Couples Counseling: Getting Ahead of Conflict
I was on my morning walk recently and stopped to talk to a neighbor. I had known his daughter when I worked at the school she was attending several years ago and that was our connection. After she graduated I lost track of what was going on in her life since. The dad was proud to say that she was engaged and that she and her fiancé’ were in pre-marital counseling.Hearing that caused me to reflect on our pre-marital counseling several decades ago. As I have taken on the work of a therapist and work often with couples it made me wonder what would be the most essential things for a couple to know, be aware of, and practice as they launched into their life together.
In reality, I don’t remember much from our four meetings with our pastor. I remember being in his office, me and my wife to be, excited to think about and plan our life together. When I reflect on that time, what strikes me is that we knew enough to get a pretty good start but had no idea of what might be to come.
As a Christian, I wanted to be the ideal husband and to guide our life together in love and safety. I also had the fortune of having some very good advice that I still share to this day with young and older couples. I’ll save that for later.
When two people come together and believe that they have found the one, there is a sense of excitement and anticipation. Every couple has its own history and getting to know your fiancé ahead of the marriage is critical to avoiding some trouble later on. Accomplishing that can only come with time, which will undoubtedly include challenges that can reveal aspects of that person you might not have seen before.
In the dating/courtship phase of a relationship, it is only natural to put your best foot forward to make an impression and hopefully win your partner. But, often when the “I dos” are said, that other foot can manifest itself and you might discover a not-so-great side of your partner.
My therapist side says that it is a great idea to understand the background of the other person. What was their family life like, what was their relationship with their parents, were there traumatic events that impacted their life, or what kind of challenges did they have to deal with or overcome?
The reason these are important is that they have a great impact on how the person will respond to the responsibilities and challenges of adult life. They are certainly not deal breakers but can give you both insight into how to meet each other’s needs and through time and love can fill those gaps. People can change as they grow closer to one another and God.
In the excitement of the present, it is important to plan for the future. And I’m not talking about finances at this point. One thing for certain in any relationship is that there will be disagreements and conflicts will arise. A couple of key principles can help resolve these conflicts positively. Practicing them ahead of time is the frosting on the cake.
Discussing a particular issue can be tricky at the beginning. Let’s say that the wife is having difficulty with a fellow worker and that worker is making life miserable for her. She shares this with her husband and he, being the kind to come to the rescue, begins to advise her on how to solve this problem. He thinks he’s being helpful and feels quite satisfied that he can help his mate and yet she gets irritated.
He wonders why, gets frustrated that he got a negative reaction after trying to help, and what started as a caring moment turned into something else and they both seem hurt or angry at each other. I want to let you in on a little secret; She doesn’t want you to solve her problem!
This is a classic way couples can interact with each other over life’s many little challenges. The key to conflict resolution is to avoid conflict in the first place. How is that done? When one half of the couple has a concern or issue then the person hearing about this concern/issue simply needs to listen.
Yes, hold your tongue and listen. Listen with care, absent of judgment, absent of making your point, and full of fulling attending. Listen for the emotion as well as the content. Acknowledge the emotion; not in some phony paraphrasing way, but indicate that you “get it.” As you are listening you are seeking to understand the various aspects of the issue, of which there might be many.
Ask questions of clarification and show you care by not jumping to a solution. The “I care” message might be the most important. This is demonstrated by listening and understanding. As you share, a solution may or may not surface. The point is not to solve the problem, but to help one another deal with it. Both partners trust and support each other, and as a result, they draw closer to each other.
One way that people can get irritated, frustrated, and angry at others is from unfulfilled expectations. We tend to think others around us are mind readers. They should know what you want from them, know what to do in a given situation, and certainly pick up the socks. It is humorous how often we can get our noses out of joint when we think that something is so obvious that it doesn’t need mentioning.
The problem is that it often does. This has a lot to do with the family you grew up in and the various ways things were done. We tend to think that almost everyone will think like us and do things as we do but to our surprise, they don’t. This includes your spouse, so good clarifying communication is vital.
