Category Archives: Marriage

Preparing For The Holidays

candles-resized
Preparing For The Holidays: For Those Who Grieve

Holidays can be tough after losing someone, especially during the first year since their passing.  So many adjustments must be made every day; but, as the holidays approach the challenges can be overwhelming.

On Thursday evening, November 10, from 7-9 p.m. we are hosting a seminar at the Church of Christ of St. Joseph entitled “Preparing for the Holidays.” Our purpose is to provide a place and time where we can share stories, tears, and ideas for making it through the tough times ahead.

The seminar is free and open to anyone who grieves.  If you know of someone who may find this time helpful please invite them to come with you so they won’t have to come alone.

The seminar will be led and facilitated by Stephen Pylkas and Russel Hicks, both of whom have experience in leading grief groups and guiding discussion.

A grief support group will be available through the holiday season.  A sign-up sheet will be offered at the seminar.

For more information, to let us know of your interest or for any questions or comments, please fill out the form below and Steve will reply.  Registration is not necessary so you can wait until the last minute to decide.


stevebwcropped

Stephen “Steve” Pylkas is the minister of the Church of Christ of St. Joseph where he also has his private practice (Southshore Counseling, LLC) as a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist.

hicks-russell-bw

 

Since losing his wife, Carol Jean Hicks, to cancer in 2008, Russell Hicks has led grief groups at Lori’s Place for several years.

 

So, You’re Getting Married?

By now many will have picked the setting for the wedding, worked out the invitations and the mailing list, chosen the reception and honeymoon locations and taken care of many of the details in between.  Now it is just a matter of planning for and going through the wedding itself.

With the time, energy and expense that goes into preparing for a wedding might I suggest that one expense worth considering is pre-marital counseling.  Usually 4-6 sessions can encourage thoughtful conversations before the knot is tied rather than risk potentially explosive confrontations later.

More importantly, there are times when certain insights and new understandings before tying the knot can enrich our lives afterwards.  Especially when it comes to communication skills, conflict resolution coaching to help couples push through tough issues constructively can be priceless.  The skills needed to produce more win/win situations can make all of the difference in contrast to the win/lose scenarios that can be so destructive.

 

Rhythm And Relationships

metronomeThere is a rhythm to relationships that is often taken for granted.  Yet, rhythm is such an important ingredient to making healthy conversations work and for helping diagnose problems when something is wrong.

For example, someone who is not rhythmically inclined in music or a coordinated activity will not be able to keep the beat of a simple metronome or marching steps.  In contrast is the person who is highly rhythmic in their perceptions who can clap out a complicated, syncopated accompaniment to the regular tick-tock of a clock’s pendulum.

Butterfly
1974 Harding Yearbook

Swimming is another example.  My memory of swimming the butterfly stroke in High School and College 40 years ago feels very different when I try to duplicate the stroke today at 57 years of age.  Finally working out to build up the muscle strength and stamina to try again I must have gulped half of the pool at first just trying to breathe because my rhythm is off.  Now I’m starting to get the timing back so that I can start working on my endurance again.  Without a sense of timing the stroke is a painful struggle in which muscles get pulled and water goes up my nose.  When the timing comes back the stroke becomes easier, making it possible to swim longer, smoother and more efficiently.  Before long I don’t really think about it anymore.

Our personal rhythm has to do with the day-in/day-out activities we do in an average day as we rise in the morning, greet family members, go through our normal routines to get ready for work, travel to our workplace, engage with other employees, return home, conclude the day and wind down to rest in preparation for the next day.  With the routinized choreography of the day we develop a rhythm that helps us stay emotionally stable, organized and behaviorally predictable.

