Nationally Recognized Couples Psychotherapist
Bill Benson LMFT, LPCC
A Relationship Counselor’s step by step guide to success…
As a child, my mother taught me that successful relationships were more a result of character than content. Two of her favorite sayings were: “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it” and “You catch more bees with honey than vinegar.”
I am still passing along this wisdom all these years later: Much of my work as a Licensed Marriage Family Therapist and Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor involves helping people establish and maintain habits of fair and equitable collaboration that creates a desired result for all involved.
The Art of Conversation
Whenever two people interact, negotiation becomes necessary. Step up to the counterperson at any fast-food restaurant and you will probably engage in a universally accepted back-and-forth that will get you the food you want. The same holds true in friendship: Text a buddy about getting together for a movie and ideas will flow between you until a film is determined and the meet-up specifics are decided.
But this back-and-forth can be more difficult than expected. According to a recent poll of 100 mental health professionals, communication problems (65%) and an inability to resolve conflict (45%) were the most common factors leading to divorce.
Ironically, couples usually come into counseling convinced that it is the content of their arguments that are creating their relationship havoc. They are unaware that the main cause of their discord is the way they are communicating. It is my job to shepherd awareness within these clients (just as my mother had with me) so that they can uncover healthier ways of relating to one another.
The Mental Gym
Let’s not leave my father’s influence out of this: One reason I named my private psychotherapy practice The Mental Gym was due to the psychological wisdom my athleticism instilled in me while I was growing up. My dad, first a footballer and then coach, imparted in me an understanding of sportsmanship. I now include these dynamics - communication, cooperation, and compromise - within my sessions to guide my clients toward emotional victories.
Based on my 17 years in clinical practice (in addition to the 18 years under my parent’s roof) I have devised a healthy communication playbook that I use in my therapy sessions. These are Couples Counseling Exercises that get results. Below are five strategies from this manual that can help you and your partner productively negotiate and create a truly long and winning season together.
Couples Counseling Technique #1: Keep Disagreements in the Present
Fighting couples have a nasty tendency to pepper their arguments with examples of past failures and/or foreboding forecasts: “There you go again” or “If you don’t change, you’ll be sorry” are classic bickering examples of an inability to stay in the present tense.
There is a scientific explanation for this tendency to rehash and/or project: Because our brains are biological computers – and computers crunch data – memory and/or imagination are easily accessed avenues of information we need to support our side of an argument. However, because this information is subjective or fantasy, this evidence only complicates a disagreement.
Tip: Constructive conflict resolution occurs 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 reminders like: “I haven’t had a base hit all week” or booting up projections like: “I need this homerun or they’ll demote me to the minor leagues.” The pitch whizzes past them because they are distracted with all of this unproductive data.
These players’ batting averages usually improve once they discipline their thoughts. Through Mindfulness Training and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy techniques, I teach these athletes to address only the topic at hand, which is connecting their bat to the pitched ball. Once this occurs, the players report a newfound ability to track the pitcher’s delivery more easily and aim their swing more precisely. In other words, we can only influence what’s unfolding before us – and that’s usually enough to solve the dilemma.
Successful communicators, just like homerun hitters, understand that, in order to score, they need to address “what is” not “what was” or “what might be.” Most couples will come to this eventual conclusion, but only after wading through and debating all the evidence their brains have generated. Exhausted, couples will finally state: “…so, what are we going to do about this now?” Ironically, a lot of time has been wasted talking about the problem, instead of focusing on the solution.
Couples Counseling Technique #2: Stay on Topic
Imagine you come upon an impasse while jogging along a trail. This detour leads you to another impasse, and then to another detour. Before long, you lose direction and become disoriented – you have lost the ability to navigate to your destination.
When arguing, winning often becomes the goal of each opponent - which is impossible, because if there is one winner, there is also one loser. Dueling partners will pull out all the stops to insure the finish line is not reached while they’re in second place.
Strategies develop and diversions appear to keep the contest going until an advantage can be taken. I call this “migrating the argument:” It’s a tactic to divert the conflict onto so many pathways that forward progress becomes impossible. It’s a manipulative traffic jam, designed to be counterproductive, and often makes interactions – and eventually whole relationships - feel like uphill slogs.
If your partner begins migrating the argument, guide him or her back to the original path of 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 one you’ve just mentioned.”
The key to conflict resolution is clarity: Remain diligent in your quest to stay the course – one course at a time.