So, when your husband or wife continues to do the same things over and over again and is not picking up on your disapproving body language, don’t be surprised if it comes to the point where something needs to be said. This is where the skill comes in. The Gottman Institute, a resource for therapists and couples has provided some positive steps to avoid major conflict and hurt feelings through some simple steps when it comes to managing conflict.
If you are the one who decides to enlighten your partner about how things should be done or what has been bugging you lately these are some tips to venture down that road. I will also add that beginning with a humble heart and a caring heart is a good place to begin. So, if you are the sender of the message, some guidelines can help make it a positive experience.
Start by stating a positive using a gentle start-up. Know that in every complaint is a longing being expressed for a greater connection to emerge. Hitting someone over the head usually doesn’t work. Tactful entry to the conversation can set the tone for good communication.
No blaming, criticism, or contempt. Criticism is stating one’s complaints as a defect in one’s personality. Contempt is feeling that the person is beneath consideration or judged as inadequate. Both are very hurtful and can set a relationship down a dark road.
No “You” statements. This again tends to come from a position of being higher than the other in intelligence, character, or competency. Avoid, “you never …”, “you always …”, “you’re so selfish when you…”
Use “I” statements about the particular situation. I feel like you don’t care about me when you continue to do that thing over and over again when I have asked you to do otherwise.
Talk about your feelings. This takes some practice and preparation to state things in a way that is in an “I” statement and share your feelings without being critical or contemptuous.
The receiver of the message needs to follow some rules as a listener. As hard as that might be. Again, beginning the process with a state of humility is best. Holding on to some sense of personal pride will make this task nearly impossible. Keeping in mind the Golden Rule, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is also valuable advice in landing on a positive outcome.
- Prepare yourself by setting aside your own agenda.
- Tune into your partner’s world by seeking to understand their point of view.
- Listen for your partner’s pain, even if you don’t agree with every aspect of what is being shared. Acknowledge the emotion in some way.
- Ask open-ended questions that require more than a “yes” or “no” response
- Ask questions for clarification and elaboration that deepen your understanding of your partner’s need.
We find it very difficult to receive negative feedback about ourselves. We desperately want others to think we are great, but that’s unrealistic. When I was a teacher, I would occasionally give my students a semester evaluation of my class and teaching. The large majority of comments were positive (thank God), but there were always a few negative ones.
Guess which ones I paid the most attention to? Yup, you’re right. This frame of mind can distort reality. But there can be some truth in the negative. That’s how we learn and grow. We are admittedly flawed, so we try to do the best we can. If we fall short? We must be open to improvement. Approach your relationship with these principles in mind and you will be rewarded with the joy of an intimate relationship.
I mentioned earlier that I had received some very good pieces of advice that enriched my marriage over the years. Here are a few of them:
Step into each other’s world each day. One simple thing to do is ask each other, each day, “What three things happened to you today, and how did you feel about them”)
Build upon your faith in Christ. Help strengthen each other spiritually through church involvement, reading Scripture, and prayer.
Go out on dates regularly.
Gifts. Surprise each other with some gift, or symbol of your care and affection, such as flowers, a card, a gift, a hug, or even a kiss.
Love languages. Know each other’s love language and replicate it back to them. If she likes cards as a way to show she is thinking or cares for someone, give her a card.
Selflessness. Avoid selfishness all the time.
Spend money. Take a trip, go on an overnighter, go out to eat. Create time together.
When you have kids. When you have children, it is even more important to go on dates, surprise your spouse, spend money on each other, etc.
If you or someone you know needs pre-marital counseling or couples counseling, it would be my great privilege to assist you during whatever challenge or new life experience you are heading into. Go to my image on the website and click on the spot that says “Schedule with Marty.” I look forward to meeting you.
Gottman, J. M., & Gottman, J. S. (2017). “Level 1 clinical training Gottman method couples therapy: Bridging the couple chasm.” Gottman Institute.
“I Do”, Courtesy of Vetonethemi, Pixabay.com, CC0 License; “Til Death Do Us Part”, Courtesy of StockSnap, Pixabay.com, CC0 License; “Married Couple”, Courtesy of Emma Bauso, Pexels.com, CC0 License; “Hug”, Courtesy of Josh Willink, Unsplash.com, CC0 License