The baseline or our daily rhythms also allows us to be flexible and adaptable so we we can choose to introduce measured changes that we can evaluate and decide whether or not they will fit into our established routines.   When the daily structure and systems are suddenly challenged by sickness, car accidents, or other uninvited calamity, we can step outside of ourselves, knowing that we will return one day to the regular rhythm of new routines, patterns and structures.

conversationsThere are also rhythms in relationships that contribute to predictability, regularity and security.  Boundaries are clear and normalcy characterizes the ebb and flow of life. Changes are planned and mutually agreed upon so routinely that we often take them for granted.   This is as it should be.  For marriages, families and other close relationships, these regularities provide stability in a world that is often unpredictable and chaotic.

These elements are so important to the day-to-day functioning of relationships to the point that, when people begin to shift their behaviors others begin to ask ‘Why?’ questions, looking for cause and effect explanations.  Divergence from the rhythms of life that have provided the basis for trust and freedom can suddenly become sources of discomfort, fear and anxiety when the answers do not satisfy the one who has started to notice the changes.

The security of sameness is threatened by unexplained changes that introduce dissonance between the way things should be and the way things have become.  The changes can be subtle at first or suddenly dramatic.  Either way, the development is noted by those who have grown accustomed to the sine wave rhythm of their relationships…but they are not ready to talk about it or are afraid of the answers.

So, the questions begin on an innocuous level, probing for logical, simple answers that reassure without being confrontational. Here are some examples of how these unilateral changes can introduce dissonance, addressed indirectly:

THE QUESTION

WHAT IS REALLY MEANT

You didn’t kiss me when you came in the door. Are you upset with me about something I did or said??
You stayed in the basement until after bedtime. Are you surfing porn sites again?
You sounded strange on the phone this evening. Have you been drinking?
Why so sensitive? I’m just trying to have a conversation…. What are you  hiding from me?

One of the faulty beliefs of addicts is that “No one will notice if I keep it under control.”  The reality is that someone has already noticed but they are not sure they want to risk the relationship by confronting.  They want to maintain the rhythm of the relationship.  So they have decided that they, themselves, must avoiding-conversationbe mistaken or over-sensitive.  “It’s probably nothing.”  The key is that the change is noticed but not being addressed until confirmed by repeated behaviors or collaborating evidence.

As the dissonance persists and the answers fail to satisfy one’s partner, real challenges to the relationship can begin to emerge.  Communication patterns begin to shift as questions start leading to suspicions and the breakdown of trust becomes an important issue to address.

When a partner begins to withdraw, conversations begin to escalate into arguments, when partners begin assuming the worst in their partner and when the simplest disagreements become a painful re-hashing of past hurts and perceived offenses, it is time to ask for help before erosion sets in and the sense of hopelessness and helplessness descends into a relational numbness.

Marriage and family therapists are specifically trained to help couples work through the issues and disparities that often lead to relational breakdowns in a mutually respectful way.

Extramarital Affairs

sorrow

Extramarital affairs are among the most powerful disruptors to marital relationships.  The stories can be complex but the messages can fall into at least four categories.

First: I want out!  When a partner has finally given up, lost any interest in starting over or attempting to resurrect lost feelings, they may begin devising an exit strategy.  In this out-of-the-door scenario there are several options to choose from beginning with the direct approach of honestly reporting the status of the relationship to one’s partner.  On the other hand, intimidated by the consequences of honest discussion another person may initiate an affair, leaving obvious clues to one’s partner, anticipating that they will discover them and initiate the termination of the marriagefor them.  While neither of these possibilities are necessarily fatal to the relationship, they are among the most challenging for couples to reconcile.

Second: Listen to me!  In some cases the partner who is stepping out on the marriage wants desperately to receive the attention from their partner; but, they no longer feel that they are being heard.  The affair almost becomes an act of desperation for action, moving the relationship into the fast lane for change.  The hope for the best is what motivates it.  The fear of the worst is what keeps it secret until it is discovered.  When it is discovered and they are finally confronted by their spouse there is almost a sense of relief mixed in with the grief of a broken trust and the guilt and shame over not having the courage to live honestly with their partner.

