Clients often come to me wanting the answer to what they believe is a simple question about conflict in their marriage or relationship: "Is it me?" In most cases, their spouse or partner has been telling them in no uncertain terms that the client, not the partner, is the source of the trouble. It's not that the answer isn't simple, but rather that "Is it me?" is the wrong question.
In trying to mend a relationship or save a marriage, couples need to learn that compiling a laundry list of each other's faults, "expressing their feelings" by itemizing it to their partner, and going over it every time they disagree is not the way to initiate constructive change and get closer to each other. Even in couples counseling, the therapist's task may be to get the laundry list onto the back burner and help the couple refocus on the past or present strengths of the relationship and teach them how to communicate with and listen to each other better.
Harville Hendrix, the creator of imago relationship therapy, asks an excellent question: "What makes people believe that hurting their partners will make them behave more pleasantly?" Therapists and psychologists have various answers to why so many people do just that. But in terms of working on the relationship, "Why?" again may be the wrong question. Or if not, it needs to be explored in individual therapy. A better question for couples is, "How do we stop?"
Too many people grow up believing that in any disagreement, someone is right and someone is wrong. Our families teach or model it, and our competitive society supports it. If you don't win, you lose, right? Wrong! One winner, one loser may work in the NFL, but clinging to that perspective in a marriage can destroy it. The very way we use language can reinforce the habit of blaming. One of the questions therapists ask clients all the time is, "How do you feel about that?"There's no "right" answer to that question. However you feel is how you feel: sad, angry, scared, frustrated, lonely, disappointed, overwhelmed, desperate--or happy, hopeful, tender, or enthusiastic. But there is a ballpark--the one that contains the feelings I've just named and others like them. A great number of people run into trouble with their partners because they've never learned to distinguish between feelings and thoughts, beliefs, or expectations.
Let's look at an example. Bill and Bella love each other, but they can't seem to stop fighting. Attempts to discuss "hot" topics--money, sex, and family often fall into that category--always end in shouting, tears, or cold silences that last for days. Here they are at the therapist's, hoping that couples counseling will enable them to enjoy each other's company again, as they did when they first got married.
Bella: Bill gets home hours after dark almost every night, even though he knows I have dinner on the stove.
Therapist: And how do you feel about that?
Bella: I feel he should call if he's going to be late.
Wrong! What she's expressed is not a feeling but a "should." It's a criticism, an expectation, and a demand that he change his behavior. Let's see how Bill does.
Bill: Bella always complains about how I don't appreciate her.
Therapist: And how do you feel about that?
Bill: I feel like I work my tail off so she and the kids don't have to worry.
Wrong! It sounds like Bill may be trying to show his love by being a good provider, while Bella clearly has a different idea about how love and appreciation should be shown. Maybe Bill's company and some words of praise or pride in her accomplishments would allow her to feel loved. Instead, Bill is blaming Bella for not appreciating his work.
What else might Bill have said about the gap between his efforts to show love and Bella's emotional needs? Bill may feel angry and resentful, lonely and disappointed, misunderstood, or even inadequate. And what about Bella? By blaming, she arouses his defenses, so he counterattacks and escalates the conflict. She might have said that when she's home alone she feels lonely, sad, and anxious. She might have said she shows her love through cooking, so when he isn't there when dinner is on the table, she feels rejected, and when he doesn't call, she feels abandoned.
It's a good enough rule of thumb that a sentence that starts with "I feel [he or she] never," "I feel [he or she] always," "I feel [he or she] should," or "I feel like [he or she]" is not the expression of a feeling. Both partners need to be able to identify the feelings that they have and express them appropriately. They also need to learn that when partners say, "I feel scared" or even "I feel angry," it is not a sneaky way of saying, "My fear (or anger) is your fault, and you have to change so I won't have to feel this way." That means that partners must also accept that their own feelings as their responsibility. They need to let go of the expectation that if they express an uncomfortable feeling, the partner will or should "fix" it. Once couples stop blaming each other for their feelings, as well as for their difficulties--or anything in their lives that they don't like--they are amazed to find how much less conflict and anger they experience in the relationship.
©2004 Elizabeth Zelvin