What does your friend need or want?

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:

What does your friend need or want?

Couples forget that at one point they were friends. They dated, they fell in love, they had good times, and through all of that they were building a friendship. Sometimes couples state clearly that “I married my best friend,” and it’s even in their wedding vows. But even if their core friendship is less overt or obvious, at one point in their story, it was a powerful bond, and also a kind of ordinary bond… the bond of good friends.

To do this exercise with couples, I have to authentically convince them that I am going to work hard to help them get what they want in the conflict. No one wants to think about what somebody else needs or wants if they don’t have any hope to reach any of their own goals. And they’ve spent a lot of time feeling very unfriendly feelings about the other person, and being on the receiving end of unfriendly feelings. So sometimes I’ll begin by saying, “Let’s imagine just for the next few minutes that the person next to you on this couch is your friend.” Then I ask the question:

What does your friend need or want?

I often have to suggest things. “I wonder,” I’ll say, “if your friend needs someone to truly understand how frustrated she feels, without trying to fix it.” Or, “I wonder if your friend needs someone to show some compassion about his frustration with the kids, because when he’s mad at the kids, he feels like a failure, like a bad father.” Or, “I wonder if your friend is really scared about all the changes that have happened, and she needs someone to talk to her about what hasn’t changed, or what won’t ever change, if you can do anything about it.” Or, “I wonder if your friend is just sad right now, and needs someone to hold their hand.”

Sometimes we have to explore these things for a little while. I’ll check with the person we’re talking about to see if we’re on track, and often enough we are. Because it’s not my relationship, it’s not so hard for me to see what your friend needs or wants, because I’m not in trouble with them, and I don’t have a history with them.

Couples have said that when they talk about their issues in this way, it is inherently relaxing and encouraging. They begin to treat one another as friends again. It can also be a good homework assignment, and they’ve come back to later sessions reporting a more positive dynamic at home.

You can try this at home. If you’re upset with your partner, center yourself, breathe more deeply, and wonder about this question:

What does my friend need or want?