I'm beta-testing a new intervention with couples. I’ve been trying it out with several couples recently, and early results have been positive. As we discuss their problems, and as the typical hard feelings of anger and anxiety and sadness come to the surface, I turn to one member of the couple and then the other, and I ask this question of each of them:
Lots of couples come to counseling because they’re pissed off. The anger often seems to be about a lot of things, a thousand paper cuts, the rough edges and strains of life. But it typically runs deeper, and is closer to rage than it is to irritation or frustration.
My job is to go down into that rage with my couples. And then my job is to go even deeper.
I’ve posted twice on a “Clear the Air” technique that really works when you are upset about something and need to work through it with your partner. Here’s another way, with another h/t to Gaelen Billingsley.
It’s useful to look at your relationship the way you’d look at a rose or an orchid: a living thing that requires daily, weekly, monthly, and annual maintenance. (Let me disclaim right here that I’m not a gardener, I just married one, so forgive me if my metaphor is slightly inaccurate.)
I picked rose and orchid because in my amateur observation, these are not the easiest plants to cultivate and keep happy. Without over-focusing on the plants themselves, keep them in mind as you build a rhythm of healthy interaction as a couple. You can break it down into the following pieces, like this:
One time, long ago, I found a certain person in my personal life difficult. I found it hard to like this person. I found him/her to be provocative, and I noticed that I felt irritable whenever this person was around. (Don’t worry, it wasn’t you!)
“Give us tools.”
Lots of clients say that when they come in, and I can relate. Keep it simple. Give us something that helps us communicate better. Here’s a classic, which you can find in various forms, by various clinicians/authors:
When you’re upset with your spouse or partner, say these things, in this order:
“Why are you choosing your partner?” is a question I sometimes ask clients, but I try to explain as clearly as I can what this question is all about.
First, notice the present tense. Here, right now, today, you are choosing to be with this person. You’re not broken up, even if you feel completely miserable in the relationship, so … you are choosing to be with this person. Even if you’re planning to break up tomorrow, why tomorrow and not today? Today, for one or more reasons (probably a lot more than one), you’re sticking around.