A Counselor’s Guide to Relationship Success

A Counselor’s Guide to Relationship Success

Bill Benson, LMFT, LPCC

My mother once taught me the best way to make lifelong friends is through positive intention. Two of her catchphrases were: “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.” and “You catch more bees with honey than vinegar.”

All these years later, I sprinkle bits of this sage advice into my sessions as a professional counselor. Clients usually come into therapy convinced that it’s the content of their arguments creating their relationship woes. However, the real cause of most relationship havoc is not what is conveyed but how it’s conveyed.

Team-building Tango

Negotiation takes place whenever people communicate. Step up to the counterperson at any fast-food restaurant, and you will engage in a back-and-forth that will eventually get you what you’ve ordered. The same holds true in friendship: Text a buddy about seeing a movie, and ideas will flow between you until a film is determined and the meet-up specifics are decided.

But back-and-forth communication among intimate partners is more delicate because there’s more at stake. According to a recent poll of mental health professionals, communication problems (65%) and an inability to resolve conflict (45%) are the most common factors leading to divorce.

The Mental Gym

As a psychotherapist, I’ve devised a playbook for my relationship clients, helping them better create a teamwork atmosphere. I thought I’d share five sure-fire strategies from this playbook so you can enjoy greater relationship longevity, as well.

Strategy One: Keep disagreements in the present.

Fighting couples have a nasty tendency to pepper their arguments with past failures and dire forecasts. “There you go again” or “You better change, or else” are classic examples of an inability for bickering couples to stay in the present tense. Conflict resolution uses real-time, unfolding data – not stored or projected information.

Our brains are biological computers designed to crunch and store data. This process complicates social interaction because we lose objectivity as events become perception. In other words, the information we use when communicating is subjective because we recall it (memory) or predict it (forethought).

 I’ve had the opportunity to counsel professional baseball players with batting issues. Most players strike out because they’re distracted. Anxious thoughts like: “I haven’t had a base hit all week” or “If I strike out, they’ll demote me to the farm team” reverberate within their minds. Meanwhile, the pitch whizzes right past them because these worries are distracting them from the opportunity to hit the ball.

Through Mindfulness Training and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy techniques, these athletes learn to focus only on the topic at hand: connecting the bat with the ball. Once this occurs, the players report a newfound ability to track the pitcher’s delivery more easily and aim their swing more precisely.

The only thing we can influence is the very thing that is unfolding before us. Most couples come to this eventually, only after debating all the evidence their brains have generated. Exhausted, they’ll finally conclude: So, what are we going to do about this now? Successful communicators, just like homerun-hitters, understand that to score, they must address “what is,” not “what was” or “what might be.”

Strategy Two: Stay on topic.

Most arguments become competitive: the goal is for you to win and your opponent to lose. Dueling partners will pull out all the stops to ensure the finish line is not crossed while they’re in second place.

Interacting in this way creates diversions to keep the contest going until self-advantage can occur. Termed: “Migrating the Argument;” this tactic buys time to gain the advantage – creating so many diversionary tentacles that conclusion becomes nearly impossible.

Imagine you come upon an impasse while jogging along a trail. This detour leads you to another obstacle, which creates another workaround. Before you know it, you’re lost and disoriented. Migrating the Argument makes interactions, and eventually, whole relationships, feel like uphill slogs.

Get Back on Track

If your partner begins talking in tangents, guide them back to the initial conversation through reassurance. Make statements like: “You just brought up a good point. However, let’s resolve the issue we’re addressing right now before moving on to the point you’ve just mentioned.”

Remain diligent in your quest to stay on course, one topic at a time. The key to successful conflict resolution is finding and navigating a clear roadmap – together.

Strategy Three: Problem-solve.

Strategizing during sporting events or in the business world may earn desired results, but keeping score within intimate relationships often signals trouble.

In relationships, partners have shown vulnerability and entrusted each other with their respective emotional truths. These beneath-the-armor experiences are both nurturing and nuanced. We must consider – even protect such intimacy – when disagreements arise.

Meaningful conviction reveals itself when arguments arise: remember deeply felt and symbolic undertones characterize intimate relationships. The overall objective is to work together to get the ball over the goal line – not kick each other in the shins.

Differences are vital to the balance within a relationship:

  1. Consider your collaborator’s strengths and play to them.
  2. Realize every talented quarterback needs a great receiver to catch the ball.
  3. Set down your ‘winner takes all” attitude and enjoy the sweetness of sharing mutual achievements from a team perspective.

Strategy Four: Focus on behavior, not character.

Judging an athlete’s overall ability by one penalty is foolish – as is assessing someone’s character based on a couple of mistakes. Find yourself screaming: “you’re an idiot for doing that!” or “you obviously don’t care about us!” and you will eventually come to regret these statements.

Therapists categorize the above outburst examples as Stage-three conflict. They are like fumbling during the Super Bowl: they’re tough to forgive and even harder to forget. These attacks can easily create emotional scarring that permanently damages relationship dynamics. These flare-ups also say a lot about you – why would you choose to be in a relationship with someone you feel is so profoundly flawed?

The next time you disagree with your significant other, remember the qualities that made you commit to your relationship in the first place. Noted psychologist Carl Rogers coined the term “Unconditional Positive Regard” to describe conscious support and acceptance despite your partner’s occasional mistakes or lapses.

Partners who fight fairly focus their complaints on behavior. “I disagree with what you did” or “when this happened, I felt overlooked by you” is fair game – character assassination is not.

Strategy Five: Use I Statements.

An I Statement is a way to communicate your feelings while simultaneously taking responsibility for them. This intervention’s effectiveness lies in its thoughtful and non-judgmental approach. I often tell couples: if you never want to argue again, use I Statements!

There are four steps to an I Statement:

1.) Notice your emotional response and the circumstance that’s triggering it.

2.) Convey how this event is making you feel.

3.) Invite your partner to share how he or she feels about the way you’re feeling.

4.) Describe the exact behavior that would help you resolve your struggle.

Example: Sally notices that Tom is under-representing his earnings on their joint tax return:

1.) “I see that there’s an income discrepancy on our tax return…”

2.) “…and this is making me feel uneasy.”

3.) “Tom, I’d like to know how you feel about the fact that I’m now nervous and worried.”

4.) “It would make me feel better if we stated the actual amount that we earned last year.”

Once Tom realizes his actions are creating concern, he can weigh them. Is Tom’s shaving a few hundred dollars off their tax debt worth the emotional pain these actions are causing his wife? 

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.

Conveying I Statements may initially seem clinical and clunky. However, with practice, it’s a great way to yield positive results. Noticing our perspectives also helps us assess whether emotions appropriate (am I overreacting?). Sharing our feelings from an observational stance rids the communication of accusation. Inviting our partners to comment on our feelings conveys that their thoughts matter to us, as well.


When we think before we speak, we increase the possibility of being heard, understood, and considered.

  1. Learning to keep disagreements in the present tense gives us the focus to solve our dilemmas.
  2. Staying on topic helps us get there quickly.
  3. Using your differences often helps to better tackle and resolve your collective challenges.
  4. Centering on behaviors, not character, keeps arguments away from being construed as personal attacks.
  5. Conveying grievances through observational self-disclosure promotes empathy and resolution.

Just as a skilled athlete trains to get into physical condition, communication fitness requires developing a disciplined regimen and mutual intention. We can solve any situation if we relax and keep our eye on the ball.