Ideas to try before, during or after couples therapy:
Part 1: Some simple communication hacks
It is essential to consider that working on a relationship requires the commitment of all parties. Many of the ideas described in this article will be most effective if you and your partner(s) try them together. The same premise applies to couples therapy itself: it will be most effective if both parties are motivated to work on the relationship. It is also very important to assess whether your relationship feels safe enough to work on in therapy or outside the context of therapy *.
Communication skills: Getting your partner to hear you.
Using "I" statements.
Expressing your thoughts and feelings using I statements can be a very productive way of getting your message across in general and particularly to your partner. Using "I" statements increases the likelihood that your partner will hear by reducing the possibility that they will become defensive.
i.e. I feel sad when you aren't home
is much more palatable than:
You make me feel sad when you aren't home.
We tend to make accusatory You statements when we are angry, sad and upset. The feelings themselves are likely valid, but when we point fingers, our partners may shut down, avoid us and generally resist hearing what we are trying to tell them. Going on the offensive with accusations is unlikely to improve the relationship.
Other communication techniques include avoiding terms such as always and never when they aren't accurate. If you complain to your partner that they never take out the trash or always forget to lock the front door at bedtime, they will likely switch off and stop listening.
There are many other ways to attempt to reduce defensiveness. For example, we can choose moments when they are less tired or request to set some time ahead to talk. Sometimes you start a discussion without having had time to reflect on your feelings and maybe unwittingly trying to pick a fight with your partner. With some time for reflection, you may realize and say I'm feeling so frustrated and combative that I almost picked a fight with you. Expressing your feelings to your partner or anyone else is easier said than done and requires practice in self-awareness.
Validate each other's feelings.
Validating other people's feelings is difficult for many people. Many of us fear that by validating another person's perspective, they may open a floodgate or will inherently undermine their own experience. Validating another person's emotions doesn't mean you have to feel the same way or that you have to surrender or sacrifice your own feelings.
Being able to confirm another person's emotions starts with understanding the concept of subjectivity: that each of us has unique conscious experiences, perspectives, feelings, beliefs, and desires. Your position may be that your perspective is correct, but there is likely more than one 'truth.'
Validating someone's feelings means understanding and accepting that they are feeling the way they are. When we have preconceived ideas about how a person should feel, we invalidate their reactions, often amplifying their feelings or responses.
If we go back to our previous example:
Partner 1: I feel sad when you aren't home.
Partner 2: You have no right to feel that way; you are acting unreasonably. Why do you always have to be so sensitive?
This exchange will likely amplify the upset feelings for both partners and escalate the disagreement immediately or over time, leading to polarization rather than closeness within the couple.
It would be better if Partner 2 could say something like the following:
I'm so tired from a long day at the office, and I get that you feel sad when I'm gone. We both had hard days, but they were difficult in different ways.
I had a pretty good day today, but it wasn't like that for you. How frustrating! I wish it had been better for you.
Next up: I will outline an active listening exercise I use with couples I work with in therapy to slow communication down, increase reflectiveness and help them to listen deeply to one another.
*Sometimes, working on a marriage or relationship is not appropriate on your own or in a traditional couples therapy framework. For people experiencing domestic violence (aka intimate partner violence), or other forms of abuse such as emotional abuse, financial abuse or other forms of power and control, inadequate safety exists to work on the relationship. In these cases, specialized individual and group therapy would be the best approach, as well as steps taken within extended family and community to ensure the safety of both parties as well as any dependent children. These can include legal boundaries.
I recommend you also read my other posts on couples therapy and DIY couples therapy hacks as you consider whether couples therapy is right for you or if you and your partner can address challenges together without a third person. If you would like to book an appointment, you can do so on my contact page.