Third: I did it for our marriage!  There is a logical leap that occurs when a partner actually believes an extramarital affair can help his or her marriage.  It begins with one partner’s dissatisfaction with the relationship.  Attempts to help it change for the better have failed and even made the relationship worse because of the vulnerability that one invites when they verbalize their discontent.  Punished or snubbed by their partner, they decide that attempts to reconcile will not work, they remove this topic of discussion from the table, and they submerge into going-through-the-motions numbness.  The affair opens the door to a life of excitement and intrigue on the side while they spare their partner the pressure to bend to theirdesires.  Indeed, their marriage may even improve for a while as the affair continues, taking pressure off the relationship for change; but, in the end, the revelation of the affair will be explosive and potentially catastrophic to the marriage.

fighting-couple

Fourth: “I’m in love!”  No matter what may be the reason for the affair, the spouse engaged in the affair can become emotionally torn between his or her love for their spouse and the infatuation found in their newly acquired partner.  This can be one of the significant magnets for the affair.  Realizing they will have to choose between one or the other they prolong their agony by deciding not to decide.  While straddling this fence of decisive indecision, the chances are pretty good that the illicit relationship is not encumbered with normal family pressures such as children, mortgages, credit card debt and the other usual household responsibilities and interpersonal tensions.   Indeed, the false sense of unencumbered affection–that is an illusion–is hypnotic in its attraction.  At the same time, their spouse is aware of their foibles and failures, good and bad traits and propensities.  Add to that the full weight of maintaining a household and the daily grind of working through multi-leveled responsibilities can create a sameness that pales in comparison to the heady excitement of secret trysts and dangerous rendezvouses.  ‘Falling in love’ with the illusion while ‘falling out of love’ with the one to whom they vowed fidelity forever,  they finally announce: “I have fallen out of love with you.  I’m in love with another person.”

If you know someone who is engaged in a ‘secret’ affair–or if you are in the midst of one yourself–there is helpful advice available to increase the probability of saving the marriage.  One helpful example is an article by Joe Beam entitled “How to Confess An Affair Without Losing Your Marriage.” Living with honesty, trust and integrity are important values that contrast sharply with keeping secrets and deceiving one’s partner about something that goes to the heart of the marriage relationship. 

In the end, there are many factors that can contribute to extramarital affairs.  When the affair is revealed the offense can often mask the factors that led the affair until trust is restored and a shared working agreement between partners is established.  Marriage and Family Therapists have been specially trained to help couples work through the issues in a constructive way.

Building An Affair-Proof Marriage

Willard Harley wrote a book entitled His Needs, Her Needs.  Although I have heard repeated references to the book since its first publishing in 1986, I have rarely heard the subtitle mentioned: Building An Affair-Proof Marriage.  Nonetheless, in the Introduction to his book he makes a helpful distinction between two types of marital conflict:

 His Needs Her Needs 

Marital conflict is created one of two ways: (1) Couples fail to make each other happy, or (2) couples make each other unhappy.  In the first case, couples are frustrated because their needs are not being met.  In the second case, they’re deliberately hurting each other.  I call the first cause of conflict failure to care and the second, failure to protect(Harley, p. 15)

It is this insight that I have found particularly helpful because resolving conflict is among the most central challenges of the marriage and family therapist.  Learn how to deal with our differences in a healthy, respectful way and you can address most of the other issues that many relational conflicts center around such as money and finances, sex, religious differences, and in-laws.

Harley’s idea of a “Love Bank” is worth noting as a useful metaphor for loving ‘deposits’ when we focus upon pleasing each other and negative ‘withdrawals’ when we try to hurt each other or fail to please each other.  It is this last part…the failure to care…that provides the focus for his book.

Alternately, he addresses the woman’s need for affection, conversation, honesty and openness, financial support, and family commitment.  On the other hand, for the man Harley notes his need for sexual fulfillment, recreational companionship, a spouse who cares for herself, domestic support and her admiration.