Couples Counseling Technique #3: Problem-solve instead of promoting an Agenda
Keeping score at sporting events or strategizing in the business world may yield clear results but competitive setups within intimate relationships usually signal trouble. Intimate relationships are characterized by deeply felt and symbolic undertones. Chances are good partners have shown vulnerability and entrusted each other with their respective emotional truths. These beneath-the-armor experiences are both nurturing and nuanced and must be taken into consideration - even protected - when disagreements arise. Winning an argument forces your partner to concede his or her own meaningful convictions. This, in turn, can lead to emotional distancing or worse. Victory often creates its opposite consequence. Simply put: “You can win a battle but lose the war.”
When disagreements arise, instead of myopically politicking for your own agenda, remember you and your spouse are on the same team: It doesn’t make sense to kick your partner in the shins when the overall point is to work together to get the ball over the goal line. Differences are vital to the balance within a relationship: consider your collaborator’s strengths and play to them. Realize every talented Quarterback needs a great Receiver. Set down your ‘winner takes all” attitude and enjoy the sweetness that comes from sharing mutual achievements with another.
Couples Counseling Technique #4: Focus on Behavior not Character
Like coaches diagramming plays on white boards, therapists love to explain the play-by-play characteristics of human interaction. Regardless of the variables 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: It is their perception about the argument that plays the pivotal role in conflict resolution.
Partners who fight fairly understand disagreements must center on behavior not character. Just as it would be ridiculous for a referee to judge an athlete’s overall ability via one penalty, assessing someone’s character based on one misstep would be equally foolish.
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 derogatorily held perceptions about your spouse - to your spouse.
What I call “Stage-three” conflict is like fumbling the football at the Super Bowl: Stage-three utterances can be pivotal: They are very hard to forgive and even harder to forget - and they make winning when it counts a lot more difficult. These attacks can easily create emotional scarring, which permanently damages your relationship dynamic. This behavior also says a lot about you – why would you choose to be in a relationship with someone you feel is so deeply flawed?
The next time you disagree with your significant other, remember the qualities 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 stay within the perimeters of this behavior: “I disagree with what you did” or “when this happened, I felt overlooked by you” is fair game – character assassination is not.
Couples Counseling Technique #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 then convey, your feelings when issues arise - without indicting another. This intervention’s effectiveness lies in its thoughtful and non-judgmental approach: You are taking self-responsibility for your reaction to a challenge instead of playing the blame-game.
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.
*I’ve italicized the second part of point #3 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.
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 we earned last year.”
Once Tom realizes that his actions are creating upset in someone he loves, he weighs whether or not to modify his actions – is 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, but, with practice, this communication habit can yield the positive result of a well-rehearsed play. Noticing our feelings also allows us to assess them for appropriateness (“am I over-reacting?”). Once vetted, sharing our feelings from an observational stance clears the communication of any accusation. Finally, inviting our teammate to comment on our feelings conveys the message that their thoughts matter to us, as well.
Knowing the rules of the game when interacting with others increases the quality of our experiences and enhances the possibility of positive outcomes. Just as my mother taught me with words and my father with actions, the ability to effectively team with others comes with attentiveness and practice.
Learning to keep disagreements in the present tense gives us the focus to solve our dilemmas. Staying on topic helps us get there more quickly, and centering on behaviors not character keeps arguments away from being taken as personal attacks.
The point of any discussion is to arrive at a mutually beneficial conclusion: Remembering to problem-solve instead of promoting an agenda will go a long way in achieving this goal and conversing in “I Statements” is a sure-fire way to get there.
Just as a skilled athlete must train to get into physical condition, communication fitness is also achieved through the development of a good regimen and disciplined intention.
Any situation can be solved if you relax, set down your need to win, and keep your eye on the ball.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Bill Benson is a Board certified Behavioral Scientist and Licensed Psychotherapist. Bill pioneered The Mental Gym, a counseling practice that has trained thousands to build, and then maintain healthier perspectives and emotional muscle.
A go-to expert in the Psychology field, Bill has appeared on a variety of television programs, including Fox's Good Day LA, CBS' Woman to Woman, and NBC's Tonight Show.
Bill is a recurring panelist for e.Huffington Post Live and co-hosted 250 episodes of the cable talk show Doc Talk.
Bill is a published writer, covering creative solutions to life’s challenges. He and his work have been featured in newspapers and radio programs across America.