Using Therapy to Enhance Your Relationship
What You'll Learn
Therapists Are Not Referees
Looking to enhance your relationship?
Too often, couples will come into therapy thinking that we are some kind of referee.
They think each person will be able to state their case, and then we will make a call as to who is right and who is wrong.
In short, they want to prove their partner is wrong and to finally change their mind and see things their way.
When couples therapy goes that way, it is a train wreck waiting to happen.
If you are looking to enhance your relationship and foster a secure relationship with your partner, trying to change their mind won’t get you there.
Change Your Message
Secure relationships are not about changing each other’s mind; Rather, it is all about changing each other’s message.
When couples get this, real change can start happening.
Let’s explore in more depth:
You may not realize this, but the way you treat your partner sends a message to them.
It’s usually a message about how you perceive their worth and value in your relationship.
Example of Changing Your Message
I was working with a couple that was stuck in a cyclical and familiar pattern for many couples.
During a conflict, the husband often shuts down, pulls away, and closes up.
This would deeply hurt his wife, who would become agitated and anxious.
Unfortunately, her frustration would cause him to close up more.
As I explored his wife’s experience, I asked her the following question:
“When you see him close down and pull away, what is the message that he is sending you?”
“That I don’t matter to him,” She responded. “That he doesn’t even care.”
That is a powerful message to receive from the person you love.
I explored the same question with her husband.
“When you see your wife get angry and start to criticize, what is the message that she is sending you?”
His response: “Well, that I suck. I can’t get it right.”
Triggered Into Fight or Flight
I then have them finish this sentence:
When I see my partner doing x,y, or z, the message I receive from them is “I am _______ to him/her.”
Time and time again, I hear answers that elicit shame like:
- A Burden
- A Nuisance
- A Failure
- An Enemy
These are powerful messages for our brain and nervous system to process.
They trigger fight or flight responses in our bodies and sink us deeper into self-protection.
And the more our nervous system is focused on self-protection, the further away we get from meaningful connection and safety.
So, what can couples do about it?
What You Can Do to Avoid Trigger
First, you can become more aware of the fact that the issue really isn’t about what you are arguing over but rather the message you are sending your partner during the argument.
The truth is couples do not need to see eye to eye on everything to have a deeply fulfilling relationship.
In fact, most couples will not see eye to eye on many different things – some of those things will be a part of their relationship for years and years.
Focus on the Message
To enhance your relationship, I’ll ask my couples to reflect on the message they receive from their partner when they feel connected. “I am _________ to him/her.”
I always hear the inverse of the above list:
- Worthy of love
And then I ask them to consider this question:
“Let’s say we let go of needing to change the other person’s mind. And instead, decide that no matter what, at the end of the conversation, your partner will receive the right message about how you view them. If that was your focus, how would it change the way you communicate about this issue?”
If criticizing your partner sends the message that they are Worthless, what behavior would send the message that they are Enough?
If rolling your eyes and leaving the room sends the message that your partner is a Burden, what behavior would send the message that they are Valued?
The Right Message Brings Safety
When partners start to take small steps in sending the right message, safety can come back into the relationship.
They can share their pain and disappointment from a place of connection.
A great place to start is to express to your partner why you criticize, leave the room, etc.
It’s not because you are mean; it’s because you receive a powerfully painful message from your partner.
- “I get mean because I am scared you don’t care anymore.”
- “I close down because I feel like you think I am a failure.”
- “I get panicky because I’m scared you will leave me.”
- “I don’t say anything because I’m scared I’ll make it worse.”
Healing is About Changing the Message
When we realize that at the root of our unhelpful behavior is the desire to feel loved and cherished by our partners, it can help us soften toward them.
Both partners usually want the same thing – Connection.
Once you know the messages you are sending your partner, you can work on changing them.
For some couples, this shift will be more effective to implement with the help of a trained couples therapist.
A therapist can help you navigate the complex emotional experience of disconnection within the relationship.
Healing can happen. And it does all of the time.
Healing is not about changing each other’s mind; it is about changing each other’s message.