One of the things that I have found over the years is that the principle of caring for one another is an abiding value that stands behind loving relationships.  Working to please each other by listening for our partner’s needs and desires and strive to satisfy them and your relationship will improve, particularly when it is a two-way exchange.  Quid pro quo (i.e., this for that) is a simplistic definition for how this works best; but, it is, in truth, a critical element.  Too much quid in contrast to a partner’s lack of quo can devolve into an unhealthy imbalance as one partner takes advantages of the other.

Relationship books come and go, groomed to apply ancient, tested principles to new cultures with differing ideas about implementation and application.  In other words, the function of loving and caring for one another is as old as marriage and relationships.  It is the form of how one goes about doing this that shifts from one generation to another as each couple searches out the unique qualities of their partner and pairs them with their own unique perspectives, preferences and commitment to please the other.

So, if you wish to build an affair-proof marriage, go back to the basics.  Sometimes, this can seem tougher than it sounds because of past negative withdrawals from each other’s love bank.  Sometimes the withdrawals can exceed the balance and cause a dangerous pattern of overdrafts.  Marriage and family therapists can help couples make choices that will help them discontinue the damage being done and get back to the basics of relationships, helping them reach towards achieving their potential.

Brief Marriage and Family Therapy

Signature:2a0f6d0366f291694bd9cc422bff24b12e1d3afd88bc0ed09c9a8814df3c0837People are often surprised when I tell them I can usually schedule an appointment within a day or two.  Part of the reason this is possible is because of the nature of my practice of Brief Marriage and Family Therapy.  Another expression used to describe this approach is “solution-focused” therapy or strategic, goal-directed therapy.

Therapy begins by focusing upon defining the problem as it functions within the family system and examining what a solution to the problem would look like.  Beginning with the goal in mind, I will often make a proposal for how we might be able to get there during the first session.*  Stated simply, we know we have finished therapy when the goal is achieved, usually within less than ten sessions.

Marriage and Family Therapy is optimistic about marriages and families.  The reason we believe that marriage and family therapy should be brief is because a core belief is that families mostly get along fairly well most of the time, even though all families struggle with problems.  From the budgeting of time, moneycoupleestranged and other resources to making simple choices such as what to have for breakfast and prioritizing to-do lists, the very fabric of marriage and family life is woven with choices and decisions.

But, every once-in-a-while, families get stuck, marriages go into crisis and relationships become difficult and even unmanageable.  The role of the marriage and family therapist is not necessarily to re-write the family script by keeping them locked into a therapeutic contract for extended periods of time.  The key is to focus on the present challenge, find out how it functions in the marriage and family and help everyone involved devise a strategy for change that can help the family move on.

Because we are solution-focused we don’t normally spend a great of time working through childhood issues, trying to determine who is right or wrong, good or bad, or at fault.  Nor do we typically spend a great deal of time reviewing family histories.

As fascinating and informative as these approaches to marriage and family therapy can be, this is not to say that these things are not important.  Furthermore, there are times when it is important to give more attention to these aspects of family life because of the bearing they  have upon the present circumstances of the family.  This is especially true when couples and their children are intensely involved in conflict and challenge within their families of origin and their relationships with other relatives.

Stated very simply, individuals, couples and families come to Marriage and Family Therapists because they want to relate to each other better; but, something is in the way of helping them achieve their goal.  Often they feel stuck or stagnant.  At other times someone is caught up in a behavior or perception that is having a negative impact on others, threatening the stability of the relationships involved.

My goal as a brief, solution-focused, strategic Marriage and Family Therapist is to help them solve the problem and to get on with life.

So, to answer the original question, the reason I can schedule clients with fairly short notice has something to do with the fact that my practice is all about helping families solve their problems and then getting out of the way.

Logo for the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy
AAMFT

For more information why not set up a first appointment and we can discuss how this approach may help you address some areas in which you wish to move forward but…..  The first appointment is always free.

Stephen has been a Clinical Member of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy since 1991 and he is Licensed as a Marriage and Family Therapist  in the State of Michigan.

