“What you’re doing doesn’t work,” I said bluntly.
These are not the words of the most compassionate psychologist in the planet. I said them at a point in a couple’s work when I was feeling particularly frustrated. I said them after listening to the following exchange during a recent Marriage Intensive.
“I don’t really think you care about me,” Sheila said to Jed, her husband of 15 years. He winced.
“I care about you more than you’ll ever acknowledge,” Jed snarled back, as she notably withdrew from him.
“It would be nice if you’d show me sometime,” she continued. He winced again.
“You mean working 12 hours a day isn’t enough for you?” he said. She dabbed at the tears in her eyes.
“It would be nice if you showed me love instead of just bringing home money,” she said.
I allowed Sheila and Jed to continue for another couple of minutes, listening as they made accusations against each other, hurt each other’s feelings, spoke abruptly, interrupting each other and generally making a mess of their connection. Neither of them seemed to notice as the other winced and hurled something back at their mate defensively.
“You’ve come for help,” I said. “Do you give me permission to speak into your lives?” I asked.
Both quickly said they wanted feedback.
“What we’re doing isn’t working,” Jed said. “So of course we want help. Please tell us what you’re seeing and what we’re missing.”
I assumed that meant I had a green light to make comments as needed—and boy were they needed. So, I began commenting when they would make accusations, exaggerating the other’s point of view, making black and white statements, offering narrow-mindedness and other challenges to effective communication. No sooner had I begun to make small comments on their dysfunctional patterns than Jed blurted out his displeasure to me.
“It seems like we can’t do anything without you interrupting us,” Jed said, obviously frustrated with me.
“That’s because what you’re doing doesn’t work,” I said. “Can you see that? I know it is frustrating to try to learn a new way of communicating, but that’s what needs to happen. The patterns you’re using now create disconnection and turmoil.”
I felt bad pointing out the patterns that had brought them to this sad point in their marriage. But, when what you’re doing isn’t working, you must be humble enough to reach out for help. You must be humble enough to risk losing your pride and attempt new ways of communicating.
“While it is true that I am interrupting you,” I said, “you’ll begin to see that I want to point out the dysfunctional patterns you’ve developed over time. You’re like most other couples who come to me for help. They don’t see how often they criticize each other. They don’t see how they are not really speaking about their feelings, but rather are making destructive accusations. They don’t see how they are blaming their mate for their behavior. Any of these patterns are enough to wreak havoc on a marriage, and you came here because you want a healthy connection to each other.”
Both Jed and Sheila nodded their approval.
“We don’t see what we’re doing, but we know that what we’re doing isn’t working. So, bring it on.”
I proceeded to share further insights that I was seeing in their communication.
1. We must be willing to admit when our actions don’t work.
While it is never any fun, we cannot grow unless we have our dysfunctional patterns pointed out to us. Not only must we look critically at them, but this often means looking at the full impact of our actions. Often this isn’t pretty and won’t be any fun.
2. We must be willing to hear truth.
This doesn’t mean we listen to just any voice, but to those we deem having wisdom. We must not be so proud that we won’t sit under instruction. If what we are doing is working, there is no need to grow and change. If it’s not working, we must be willing to hear that.
Scripture says, “Do not forsake wisdom, and she will protect you; love her, and she will watch over you. Wisdom is supreme; therefore get wisdom. Though it cost all you have, get understanding." (Proverbs 4:6-7)
3. Growth requires change.
Giving up old patterns means adopting new ones. This is almost always hard and can rattle our sensibilities. What we’ve been doing are like an old pair of comfortable shoes we don’t want to take off, but we must.
4. Try on the new behaviors.
This can actually be fun if you work with your mate to try on new ways of interacting. With a helpful coach (Marriage Counselor), you can actually come to enjoy the process, not to mention the joy of connecting with your mate and resolving old issues.
5. Celebrate growth.
When your counselor interrupts you, thank them for pointing the patterns out to you and embrace the new, more effective ways of relating. Celebrate as your mate appreciates the changes in you, and positively reinforce the changes they bring to the relationship as well.
Share your feedback or send a confidential note to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and read more about The Marriage Recovery Center on my website www.marriagerecoverycenter.com and yourrelationshipdoctor.com. You’ll find videos and podcasts on saving a troubled marriage, codependency and affair-proofing your marriage.