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

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

Stopping The 'Blame Game' In Relationship

No matter what the specific complaint, many couples first arrive at my office repeating a structure that goes something like this: “I could relax if s/he would just (fill in the blank).” When the inevitable disappointments in relationship feel overwhelming many of us are quick to blame our partner for the relationship’s problems. It reminds me of Rex Harrison’s character Professor Henry Higgins in the musical “My Fair Lady” who asks, “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” For most of us the question is simply “Why can’t you just see it my way?”

One famous family therapist, Carl Whitaker, put it this way: It’s crazy to expect you and I to think about and experience our relationship in the same way. Many variables contribute to an individual’s unique life perspective. Relationship combines differing perspectives.

From this vantage point, blaming each other for problems in your relationship makes very little sense. Blaming is a convenient way to not take responsibility for yourself, for your personal habits, and for your idiosyncratic perspective. And, blaming discounts your partner’s unique perspective, much of which you have less understanding of than you may think because her/his point of view encompasses the totality of her/his life. Learning how to
self-soothe your own vulnerable feelings can help stop the blame game as you relate differently with the emotions that feed the blame. Soothing yourself (and therefore respecting and trusting yourself) also provides a foundation for empathy and inquiry; an ability to be curious about your partner’s perspective while simultaneously relating with your own
--Doug