In our clinical practice, my husband Bill and I did a great deal of marriage counseling as a team. This allowed each person in the couple to have their own therapist and allowed Bill and me to model the much needed communication skills most couples lacked.
Advising the couple to examine their relationship using "mirrors" rather than "telescopes" usually took place in first session. We would suggest that instead of looking out at their partner (as through a telescope) and pointing out what that person was doing "wrong" or how s/he needed to change, the challenge was for each person in the couple to look inward as in a mirror to see and share their own needs and behaviors. In any communication, use of the word "you" far more often than the word "I" only leads to defensive behavior, hurt and anger. Though there is a place for pointing out how someone else's behavior irritates or hurts it is far better that each person be responsible for sharing their own weaknesses, strengths, needs and dreams. Identifying those can ultimately lead to the changes each one hopes to see.
Teaching couples how to approach their partner to discuss something was also an important lesson. Suggesting that they first ask their partner if this was a good time to talk and establishing eye contact and even physical contact are important to good couple communication. Even if one of us was angry or upset about something, Bill and I tried very hard to come from the deep love we knew we had for each other. We did not do this perfectly. I do not know anyone who does. Good eye contact brought us into the present moment and helped us be truly present i.e. to really see the person we loved so much. Making physical contact with just a gentle and warm touch on a hand or arm helps avoid feelings of defensiveness and discomfort when a person needs to process something. Agreeing to take a break if one or both partners needs to do so also make communication easier, safer, and effective.
Some couples come in to counseling sessions so angry at each other that one or both of them wanted to start with a yelling match filled with "you did such and such" or "you never do such and such" statements that led nowhere. Educating these couples about basic communication skills became an essential early step in the counseling process as did reminding them of the love they had for each other at one time or still have.
We chose our partners because we love them deeply. As life gets more complicated with jobs, kids, bills etc. that love can get lost in the shuffle and one or both people start to feel alone and unheard. Setting time aside on a regular basis to discuss the mundane things in their life together as well as the more serious concerns can lead to greater emotional and physical intimacy. Who wants to be intimate with someone they are angry with or who has hurt them?
Research indicates that couple communication dwindles over the years to as little as 5-10 minutes a day. This is not even mentioning the content which can be focused on scheduling and doing. With our busy lives it is so easy for a couple to go an entire week or sadly many months without addressing issues or even stopping to say "I love you"! That is the beginning of trouble. A mountain range grows in the living room from all that has been swept under the carpet.
A date night once a week can change all that.
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For those reading this blog who have lost a spouse/partner, I know you would give anything to have just a few minutes with that person. You would talk and listen and hold.
Those reading this who are blessed to have your spouse/partner with you, consider a renewal, if needed, of cherishing, kindness, listening, acceptance, and presence.