Couples with serious problems often wait until things are beyond repair to seek help. Far too commonly, people wait until it’s too late. A typical situation I see is where one person has been begging the other to go see a psychologist together and it is not until this person gives up and says that they are leaving that the uncooperative partner says, “Please! Don’t leave me! I’ll see someone/ Let’s go together, let’s try to work it out.” In many cases it’s too little, too late and the damage is beyond repair.
THE DOWNSIDE OF VIRTUE
No relationship is perfect. We all have our idiosyncrasies and quirks that can make us hard to get along with. To make matters worse, we are often attracted to those who are strong in characteristics we lack. What is appealing and enjoyable early in a relationship often becomes grating over time. We are drawn to a woman because she is goal oriented and successful. Later on we may feel neglected because she worries too much about work and we feel overlooked. Or we are attracted to the dashing young guy and his devil may care attitude and find for the next 10 years we are nagging him to be more responsible and organized. Almost every good quality has a downside if you live with it long enough.
I often find that it is inherent personality traits that make a partner unhappy, especially if those traits are markedly different from our own style. Some couples work out these differences very well over time. But some relationships tend to remain stressful and conflict ridden as those different tendencies continue to cause unhappiness.
LEARNING TO GET ALONG
Couples arguments tend to be repetitive. They may always feel like they are about different things and new situations but a skilled psychotherapist has the ability to assess what the underlying fundamental conflict is about. When a couple sits in my office they will usually try to rehash the same arguments in the same way. I am always saying, “let me get in here! If you don’t want my observations you might as well just have the argument at home.”
My job is to figure out where the difference becomes difficult and in what way it is hurting the couple. Do the personality differences make one person feel disrespected or unloved.? Do the actions of a partner make you feel unimportant or dismissed? In therapy, a couple should be taught ways to recognize and defuse a conflict before it becomes toxic. A strategy for when and where to have conflict helps. Is it better to talk right away or cool down and talk later? Does your partner here you better if you hold their hand or touch them when you have to say something negative. Do you need to unwind from work before taking up a difficult problem. Do you solve things best if the two of you tackle a problem after a pleasant evening out?
COMMUNICATION IS KEY
How, when and where you talk is often more important than the specific area of conflict. Successful couples know how to handle differences without putting each other down or losing their temper. Conflict and differences are completely normal. How you handle those differences is what makes for a happy, smoothly functioning relationship. Couple therapy can work by helping you understand how your partner perceives your meaning-often very different from your intent or understanding of what you are doing. Counseling can teach you strategies to enable you to discuss problem areas while maintaining respect and appreciation for your partner.
No matter how intelligent you are or how capable in other areas of your life, couple therapy can still be a smart and effective choice for you if you keep reaching dead ends in your friction. Isn’t your relationship worth that effort?