When first meeting with couples, Stonebridge therapists use a 3-session assessment process. We see couples together in the first session, then we have an individual session with each partner, and then we come back together and begin working together towards goals.
Why do we take this approach? Much like an MRI (Magnetic Resonance Image) which allows a medical doctor to see a 3 dimensional perspective of the human body, our assessment process does the same for the relationship. By understanding the history of the relationship, its strengths and weaknesses, and by understanding the history of each individual, we are able to see a 3 dimensional picture of what is happening “between” the couple (the cycles) and “within” each partner (the triggers) that contribute to the problem.
One of the things that always strikes me during the individual sessions is how different each partner’s perspective of a problem can be. One partner might define the problem as a lack of connection, while the other identifies it as an issue of control. One partner might see the problem as not being able to be authentic, while the other sees it as not caring enough to change.
One partner might see the problem as never knowing what mood their partner is going to be in, and the other might experience it as feeling that their partner is too rigid and inflexible. One partner might see the problem as not having enough sex, the other might see the problem as demanding it too much. These different perspectives make a huge difference in how the couples are able to connect and navigate life together.
We are a collection of experiences. These experiences shape us and inform who we are and how we see the world. One of the biggest influences that shapes our view of relationships is our family of origin. How did our parents or guardians model conflict and connection, and how did they tolerate emotional expression in the family—too much or too little, or were there constrictions on certain emotions like anger?
We then bring these experiences into our adult relationships. It only makes sense that we would seek someone who might compliment what we lacked and wish we had while growing up, or conversely, that we would find someone who mirrors what we had. It’s these different perspectives that inform our wants and needs and that can cause us to have challenges within a partner, who may have a different perspective about their wants and needs.
John Gottman, in his groundbreaking research on couples, came to the conclusion that 69% of couples' conflicts were unresolvable. While this statement seems daunting, let’s put it in perspective. Let’s take for example the sex life of the couple. When they first begin having sex, their wants and needs are reflective of who and where they are in the relationship at that time. Consider how much our bodies, moods, sex drive, and other biological cycles that are tied to our sex life, change over the years. Kids are certainly a game changer in dampening the sex life of the couple.
Therefore, while couples may continue to have sex throughout their relationship, they have to learn to “manage” their needs by talking about what they want in the bedroom. There will be times when they will have more sex or less sex, and the ability to discuss the matter is paramount to their learning to “manage” perpetual challenges, which is what Gottman and his research was highlighting.
In learning to “manage” issues between them, couples can take a giant leap in their ability to feel more connected. They can also come to feel they are growing together and moving the relationship forward. This helps them feel less stuck and more competent in their relationship.
Couples must take three important steps when working to “manage” their differences and share perspectives. First, they must learn to empathize with one another. Secondly, they must learn to understand why they have the perspectives that they do and where those perspectives originated. Third, they must be willing to make some compromises.
Empathy is the ability to feel your way into another person’s perspective. How are they seeing the problem? What are they feeling? Utilizing this emotional gift allows couples to connect over different perspectives. Empathy allows each partner to “step” into the other’s shoes. Oftentimes sharing this feeling with your partner without trying to change it, minimize it or judge it, can make a huge difference in finding a resolution.
I often tell my couples that they can’t find a solution to a problem until they arrive at the emotional center of the problem. Each partner is not ready to find a solution until they feel like they have been heard and understood. When empathy helps define the core of the problem, then solutions will often emerge that neither partner was able to see previously. Empathy opens up spaces and solutions that wouldn’t exist otherwise.
Understanding and Expressing Your Perspective
Being able to define what is important about an issue for you, and how you arrived at that perspective, is crucial to expressing this to your partner. With some introspection you might find you aren’t sure why you think or feel the way you do about something. Or you might find that, in fact, your perspective is rooted in your past due to the behavior of a parent.
I’m reminded of a story about a woman preparing to cook a pot roast and cutting the ends off of it before placing it in the oven. Her husband asked her why she cut the ends off of the pot roast and she replied, “I don’t know. My mother always did it that way.” The next day she asked her mother why she cut off the ends of the pot roast, and her mother had the same reply: “I don’t know. Your grandmother always did it that way.” Finally, together they asked the grandmother why she always cut off the ends of the pot roast, and the grandmother replied, “Because when we were first married, I didn't have a pan big enough in which to fit the entire pot roast.”
The moral of the story is that sometimes we do things because that’s how we learned to do them, only to find that they don’t always need to be done that way. Being able to explore why you think/feel/behave the way you do will help your partner understand your perspective better.
Learn To Compromise
If you have truly empathized with your partner, and you have expressed your perspectives and understand what experiences inform them, then you have a good start in being able to come together with your partner and compromising.
These days, a compromise is a bit of a dirty word; but the original meaning of compromise, and its Latin origin, means “mutual promise.” Compromising is simply giving something up and getting something in return. It’s working together to resolve an issue, first by understanding both perspectives, then by “meeting in the middle” with both partners moving towards each other to find a solution. Couples often have to ask themselves, “Do I want to be right, or do I want to be in a relationship?” Clinging to your perspective at all costs, not striving to take your partner’s perspective into account when offering a solution, results in creating less connection, not more connection.
Growing up with different relationship experiences, there is no doubt that couples will find themselves having different perspectives over important topics in their relationship. The goal is to work together and stay connected while “managing” those differences.
- Tom Philp, LPC, CEO
Stonebridge Couples Therapy