The Structure Of Change

Here is a simple and effective structure for supporting healthy interactions in your relationship that contribute to the changes you and your partner desire. It’s simple from the standpoint of the directions. In truth, it can be difficult to consistently practice.

When confronted with problems and difficulties, many of us naturally direct our attention to what we dislike and want to change. In other words, we focus on what we don’t like and we advocate for that thing to stop. For example, perhaps you feel misunderstood in your relationship and you believe your parter is judgmental of you. You might say to her/him, “Stop judging me.” Not surprisingly s/he might become defensive and accuse you of the same behavior. Before you know it you’re both arguing over what you dislike about each other. This is typically called a “problem focused” perspective. This perspective often keeps people stuck complaining about problems and can invite defensiveness when someone feels accused of being
the problem.

One alternative is a “solution focused” perspective. A solution focused perspective puts little or no emphasis on describing the “problem” and directs attention to the specifics of how I’d like things to be. Here’s another way to think about this: Am I focused on what I want to stop or am I expressing what new thing I’d like to begin? Problem focused perspectives want something to decrease. Solution focused perspectives would like something to increase.

Rather than telling my partner to “stop judging me” I might say, “I’d like us both to be patient with each other.” Repeatedly directing attention toward a possible solution increases the likelihood that something approximating that solution may eventually take root. Focusing on the problem, however, often keeps us stuck on just the problem.

This simple practice can be used in other circumstances including advocating for yourself with strangers (i.e., “I’d like to speak with someone who can authorize my refund.”), personal growth and change (i.e., “I’d like to feel more confident and calm.”), and with parenting children (“I’d like you to save more of your money.”) In each of these examples, the speaker is directing attention toward something new, a solution. When a child hears her parent say, “stop wasting your money”, waisting money is what the child remembers. The same principle applies to conflict in your relationship.

It’s human to react negatively to pain and discomfort in your life; when something hurts it’s natural to want that thing to stop. A solution focused perspective is not positive thinking, however. It is the recognition that your specific behaviors either contribute to or inhibit the growth and change you desire in your life. Intentional and effective change begins with a vivid awareness of how you would like your experience to genuinely be. Repeated dialogue with your partner in this way more strongly supports this intention, and the possibilities for change, in your relationship. --Doug

Conflict Avoidant? You're Normal.

Every now and then I hear some version of the following when a new couple arrives at my office: “He’s afraid of conflict so we never talk about anything important.” or “I’m just conflict avoidant, I guess. I’m afraid of starting an argument.” These kinds of statements carry a negative message, that a particular situation would be a whole lot better if someone wasn’t afraid of conflict. Fearing conflict, however, is not the problem; fear itself is a normal human emotion. How to respond when feeling fear is the healing question.

I have a hypothesis about conflict avoidance: Human beings have survived on this planet for two hundred thousand years, in part, because we are conflict avoidant. While countless examples of human violence may seem to contradict this assertion (many aggressive and violent acts can be understood as conflict avoidant, however), the vast majority of human beings cooperate with one another for their mutual interest, enjoyment, and survival. We humans are social animals. I believe we evolved an adaptive drive for emotional and social connection because getting kicked out of the tribe on the plains of Africa meant trouble. With no fangs or claws to defend ourselves, a solitary human was an easy meal for hyaenas and cheetahs. Getting along with family and tribal members was the difference between life and death.

Fast forward to the twenty-first century. Although many modern comforts make our lives less precarious than the lives of our ancestors, the structure of our brains has not changed for thousands of years. We still fear conflict and the potential for disruption and pain conflict represents in our relationships. The scientific evidence seems to demonstrate, as well, that people live longer and feel better when connected to a larger social group. From this perspective, fear of conflict is a normal desire to remain within the familiar surroundings of a safe family or tribe.

Understanding that most people, myself included, are conflict avoidant helps us stop seeing ourselves as needing to be fixed or different. Humans are marvelously adaptive; the reason our species has survived all these millennium. Avoiding conflict is itself adaptive; it orients the vast majority of us toward pathways for maintaining connection and relationship for our health and survival. But inevitably, of course, modern life poses dilemmas which make conflict unavoidable and even preferable to the status quo. Then what?

First, acknowledging and accepting your fear of conflict can help you relax more in even the smallest ways. With incremental relaxation you can think more clearly and creatively (adaptively) about potential solutions. Second, you might share your fear of conflict with your partner; an intimate and loving gesture because you reveal your vulnerability. Third, you can learn to have conversations expressing your hopes and fears in a way that invites the same transparency from your mate. These conversations deepen intimacy, love and connection.

Fear of conflict is normal. You are normal. Remember the old saying: Courage is not the absence of fear; courage is having fear and acting anyway. Acknowledging and accepting the complete range of human emotion, especially your fears, is the key to taking action and creating solutions. --Doug

How Do I Save My Marriage/Relationship?