Healthy Co-Dependence

CoupleStaringMuch has been written about unhealthy co-dependence which I would define as an unbalanced reliance upon another person for one’s own sense of value and worth.  Perhaps it is based upon a compassionate desire to rescue someone to help them get better or a deep desire or perceived need to be needed by someone else.

Whatever the reasoning, the codependent person seems to be drawn to people who are skilled at taking advantage of these characteristics.  Stated simply, giving people are at risk to losing themselves to the manipulations of takers.  In the extreme, the relationship can become demeaning and abusive.

Perhaps it is in reaction to this relational imbalance that some have asserted  marriage to be a 50/50 relationship where each partner reserves half of themselves for their own needs while laying down the other 50 percent for their partner.  With this proportion a valid point is that we need to take care of ourselves in order to care for another person.  The emphasis is upon not losing one’s self in the exchange.

I would suggest that the idea of a 100/100 equation communicates much the same with a significant shift in emphasis.  This is where each partner is busy finding ways to meet the needs and desires of the other over their own personal needs and desires.  When this is a mutual arrangement the relational potential is significantly enhanced.

Know One’s Self

To begin with, a person needs to know who they are and what they, personally, need.   If a person is too focused upon the needs of others too early, they may never really discover their own unique personal needs and desires.  Marriages that are preceded by an extended period of single-ness can be enhanced by one’s ability to know one’s self: i.e.,  their own preferences, goals in life, desires, dislikes and aversions.  Knowing what they bring to a relationship, they have a  good idea of what they need as well as the qualities and characteristics of another that would compliment their own.

Often, people who marry early in life and start having children immediately are so focused upon the needs and desires of their spouse and family that they may put their own personal development on hold.  Neglecting the development of their own sense of personal identity they face new challenges as they approach the empty nest when the kids are grown and moving on.  This can lead to a personal crisis or the need for a mid-life correction as a person finally confronts the fact that they have sacrificed their own needs for those of their families.  As self-discovery begins at this later stage in the family life cycle it sometimes becomes necessary to renegotiate relational expectations and behavior patterns; hence, the so-called mid-life crisis.

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

The other part of the 100/100 equation is communicating personal preferences and expectations to the spouse who, also wanting to give fully, desires to know what his or her partner desires.  Without this critical element one’s expectations are not met because they are not verbalized.  Sometimes, the choice to do this is intended to keep from ‘burdening’ their partner. The reality is that they are asking their partner to use the trial-and-error method of inductive and deductive reasoning to approximate success.  The preferred method, of course, would be to verbalize our wishes and desires in order to inform our partners so that they can meet those needs because they wish to do so.

A frequent objection to communicating our needs and desires to our partners is based upon fear.  The concern is that when we tell our spouse what we want, that might be the reason they do it rather than because they want to do it altruistically.  This situation can create a classic double bind.  The logic can go something like this:

What I want should be such common knowledge that I should not have to verbalize or explain it to you.  You should love me enough to be able to read my mind and know it intuitively.  If you do not have this sensitivity to my needs then I must do without what I want and endure your mistakes.  Alternatively, I can find other ways to meet my needs without you.  But, I must never have to communicate what I want because, then, I can never know if you are doing it because you really want to do it or because I have asked you to do it.

In the end this is a false dichotomy because a spouse who is committed to the 100/100 equation wants to do for his or spouse precisely because they have asked for it!  At first, yes, it is awkward and seems artificial.  Nonetheless, with persistent communication that allows the spouse to know what to do, intuition becomes more consistent, paving the way for more accurate approximations as he or she anticipates the other’s needs and desires and begins to meet them.

A knowledge of one’s self and an ability to communicate it to a loved one is so important to the knitting together of lives into a loving relationships.  When partners can know what is desired and needed from the other they each become empowered to meet those individual preferences and become more dedicated to anticipating and satisfying them.  Potentially, it is an escalating positive feedback loop that can cement two people together in a mutually satisfying relationship that will thrive with the  inevitable challenges, setbacks and opportunities that will arise during the family life cycle.

This is what I would call a “healthy co-dependence.”

