This post marks the first in a short series on couples issues, inspired by Elizabeth Weil’s article in the NYT documenting her experience trying to improve her already good marriage. A quote to start:
We enrolled in a 16-hour, two-Saturday course called “Mastering the Mysteries of Love.” The classes teach students how to have “skilled conversations” or rather, I should say, how to stop having the let’s-see-who-rhetorically-wins skirmishes that were standard in our house.
Let’s see if this sounds familiar. Partner #1 opens a soon-to-be argument by saying something seemingly benign yet tinged with accusation. Maybe, “Could you stop loading the dishwasher so full?” Partner #2 takes issue with this statement and challenges (“What does it matter?”). Uh-oh. In this instant, both partners become experts on dishwasher-loading technique. They each mount arguments in their heads as to why they know exactly how to load the dishwasher. And why the opposing partner doesn’t. Sooner or later the argument moves from dishwasher-loading to communication and respect, and why neither partner knows how to do those correctly either.
I’m exaggerating a bit, but the idea is that often partners engage, like Elizabeth Weil and her husband, in rhetoric-based debates rather than mutually vulnerable discussion. They get spun out in the fact-finding, quote-quoting, philosophical/moral/ethical debates that lead to nowhere but exhaustion. It’s like junk food – you can’t stop eating it, but it just leaves you feeling sick and disappointed.
Many couples therapists suggest what Elizabeth Weil calls “forced empathy” – communicating not with facts and philosophy leading the charge, but with bared emotion and mutual vulnerability. Sue Johnson’s Emotionally Focused Therapy for couples is a great example of this type of approach – I use many of these elements in my own work with couples. Now, it takes a certain amount of safety in a relationship to access this type of vulnerability, but I find that more often than not couples are eager to learn to communicate in a different way than the “debate model.” It’s hard to shift styles of communicating, but once it happens it can be a great thing.
I’d be interested to hear thoughts or experiences with couples therapy, if anyone’s willing to share. If you’re interested in reading more about the Emotionally Focused approach, Sue Johnson’s book, Hold Me Tight, is a great resource to start with. Thanks for reading – look for Couples Series #2 soon!