Lewis and Brandy Engel are clinical psychologists practicing in San Francisco. They are Couples Editors of Medical Self-Care Magazine.
Taking care of the relationships in one's life is an important—and often undervalued—part of self-care. After twelve years of seeing troubled couples, we're convinced that having one or more poisonous or destructive—or even merely boring—relationship in your life can make you physically sick. A significant percentage of our clients have exhibited symptoms— ulcers, colitis, depression, insomnia, and migraines seem to be the most common—that seem almost invariably to disappear when the relationship problems are worked out. We have come to see destructive relationships as a health risk factor in the same league as overeating, smoking, lack of exercise, exposure to environmental pollutants, and poor nutrition.
This article focuses on building a strong and satisfying primary couple relationship, and with dealing with problems within that relationship, but the principles of supportive interaction and good communications we will describe can be applied in any relationship.
We'll begin by describing five common stumbling blocks—attitudes and behaviors that may keep the tools of couple self-care from working. Next we'll describe the five tools we have found most effective. Finally, we'll list some preliminary findings from our current research into the attitudes and behavior patterns of couples who have achieved especially enduring, zestful relationships. We hope that these ideas, tools, and resources will be of help to you in your efforts to create that kind of a couple relationship for yourself.
Stumbling Block #1: The Right /Wrong Game
The biggest single barrier to improving one's couple relationship is a tendency to see our partner as the source of our problems. We think that if we could only get our partner to change his or her behavior or personality, everything would be fine. When there is pain and conflict in the relationship, it's only natural to assume someone is doing something wrong, and if we feel that we're doing our best, it's got to be them.
Difficulties need not be anyone's fault, and assigning blame is rarely the most effective way of dealing with a problem. The fact is that there is pain and conflict in all relationships. Think of them as growing pains—as opportunities for both partners to learn and grow and change.
The tools we will be describing can all too easily be turned into clubs with which to beat one's partner over the head—by using them only to point out how he or she is "doing it wrong." It would be a shame for these excellent tools to be reduced to weapons in the right/wrong game.
Here are some tipoffs that you might be having trouble with this stumbling block:
1. You feel superior to your partner because he or she is not following the rules of good communication and you are.
2. You feel that the information you have learned from the new books and articles—including this one proves that you were right all along (and your partner was wrong).
3. You feel that the fact that your partner doesn't want to do certain exercises or follow certain rules proves that he/she is wrong and you are right.
Our research shows that couples with the most successful marriages rarely argue about who is right and who is wrong. They are not interested in fixing blame for painful or hurtful happenings. They simply share their feelings and see what they can do about preventing a recurrence.
Stumbling Block #2: Being Careful Not to Go More Than Halfway
Being careful not to go more than halfway is like cutting off your nose to spite your face. You may end up with a relationship that is "fair,'' but one in which neither of you gets very much. There will be a climate of scarcity in your relationship, a feeling that there is not enough love, affection, appreciation, forgiveness, and support to go around. You both begin to hoard all your love, appreciation, and support—refusing to give any out unless you get some first. So neither of you get any.
We would suggest that there need be no scarcity of love, affection, and support. Try giving more than your share. Chances are you will get more back. Instead of going just 50 percent of the way, go 60 or 70 or 100 percent—as far as it takes to make things work. After all, you have a vested interest in creating a nurturing, supportive climate for your relationship. So you're hardly being altruistic.
On the other hand, if you can't find a way to go the extra distance without feeling resentful, don't do it. You'll end up feeling resentful, superior, and ripped off. Such martyrdom will end up lowering, instead of raising, your self-esteem. At the same time, be wary of having your integrity riding on every little issue, or you'll end up with a relationship of great integrity and very little else.
Stumbling Block #3: My Partner Doesn't Want to Work on the Relationship
Many people feel that it's impossible to handle relationship problems unless their partner is willing to cooperate. This isn't necessarily so. Each partner makes an important contribution to any communications difficulty, so if either partner changes his or her pattern of behavior to a more effective one, the problem may be resolved.
It is easy to use an uncooperative partner as an excuse not to work on our own patterns of behavior. It may seem unfair to put forth more time and effort than our partner (Stumbling Block #2). But once we have chosen to stay in a particular relationship, it seems a little silly not to do everything in our power to make it work a swell as we can. Furthermore, whatever we learn about better and more complete communication will help us in other relationships (children, parents, friends, etc.) or with our next partner, should we eventually decide to end our present relationship.
