Couples Therapy Tips in Hollywood and Los Angeles
Excerpts from The Mental Gym Playbook for Healthier Communicating
Five Strategies for a Winning Couples’ Playbook
Healthy Communication Tip #1: Keep disagreements in the present
Fighting couples have a nasty tendency to pepper their arguments with examples from the past and forecasts about the future: “There you go again…you always do this,” or “You better change your ways or some day you’ll be sorry” are classic examples of a bickering without the ability to stay in the present moment.
There is a scientific explanation for our tendencies to rehash and/or project grievances onto one another. Quite simply, our brains are biological computers that crunch data. Because we often feel the need for evidence in an argument to substantiate our claims, our brains access memory and/or imagination to fill the bill. However, as there is nothing we can do about past actions or future projections, this information usually complicates instead of clarifies a disagreement: The only constructive place for conflict resolution is in the here-and-now.
I’ve had the opportunity to counsel professional baseball players with batting issues. I’ve found that most strike out because they’re not present enough to see the ball clearly. Hovering over Home Plate, their minds begin downloading memories like “I haven’t had a base hit all week,” or booting up projections like “I need this home run or they’ll demote me to the minor leagues”. Not surprisingly, the pitched ball whizzes past them because their minds distract them with unproductive data.
The players’ batting average usually improves once they discipline their thoughts. Through Cognitive Behavioral Therapy techniques, I teach these athletes to focus on and address only the topic at hand – connecting their bat to this pitch. Once this occurs, the players report a newly found ability to view the ball as larger, track the ball’s delivery more easily, and aim their swing more precisely. The point? We can only influence what’s unfolding before us – that’s it and that’s enough to solve any dilemma.
Successful communicators, just like home run hitters, solve problems by addressing “what is” not “what was” or “what might be.” Most couples will eventually come to this conclusion, but at a large price. Exhausted from wading through and debating all the evidence their brains have generated, couples finally state; “So, what are we going to do about this now?” Ironically, a lot of time has been wasted in getting to this constructive phase of their interaction—there is no reason resolution needs to take this long.
Healthy Communication Tip #2: Stay on topic
Imagine jogging down a path only to come upon an impasse. The designated detour leads you to another impasse, and then to another…. Before long you become so frustrated that you either turn around or grow so disoriented that you have no idea how to realign yourself with your destination.
When egos create agendas and winning becomes the goal of a disagreement, dueling partners will pull out all the stops to insure the finish line is not crossed with them in second place. As in the above scenario, if your sparring partner senses he or she is losing ground in a debate, he or she will be more likely to devise diversions to keep the contest going.
I call this “migrating the argument.” It is a tactic to divert your attention and divide the conflict into so many pathways that forward movement becomes impossible. It’s a manipulative traffic jam…designed to stall progress in a disagreement, and often makes even long-term relationships feel like uphill slogs.
If your partner begins migrating the argument, attempt to guide him or her back to the original path of conversation through reassurance. Make statements like, ”You’ve just brought up a good point. However, let’s resolve the issue we’re addressing now before moving on to the one you’ve just mentioned.”
The goal of communication should be clarity, not competition. Stay diligent in your quest to stay the course, one course at a time.
Healthy Communication Tip #3: Problem solve instead of promoting your agenda
While winning and losing may play well in sports scenarios, getting competitive with the one person you’ve chosen to intimately share your life with will most likely set your team up for a rocky season of setbacks.
Intimate relationships are characterized by deeply felt and symbolic undertones. Chances are good you’ve been vulnerable with your partner just as they’ve entrusted you with their own emotional truths. These nurturing, nuanced, and beneath-the-armor experiences must be taken into consideration – even protected – when disagreements arise.
Entering into an argument with a need to come out on top forces your partner to concede his or her own meaningful convictions. This, in turn, can lead to emotional distancing or worse: The need to win often creates its opposite consequence. Simply put: I win; you lose. The timeworn adage, “You can win the battle but lose the war” comes to mind.
Instead of myopically promoting your own agenda when disagreements arise, remember you have both signed up for the same team. Why would you kick a teammate in the shins when the overall goal of the game is to work together to get the ball over the same goal line? Instead, consider your partner’s strengths and play to them. Find a solution to your challenges through teamwork, not ego gratification.
