nullify what he is feeling now.

So in the meantime, why wouldn’t you want to do something that can help him feel better because it’s important to him and you care about him?

The assumption running through all this is that you actually want to improve the relationship — the dynamics between you — and not win, get even, get the other guy to change, or have a reason to get out. You can also follow the thread – that’s it about dropping the attitude, feeling uncomfortable with making change, stop power struggling or being and staying angry, stop engaging in trench warfare where you both are either holding up in your bunkers or periodically lopping grenades at each other. You want to change the war-zone climate. You want to try having a generous heart.

So find out what the other guy wants, what he hates; have him make it as concrete as possible so you know exactly what to do. You do the same — tell him what you want and don’t want. Everybody puts his head down and tries doing it with no expectations. See what happens, stop when you want.

Do the best you can do.

Author’s Books

© Copyright 2015 Robert Taibbi, L.C.S.W., All rights Reserved.
Previous articleRelationship Tips For Treating Your Relationship As Top Priority
Next articleSpotting Relationships That Revolve Around Codependency
Bob Taibbi is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker with 40 years experience primarily in community mental health working with couples and families as a clinician, supervisor and clinical director. Bob is the author of 7 books: Doing Couples Therapy: Craft and Creativity in Work with Intimate Partners Doing Family Therapy: Craft and Creativity in Clinical Practice, now in its 3rd edition, and recently translated into Chinese and Portuguese Clinical Supervision: A Four-Stage Process of Growth and Discovery Clinical Social Work Supervision: Practice & Process Boot Camp Therapy: Action-Oriented Brief Clinical Approaches to Anxiety, Anger & Depression The Art of the First Session Brief Therapy With Couples & Families in Crisis In addition to his books, Bob writes an regular online column for Psychology Today magazine entitled Fixing Families http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/fixing-families, as well as a monthly parenting advice column for Charlottesville Family magazine. He has also published over 300 magazine and journal articles, and has contributed several book chapters including Favorite Counseling Techniques: 55 Masters Share Their Secrets which cited him among the top 100 therapists in the country. He served as teen advice columnist for Current Health, a contributing editor to Your Health and Fitness, and has received 3 national writing awards for Best Consumer Health Writing. Bob is a graduate of Rutgers University and the University of South Carolina, and has served as adjunct professor at several universities. He provides trainings nationally in couple therapy, family therapy, brief therapy, and clinical supervision. He is currently in private practice in Charlottesville, Virginia with Lewis Weber & Associates: weberpsychotherapy.com