Friday, October 10, 2008

How I Counsel Unhappy Couples

Typically, they come at the brink of breaking up.

I usually start by saying, "If there's any chance of fixing your relationship, we need to nibble away at it a piece at a time. Each of you, what's one specific annoying thing your partner does?"

For each annoyance, I ask, "Is that something you just have to accept about your partner, or is that something that could realistically be expected to improve?"

If the latter, we discuss ways to maximize the likelihood of that change occurring and end with a commitment on both parties' part. For example, one partner might say, "I promise to try to pick my stuff off the floor" and the other partner might say, "And I agree that when something isn't picked up, not to nag but simply to raise my index finger as a reminder, and if he doesn't do it, to let it go--it's just not that important."

I also often say, "It's easier to change yourself than to change someone else. So, each of you, what's one other thing you want to do differently in the coming week that would please your partner and thus make your relationship better?"

Also, I remind them that when arguments occur, to force yourselves to discuss fairly: 
  • Start with a positive.
  • Criticize the behavior, not the person.
  • Listen well.
  • Don't interrupt.
  • Ask questions to better understand the situation or in proposing a solution.
  • Don't expand the argument beyond the specific incident.
  • Break up the tension with a joke, a compliment, a diversion (for example, where should we go to dinner?)  or simply a five-minute break.
At the end of the session, I ask each of them to summarize what if any behavior changes they want to commit to in the coming week. We all write those down and I promise to ask about those at the next session.

I invite them to, during the week, have at least one meeting (perhaps even daily)  in which each person self-assesses how well they're doing on their commitment. 

Finally, I remind them that little wins reverse the relationship to a positive direction, and it begins to snowball--good begets good.

Candidly, I have used this approach in my own marriage, to significant benefit. Our marriage is not made in heaven but we've learned how to make it work here on earth. I wish the same for you.  


Anonymous said...

So, let me get this straight. You counsel couples who are on the verge of divorce, by telling them to address small symptoms (like someone leaving clothes on the floor) rather than addressing underlying causes of the relationship rupture...hmmm, wonder how that is working out for the majority of your clients?

And you counsel the 'neat partner' to raise a finger at the 'messy partner' like they are their parent, or something?

Marty Nemko said...

Yes, often tackling big problems, a bit at a time, not only improves that little problem, but starts positive momentum, and often yields insights into larger issues in the relationship. As the old riddle asks, "How to you eat an elephant?" A bite at a time.

And my clients have found the finger technique invaluable--It greatly reduces the possibility of those sniping arguments that cause more problems than they solve.

I must say that nearly all my clients who have tried this technique have said it improved their relationship, and one couple said it saved their marriage, which otherwise would have been dissolved. Better, two years later, they say they're glad they decided to stay together. (And her was quite a tough guy--a lawyer--and she was a psychotherapist.)

Elise said...

Marty, as a counsellor and couples 'calm coach' I love this article - has some great advice.. will be perusing your articles a bit further, just found this via google search. Thanks for your writing!



blogger templates | Make Money Online