Julia Flood, LCSW is a licensed psychotherapist practicing in San Francisco’s Lower Pacific Heights neighborhood. She has been working in the mental health field since 1996 and specializes in couples therapy/marriage counseling, helping partners in crisis to break out of the vicious cycle of hurting and being hurt. You can find out more about Julia on her website: www.newstarttherapy.com, or by calling (415) 820-3210 to arrange an initial phone consultation. She is bilingual in English and German.
by Julia Flood, LCSW
I recently participated in a couples workshop by renowned couples therapist Dr. Peter Pearson, and although I was there in the role of a support therapist, my personal takeaway was huge. Sometimes it’s the little things that stick with you, and I wanted to share with you a set of 3 simple questions that were presented to the couples for reflection and sharing with their partners.
1. What do you want?
This question helps identify the positive behavior you’d like to see in your partner.
It’s easy to think of complaints, but harder to come up with concrete positive behaviors we’d like to see. Rather than asking someone to change their integrity, spirituality, feelings, attitudes, or trust, the focus here is on concrete actions, as well as when and how they do it. So the first necessary step is identifying concrete and specific behavioral change you’d like to see and expressing that.
2. If you get what you want, how will you feel?
Answering this question will give your partner a window into how important something is to you, and why. Partners tend to be more supportive when they understand why something matters to you, even if they don’t feel the same way about it. Don’t assume that they already know how you feel, let alone why. Once understood in its significance, your request becomes personal and about you, rather than you being perceived as bossing them around, which inevitably brings up defensiveness. Speaking of being bossy, this brings me to question number three:
3. How are you making it difficult for your partner to give you what you want?
This last question is at once the most challenging and the most powerful of the three because of its potential for positive change: You can’t control your partner, but you can influence him or her by using the only thing you actually have control over – what you say and do.
We are all familiar with the ineffective behaviors we use in an attempt to get our way – eye rolling, sulking, silent treatment, raising our voice, walking out, slamming doors, nagging, talking indirectly (and passive-aggressively) through the kids, using terms like “you always” or “you never”. It’s not that we don’t know that these attempts are ineffective, it’s that we don’t know what else to do! The surprising irony is, when we admit the ineffectiveness of these behaviors to our partner, and acknowledge how we contribute to frustrating interactions, instead of feeling a need and desire to put us down, our partner might actually greet what we say with appreciation, and maybe even admission of a few of his or her own ineffective contributions.
Admitting faults seems counter-intuitive, especially when you’re triggered and in self-protection mode. Yet we all know those angry impulses that feel justified in the moment rarely bring us what we want (understanding, closeness), let alone do they reflect our values of how we aspire to act in intimate relationships.
Are you ready to try a new experiment and share with your partner your answers to the 3 questions above?