In the fifteen years I’ve been working with couples, the vast majority of initial couples sessions begin the same way.
We’ve been together X years, and we really love each other. When things are good, they’re really good–but when things are bad they’re really bad. Lately, small fights turns into big fights in a hurry, and these can last for days or more. Things weren’t always like this. We don’t communicate these days. We think most of our problems could be resolved if we just learned better tools for talking things through.
Couples therapists teach communication tools because they can be taught. It seems like a logical solution to a frustrating problem. Learn to “actively listen” to each other. Make “reflective” or “mirroring” statements. If you’re really hearing each other, the thinking goes, you can meet somewhere in the middle and work things out. Except this doesn’t work most of the time.
Suppose you want to have sex once monthly. Your partner wants to have sex twice weekly. You can communicate about this until you’re blue in the face, but it’s unlikely to fix the issue. Here’s the thing: You don’t have to be a “mind reader” to know what your partner wants, and vice-versa. Does he ask for more quality time, more intimacy, more encouragement, more independence? Does she ask for less criticism, less condescension, less angry outbursts, less “living in the past?” Even if your partner doesn’t ask for it in the most “therapy-approved” way, you already know what your partner wants, just as he/she knows what you want. It’s not the knowing that’s the problem–it’s the doing.
There’s a reason you’re not giving your partner what she wants. Maybe it’s too painful to open up to her in some way, to allow yourself to be vulnerable. Maybe you feel your partner is asking for something unreasonable, something beyond your capacity to give. Maybe you feel you’re somehow “losing” if you give your partner what she wants, even though she’s not yet fully meeting your needs. Whatever the case, I can tell you this much: You won’t get the relationship you want until you’re ready to dig down deep and give that part of yourself you’ve learned to protect and hold back.
Relationships are emotionally dangerous. There are no guarantees, no quick fixes. But if you honestly work on yourself–and true self-growth often comes with growing pains–one of two things will happen: 1) You will find your partner likewise transforming, almost as if by magic. 2) Despite your work on yourself, your partner doesn’t budge. This is when you acknowledge what you’ve learned from this relationship, with compassion and respect for your partner, and you move on.
About the Author: James Robbins is a licensed professional counselor, published author and co-owner of Dallas Whole Life Counseling. He has over 15 years of experience helping people in various life stages that come from a wide variety of cultural, economic and family backgrounds. Learn more about his background by clicking here.