The Double Bind

Man Scratching HeadThe Double Bind is defined as “…a psychological predicament in which a person receives from a single source conflicting messages that allow no appropriate response to be made” (Merriam-Webster.com).  Wikipedia.com correctly credits Gregory Bateson with the exploration of the concept back in the 1950s as systems theory began to form the basis for Marriage and Family Therapy.

For example, the mother who complains because her son does not demonstrate his love for her, pushes him away when he reaches out to give her a hug.  It is a type of schizophrenic messaging that leaves the child confused about correct responses that will please his parent.

In reality we all give off double-bind messages to one degree or another.  Wanting a child to do his or her chores is one thing.  Insisting that they enjoy doing their chores may not be an effective strategy for making sure the job gets done.  Or asking someone to choose where to go out to eat and then shooting down every suggestion they make puts the person in a double bind; i.e., no right answer.

Families taking pride in their openness and transparency can sometimes discourage the very thing they want.  This can often be because of poor listening skills that unintentionally communicate very different values.

Alcoholic families often wrestle with these mixed messages.  For example, the father who comes home drunk explodes in anger over the most insignificant infractions in the family; sometimes over nothing at all.  At the same time he might totally ignore the most horrendous behaviors among family members. Add a healthy dose of unpredictability and the family is constantly in a state of confusion about family rules for day-to-day functioning and simple tasks.  These patterns of behavior can become so entrenched in families that, long after substance abuse has stopped, the alcoholic family dynamics and belief systems persist for generations.

To the outside observer, the family’s attempts to cope with these double-bind situations of mixed messaging and unpredictability look illogical and even irrational.  Within the family system, however, the unusual behaviors actually make sense at some level.  Try those unusual behaviors in other settings, however, where predictable, logical rules are applied in a consistent way and the unusual behaviors don’t make any sense at all.

The most common reaction in these situations, it seems to me, is to withdraw and isolate one’s self from the tensions they perceive in the family.  People get quiet, go underground, retreat, stuff their feelings and even slump into depression.  On the other hand, family members who attempt to confront the family’s system are sometimes ostracized and labeled as “the problem.”

The double bind is just one of many examples of the types of challenges Marriage and Family Therapists address frequently.  It is all part of how relationships work in marriages and families.  But, more than that, you can also see these dynamics in many social structures such as in church, government, the workplace or school.  In whatever setting, there are things that can be done to confront the double bind systems that we deal with every day, encouraging healthy communication and consistent messaging while also reconciling conflicting ideas and addressing cross purposes.

Rules & Expectations in Marriage and Family Therapy

traffic jamDriving through Detroit over a recent weekend I was impressed by how much we all depend upon everyone else obeying the rules and expectations of traffic.  For example, anyone who has been through driver’s training knows that the rules of the road are to obey the speed limits, use your turn signal when changing lanes, keep proper distance between your car and the one in front of you, slow down in construction zones, etc.

When people obey the rules it is often appreciated by other rule-abiders who are grateful for simple things like predictability, a shared commitment to minimizing dangerous situations, thoughtfulness and consideration on the road.  When accidents occur among rule-abiders, it is easy to believe the best and assume the fault was due to a critical malfunction of the car, an unanticipated road hazard or some health issue such as a heart attack, sudden kidney stone or some other natural, unpredictable event.

Others who appreciate those who obey the rules are those who do not have regard for the rules.  While they share some of the same values such as an aversion to pain from serious accidents, they are also grateful for people who keep a safe distance from the car in front of them so they can weave back and forth through traffic.  Also venerated are law abiding people who choose to obey the speed limit and stay in the right lanes except to pass.  This honorable practice gives freedom to the anarchic motorist allowing wide-open left lanes for traveling at excessive speeds, knowing that if a law abiding person wishes to change lanes he or she will use the turn signal giving the speeder time to quickly accelerate to race by before the car’s lane change begins.

This tongue-in-cheek analysis of traffic behavior provides an intriguing metaphor for relationships as well.  This is one reason why working with newly-weds is so important.