Stumbling Block #4: Focusing on Who and What Your Partner Is Not
Just as the same bottle of wine can be seen as half full or half empty, you can focus either on qualities your partner has or on those he or she lacks. The former leads to satisfaction, the latter to frustration and resentment. If, for example, your husband is quiet, dependable, and hard-working, being dissatisfied that he is not emotional, spontaneous, artistic, and wildly passionate is looking at the half-empty side of the bottle. Being critical of him for those basic qualities and trying to do a major remodeling job will lead to resentment from him and frustration for you. You cannot turn a Chevy pickup into a Porsche. Some changes are possible, but when you get done, although you might have a great pickup, you will still not have a sportscar. If you can keep your partner's positive qualities in mind, then even while imagining certain changes, you can still experience the relationship as basically satisfying as it is.
Appreciating what your partner does have to offer has another beneficial effect—when people feel loved and appreciated for who they are, they grow and expand and become more open to change. When they feel unappreciated and unaccepted as they are, they become defensive and resistant to new approaches.
All this is not to say you shouldn't ask your partner to make changes. We're just suggesting that requests made in a supportive spirit will be most effective. The key here is to make it clear that there is nothing wrong with the other person, in fact quite the contrary, but that you would simply like it better if he or she were to behave in some other way.
Stumbling Block #5: Refusing to Use a Professional Counselor When Self-Care Isn't Enough
Solving our own problems without outside help is as American as apple pie—but sometimes there's a limit. Occasionally a couple may find themselves so deeply stuck in a seemingly insoluble problem that they are unable to use self-care methods effectively. We consider it an important part of couple self-care to use a counselor or therapist when appropriate. If you do so, we suggest you ask your counselor to help you work though the exercises described in this article, and perhaps those in one or more of the books we recommend as well.
Tools for Couple Self-Care:
The following tools are designed to help you communicate with your partner and experience satisfaction in your relationship. Feel free to adapt them to your own needs and personal style. And remember, the best technique in the world can have the opposite of its desired effect if used as a weapon in the right/wrong game.
Tool #1: Appointments for Time Together
Couple relationships are like gardens—if you take care of them on a daily basis, it doesn't take much effort. Spending time in the garden is a real pleasure. If you let them go without time and attention, getting them straightened out can be a huge job and may even require the help of a professional.
One immediate benefit that many couples get from starting couple therapy is that they spend one hour a week focusing on themselves and their life together. Sadly, that is one hour more than they customarily spend. Couples with busy lives—which is most of us—find it easy to give the last priority to scheduling time together. It may seem unspontaneous, but if you do not already do so, you should consider formally setting aside a small amount of time each day plus a more substantial amount of time at least once a week in order to really stay in touch.
A daily sharing time can be twenty to forty minutes, a good time to share events of the day, thoughts, ideas, wins, losses, appreciations, and gripes. (Don't use this time for gripes too often or your partner will start to avoid it.) A good exercise for this time is called the Ten and Ten. The Ten and Ten Exercise (developed in the Marriage Encounter Movement) consists of taking ten minutes and writing down in a notebook your "reflections"—thoughts and feelings about yourself, your partner. and your relationship. Then you get together at an agreed-upon time, read each other's notebooks, and talk for ten minutes about your reactions. More information about this exercise is available in How to Have a Happy Marriage.
The second category of time together can be used as an opportunity to go out together, to do something fun and special that you don't ordinarily do or haven't done in a long time. It can also be the time to work on a major problem in your relationship, such as working out a budget. This larger chunk of time, two to six hours, should be scheduled as faithfully as the daily sharing time, and not be sacrificed to demands of family, work, or other obligations. A Couple's Guide to Communication has a great list of fun things to do—in case you need to be reminded.
Tool #2: Listening Standing in Your Partner's Shoes
This is a big one. If you don't allow yourself to really listen, none of the other tools on this list are going to do you much good.
Good listening requires a willingness on your part to get a sense of what it's like for your partner—to stand in his or her shoes for a few moments. What makes this difficult is that most of the time we are judging and evaluating what our partner is saying, trying to decide if they are right or wrong. This makes it impossible to get a really clear sense of where they are coming from, what it is like for them. In addition, some things they say make us angry and that makes it difficult to keep listening.
Most of us have had the experience of really listening to someone and of really being heard. The experience can range from thrilling to deeply satisfying, and it is unfortunate that these moments are so rare for most of us. When someone really hears us, there is a sense of relief and movement. This is the experience that we have when someone really listens to a problem that we have, and, without any suggestions, we suddenly see how to handle the problem. The book P.E.T.: Parent Effectiveness Training is one of the best resources for learning to really listen. The material is readily adaptable to listening to your partner.
Here are some concrete steps you can take to learn to listen:
1. Really focus on what it's like to be in your partner's shoes; don't allow yourself to be distracted.
2. Listen without interrupting except to check your understanding of what has been said so far.