You may be someone reading this who’s relationship has become so painful that you are now desperate to find a solution. Sadly many couples wait far too long before seeking help from couples counseling. If this sounds like you, I’d like to give you some hope. With the right therapist, who’s a good fit for you, even a small change in your relationship dynamics can feel like a huge relief.

Ask your partner or spouse if he or she is willing to try couples therapy. That question can be intimidating for many people so do your best to inquire about this, try not to demand it. It may take some time for your partner to adjust to the idea. Do your best to give her/him space to think more about it. Ask if you can check back with her/him in a day or two about what he/she is thinking. As difficult as it may be, respect your partner’s need to have space to consider all this. Your ability to wait and respect this may be the one ingredient that helps her/him agree.

If you both agree to seek help, it’s important to find a therapist you both like. I’ll write more about this in a future post but the most important factor for success is that you both respect the therapist and that you both feel respected by the therapist. I won’t lie to you; this can be a tall order all the way around. Many therapists struggle so much with the painful dynamics in hurting relationships that they just don’t provide couples therapy. So, interview as many therapists as you can by phone, read what they write on their websites, try to find recommendations from friends you trust. And, encourage your partner to do the same. Select 2-3 therapists who are good candidates and meet once with each. Review with your partner what you both experienced.

In the meantime, I hope the following can also provide you with some small sense of relief: Because of who we are as ‘animals’ (and human beings are animals)
intimate relationship goes to the very heart of our individual sense of survival and safety. If you feel desperate right now, that’s not unusual because of our human need for intimacy. And, the most important relationship for you to have with anyone is with yourself. Cultivating loving kindness for yourself, initiating kind actions for yourself, and attending to your own pain through healthy strategies (taking a walk, confiding in a good friend, music, movies, etc.) are all examples of this self-kindness and self-compassion. You do have choice to treat yourself well. --Doug

In Defense Of Defensiveness

Defensiveness is usually given a negative label. How often have any one of us been told (or told someone else) to not be defensive? I don’t think anyone enjoys being defensive; that seems to make sense. Defensiveness is usually accompanied by anger, perhaps feelings of resentment, and certainly agitation. So let me be clear from the onset: this defense of defensiveness is not a prescription encouraging defensive feelings or behavior. It is an acknowledgement and acceptance of defensive feelings in service to decreasing defensiveness.

Defensiveness has a functional aspect: it’s protecting our vulnerable hearts/minds from perceived threat. When you feel defensive there’s a reason: you perceive something important is lacking (i.e., safety, respect, order, etc.). It’s called ‘defensive,’ of course, because you’re defending yourself from some perceived threat. It’s also good to remember that our perceptions are sometimes inaccurate and that our minds can create threat where there is none. Experiences in our environment can also trigger memories (both conscious and unconscious) that cause us to feel threatened or unsafe. Whether accurate or inaccurate, these perceptions produce emotions that are certainly powerful and real.

The quickest way to decrease defensive feelings is to admit to yourself (and possibly to others) when you are defensive. If someone tells you, “Don’t be defensive.”, remind yourself that it’s o.k. to feel defensive; it’s a normal response to a perceived threat. Depending on the situation, you might admit this to the person you feel defensive toward: “You’re right; I am defensive and I’ll tell you why.” Accepting defensive feelings gives the feeling less energy or charge. Accepting your defensive feelings will also enable you to better understand the
fear-threat underlying the defensiveness. Acknowledging and accepting the fear-threat further reduces defensiveness.

Most of us, I think, have been “trained” to believe that defensiveness is more than undesirable, it’s somehow bad. I’m here to tell you that feeling defensive is not bad, it’s human. True, behaving defensively can interfere with communication and connection in relationship. However, the more you are able to acknowledge and accept any emotion, including defensiveness, the more choice you have regarding how to express and creatively work with all emotion. Feeling defensive is your heart/mind wanting to protect you; that’s love. Respect and honor the intent as you become more curious about the reality. --Doug

Why Couples Argue

Arguing is one way people often protect themselves from their fears and anxieties in relationship. Research into successful marriages has found, however, that frequent arguing does not predict divorce. Some couples argue, others don't. It has also been observed that approximately 2/3rds of disagreements in successful marriages never get resolved. What does this tell us?

Successful couples, even when they do argue or disagree, find ways to maintain
connection with each other. Doing so, of course, may seem easier said than done. One thing can help: Understanding that all anger, defensiveness, resentment, etc., is fueled by a “fear-threat-feeling”. Awareness of how angry behaviors protect our vulnerable hearts from painful feelings helps us relate differently with ourselves and with our partners. We can learn how to reestablish connection as arguments arise or through repair.

Arguing is a way of coping with fear. However, arguing can also obscure your awareness of your own vulnerable feelings. In the long run, appreciating and accepting your own fearful feelings teaches how to compassionately soothe your own hurt and pain. And, clarifying your own pain can help decrease arguing when you share your authentic fears with your partner. --Doug