"We've got this gift of love, but love is like a precious plant. You can't just accept it and leave it in the cupboard or just think it's going to get on by itself. You've got to keep watering it. You've got to really look after it and nurture it." John Lennon
Jan and Dave were arguing like they usually did using all their favorite techniques. She would complain and he would turn it around on her. Something like: "I hate it when you insult me in front of our friends." He would reply: "Like you always do to me." They would fall into a familiar blaming, shaming and defensiveness that went round and round. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out where this relationship was headed. When they first came to therapy they had no idea what they were doing. Once they understood their negative cycle they could begin finding some healthy ways to communicate effectively.
Using these two love birds as a model for what not to do but what more importantly we might do were we to find a way to create an immensely positive interactive style? After doing couple work for over thirty years I would have to be deaf dumb and blind to not see what works and certainly what is simply arranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Without getting into the deeper origins as to why people do destructive things to each other in the name of love, I will list just the most important essentials for what works and what does not.
• Acknowledge and validate your partner. Many arguments end right there. Acknowledging and validating simply means that you let the other person know that you hear them and they have a right to their opinion. Acknowledgement does not mean agreement, it just means that you understand.
• Kindness, compassion, understanding, generosity and empathy work best in conflicts. When couples get angry they don't think to use these processes. What they want to do is blame, retaliate or go for the jugular. Nothing positive can come out of anger. Count to 200 and then come back and talk with these concepts in mind.
• Take responsibility for your part. Most divorces are based on one thing, no one wants to be wrong. Men are the culprits more often than women. Men need to be right because they see being wrong as a weakness and we know that men hate to be seen as weak. Self-reflection is the most essential ingredient for relationship health. The ability to look and see our part is the most critical function in healthy relationships. If one or the other person cannot reflect then no progress can be made and problems remain. This inevitably leads to a serious break in connection.
• Don't just react, inquire. When in doubt ask questions, find out more about what the other person thinks, don't assume, make judgements or criticize but take the time to fully understand your partner and what they think. Then move on to solutions. All healthy interactions between couples in conflict need to be solution focused.
• Talk About You Rather Than Point the Finger. This is where it gets a bit tricky. It always feels like whatever is making you angry is coming from the other person and that may be true. It also may not be true. We can talk about how something makes us feel. "When you leave your dishes in the sink when you promised to do them, it makes me feel like you don't care about me." That may or may not be true but it has to be out there or it won't go away.
Healthy interactions require that you come at them from a neutral or positive place. If you take the time to cool off and think about it, you will have a much better chance of working the problem through. Taking a problem solving approach is always the best direction toward resolution. It goes without saying that compromise, consideration, kindness and remembering that this is the person we love allows us to move toward a solution.
The golden rule of "Do unto others what you would want done unto you" is a small but meaningful template for a fair interaction. Honesty, being true to your word, generosity, tolerance and patience are immensely helpful for relationship health. It's a dreamy notion that relationships just happen, they really do require the work of paying attention. Ultimately, love is a work of art and sculpting a prodigious way to work through difficulties is the secret alchemy of a truly happy relationship.