That first year is spent learning what rules each partner brings into the marriage from their respective families.  Sometimes couples decide to jettison some or all of the rules of their families and venture forth on their own to set new standards, traditions and expectations.  In other areas the couple may take time to pick and choose which rules they wish to adopt from their respective families.

There are great benefits to making these understandings explicit because they create the boundaries within which the family’s identity is shaped.  They form the nucleus of the family’s unique norms for behavior and consideration.  Furthermore, when one or the other partner steps out of those agreed-upon controls the other partner is justified in reminding them of the infraction.  Then they can decide  whether it is time to apologize and forgive, re-define or re-negotiate the rules or create altogether new understandings.

When couples choose not to make the governing family guidelines for behavior explicit at the outset the rules often become governed by randomness or moods that can change arbitrarily over time.  Add abuse to the equation–in any form–and families can experience a heady mixture of extreme behaviors, irrational expectations and glaring oversights where rules change and morph at whiplash rates of speed.

Returning to the highway metaphor, the chaos of driving at high rates of speed on roads without rules would make  driving a terrifying experience, even for the highway anarchist.  Without rules predictability and safety evaporate at the whim of each driver.  Now, imagine living in a family system governed in such a way…..

Marriage and family therapists help families clarify family rules and expectations to help people choose to thrive in an atmosphere of predictability, security and stability.

Love & Mind Reading in Marriage

Man and  Woman

There are times when mind reading can be a very helpful communication tool.  People who have been happily married for a while are often very skilled in reading each other’s minds because they have grown accustomed to each other’s patterns of thinking.  Often these thinking patterns are associated with predictable patterns of behavior, readily observed.  Regular, predictable patterns of behavior over a long period of time contribute to building bonds of trust that allow couples to believe the best in each other and, by extension, to read each other’s minds in a mutually beneficial way.

Note the word ‘happily‘ married.

When marital relationships are under pressure and the couple is ‘unhappily’ married, mind reading can be a deadly communication tool. Concerned that their partner may be attempting to assert power and control, one or both partners begin making negative interpretations of each other’s behavior; essentially, believing the worst in the other.  When this becomes part of the mix between people, resolving conflict and working through simple disagreements can become noxious and relationally dangerous.

It is at times like this that a cognitive resetting of the assumptions we make can be helpful.  Aaron Beck in his book Love is Never Enough outlines 5 Principles of the Cognitive Approach that are good to keep in mind when we become overly sensitive to what we think each other is trying to say instead of taking the time to truly understand.

  1. We can never really know the state of mind–the attitudes, thoughts, and feelings–of other people.
  2. We depend on signals, which are frequently ambiguous, to inform us about the attitudes and wishes of other people.
  3. We use our own coding system, which may be defective, to decipher these signals.
  4. Depending on our own state of mind at a particular time, we may be biased in our method of interpreting other people’s behavior, that is, how we decide.
  5. The degree to which we believe that we are correct in divining another persons motives and attitudes is not related to the actual accuracy of our belief.*

In our daily interactions we naturally assume that the other person understands  what we are trying to say.  For the most part this is fairly accurate when exchanging information or casually making observations.  We often truncate our communications to save time and energy or to keep from overwhelming each other with unnecessary details.  We talk in sound bites and generalities, leaving much unsaid, requiring each other to read between the lines or catch the nuances and implications. .

When communication becomes strained and difficult it is important for someone to become intentional with their listening skills, paraphrasing what the other is saying, attempting to reflect the thoughts that lie behind the words.  This can be a challenge because it takes time, energy and a detachment from one’s own assumptions, expending the effort and allowing time to understand the assumptions of the other person.

Deciding that I don’t know what you mean until you believe that I understand what you are trying to say is the beginning of deep, abiding and meaningful conversation.  The enemy is the time it takes to understand; the currency is the time we take to communicate that we care enough to listen.

Couple Face to Face

 *Beck, Aaron T. Love is Never Enough. 1988, p. 13.