Healthy Communication Tip #4: Focus on actions not perceptions
Like a coach diagramming a play on a white board, therapists love to decipher and explain the play-by-play characteristics of human interaction. Regardless of the designations used to chart these dynamics, there is clinical consensus that what couples focus on while fighting has a direct impact on the success of the outcome.
Perception plays a pivotal role in conflict resolution. Partners who fight fairly understand disagreements must center on action not character. Just as it would be ridiculous for a referee to determine an athlete’s overall ability via one instant replay, assessing someone’s character based on one misstep would be equally foolish.
“I disagree with what you did” or “When this happened, I felt overlooked by you” are fair game statements: Remarks gunning for character assassination are not. Find yourself screaming; “You’re an idiot!” or “You don’t care about us!” or “I hate you!” and you will eventually come to regret these statements because they reveal and communicate to your spouse your derogatorily held perceptions about him or her. This behavior also says a lot about you – why would you choose to be linked with someone you deem ’substandard’?
What I call “Stage Three” conflict is like fumbling the football at the Super Bowl: Stage Three utterances might not ultimately lose you the game, but they sure will make winning all the harder. These attacks are very hard to forgive and even harder to forget…they can easily create emotional scarring, which can permanently damage dynamics within your relationship.
The next time you disagree with your significant other, remember the qualities he or she has that made you commit to them in the first place: Noted psychologist Carl Rogers coined the term “Unconditional Positive Regard” to describe the support and acceptance of another despite their actions.
Successful couples think the best of their mate and stay within the parameters of what has occurred. – Make this a habit!
Healthy Communication Tip #5: Use “I Statements”
I often tell couples: If you never want to argue again, use “I Statements”!
An “I Statement” is a way to claim and convey your feelings about an issue without blaming or indicting another. This intervention’s effectiveness lies in its thoughtful and non-judgmental approach.
There are four steps involved in making an “I Statement”:
1. Notice the circumstance that is triggering your emotional response.
2. Convey to your partner how this event is making you feel and the reasons behind your feelings.
3. Describe the exact behavior that would meet your need at this moment.
4. Invite him or her to share how he or she feels about the way you are feeling right now. ***
***I’ve italicized the second part of the last sentence because it is very important that your partner only give feedback about your emotional response to the issue, not his or her view of this issue or why he or she did what they did.
Example: Sally notices that Tom is under-representing his earnings on their joint tax return.
Reporting phase (Sally):
1. I see that there is an income discrepancy on our tax return.
2. This is making me uneasy because it feels like a lie to me.
3. It would make me feel a lot better if we stated the actual amount we earned last year.
4. I’d like to know how you feel about the fact that I’m now nervous and worried.
Contemplation phase (Tom):
Once Tom realizes that his actions are creating upset in someone he loves he weighs whether or not to modify these actions – Is shaving a few hundred dollars off their tax debt worth the emotional pain his behavior is causing Sally?
Solution phase (Both):
Tom lets Sally know that it wasn’t his intention to make her nervous and because he cares about her, he is willing to correct the income line on their tax return. Sally responds with a smile and a hug.
1. Noticing our feelings allows us to assess them for appropriateness.
2. Once self-vetted, sharing our feelings in a reporting fashion clears the communication of any accusation.
3. Finally, inviting our teammates to comment on our feelings conveys the message that their thoughts matter to us, as well.
“I Statements” may seem clinical and clunky initially, but, with practice, they can yield the result of a well-executed triple play.
Knowing the rules of the game when interacting with others increases the quality of these experiences and enhances the possibilities of positive outcomes. Just as my mother taught me with words and my father advised me with actions, the ability to communicate, cooperate and compromise comes with awareness and practice.
Learning to keep disagreements in the present tense gives us the moments we need to solve our dilemmas. Staying on topic helps us get there more quickly, and focusing on actions not perceptions keeps arguments away from being perceived as personal attacks.
The point of any discussion is to arrive at a mutually beneficial determination: Remembering to problem solve instead of promoting an agenda will go a long way in achieving this goal. Learning to talk in “I Statements” is a surefire way to get there.
Just as a skilled athlete must train to get into physical condition, communication fitness is also achieved through the discipline of equal-intention and the development of a good regimen.
Any situation can be solved if you relax, set down your need to win, and keep your eye on the ball…