One of the major problems that many couples face is lacking the ability to fight well.
The idea that couples fighting well might sound strange at first. There tends to be a false narrative in our culture that happy couples do not fight.
We imagine this couple that is always sensitive to each other needs, never gets annoyed or upset, and even if they do, they both forgive each other as quickly as the offense happens.
However, this view of marriage and relationships is simply an illusion.
Indeed, some couples do not scream and yell at each other, but this does not automatically mean they are a great couple. They could be withdrawing from each other and ignoring the underlying issues that keep them from connecting deeply.
The bottom line is all couples will face disagreements. All couples will find times when one or both of the spouses are annoyed or upset.
But what separates the champions of relationship from those domed to struggle or breakup or divorce is the way in which they are fighting or how they handle the aftermath of the fight.
Sadly, many couples repeatedly galvanize each other into cycles of defense, criticism, contempt, and stonewall, which researcher John Gottman has shown to be some of the most significant signs of divorce.
So what are you supposed to do if you find yourself in this type of situation?
Part of the problem many of us have is once our emotions flood us, we have a tough time communicating in a way that invites the other person to think about solutions and be open to any repair attempts.
Being flooded and continuing the discussion is a terrible idea.
When I’m working with couples in therapy, I have trained myself to notice when someone is being flooded. Once I observe it happening, I intervene to get that person or the couple time to calm down.
I know nothing can happen until the person or the couple is calmed down.
Being able to calm down is essential for effective communication.
To help you and your spouse achieve effective communcation, I made this visual guide giving you five things you need to do to help stay calm during a fight.
This guide will be especially essential to men, for as Gottman points out,
“Men are more likely to feel physiologically overwhelmed sooner than women during a heated exchange. And it takes less intense negativity for men to get physiologically overwhelmed. [Furthermore,] men are more likely to rehearse destructive, innocent-victim, or vengeful thoughts once they feel flooded.”
Of course, women will benefit from the guide because regardless of gender, they usually do and say things they later regret once a person is flooded.
One of the hardest sessions is when you have a father and the so called “troubled teen” sitting in a counseling office.
Let’s just say that tension can run a bit high.
Usually, the teenager feels like the father will never listen, and the father believes the teen is just obstinate and irrational.
Now here’s where the art comes in.
If the therapist sides with the parent over against the teen, then the counselor loses the teen, and he or she will shut down.
If the therapist sides with the teen against the father, then the counselor will upset the father and the likelihood of them coming back is very slim.
So what’s a counselor to do?
You have to make sure they both feel heard and understood.
How I do it is by letting both teen and father know from the get go that I respect them both deeply and that I can’t take sides initially if this is going to work.
Then I try and “pick on” both of them throughout the session, seeking to get them to see the repetitive fighting cycle they are both stuck in, and if they want something to change, then they are going to have to do something different.
For example, the father might have to slow down a bit and acknowledge the thoughts and feeling of his teenager even if he judges them to be “irrational.”
Or, the son or daughter might need to learn that a father understanding them doesn’t necessarily mean he agrees with his or her requests.
What I have found over and over, is if I can slow the communication process down by helping the father, so love and kindness to the teen and have the teen show respect, then things typically seem to work out.
Here’s what one mother just wrote to me:
“I was pleasantly surprised! Because in the past my husband has been completely unimpressed and not supportive of therapy. But he was impressed with you. He said you are the most knowledgeable of all our therapists and he thought you did a great job.”
One of the biggest mistakes that many of my clients make about counseling is believing that I am going to fix their problems without them having to do anything.
Intellectually, they come in ready to do the work, but fear, lack of motivation, and frustrations with slow progress get in the way of advancing towards their goals. Emotionally, they just want me to do it all for them.
In the therapy world, we call these clients “visitors.”
A primary characteristic of visitors is a lack of commitment to participate productively in treatment.
As a result, they begin to complain and whine about the interventions not working–even though they only tried them once or twice and without any regularity.
At this point, many of my clients tend to drop out.
However, to advance or improve at anything is going to require work, sacrifice, challenging cultural paradigms, and destructive narratives.
What’s needed is courage.
Courage is the ability to stand your ground for a greater good, despite some impending doom.
Obviously, this makes the most sense in warfare. A soldier, defending the common good of the city, is willing to stand his ground and fight the enemy, even though he may feel fear.
Courage, though, is not limited to warfare.
The impending doom could be an unwelcome emotion, a difficulty in a relationship, or change itself.
Change is just scary. And a phenomenon often seen in therapy is clients sabotaging healthy change precisely because change disturbs the usual ways of operation.
If you like it or not, even destructive ways of operating are just more comforting. As an alcoholic once told me, “I don’t struggle with drunkenness. I struggle with sobriety.”
When he’s drunk, he longs to be sober since he sees how destructive his drinking has become. The moment he is sober, the unpleasant emotions and cravings set in and the thought of giving up drink seems insurmountable.
But the only way forward is to preserve and maintain the course of action with diligence, care, and attention.
We therapist call these types of clients “Customers.”
Customers commit to change and are willing to do whatever it takes to see it through.
They have courage, heart, and, even, nerve.
So, what should those clients do who lack courage or the willingness to change?
Luckily, that’s where I come in.
I am trained to work with both visitors and customers.
What I have found is visitors need someone willing to dive right in with them and help them confront their fears.
Standing your ground by yourself can be very scary, but when you have someone skilled and trained right next to you, walking you step by step, the impending doom needn’t feel so imminent.
So if you need a counselor, who is willing to walk next to you and help and assist you in your change, then I am your guy.
I promise I will work just as hard as you and sometimes even harder to get you to your goal.
Believe it or not but the vast majority of mental illness is just a lack of interpersonal skills in knowing how to relate to others.
I joke with my clients all the time that the DSM V (the manual that catalogs psychological disorders) is just a 1000 way to feel the disconnection from, ourselves, others, and God.
For example, many clients of mine feel loads of anxiety because they lack the skills in knowing how to ask others to do something.
Others panic when saying no to an unwanted request.
You would be amazed at how many of my clients are unable to process hurt feelings and problems and instead build up until the emotions are no longer manage.
What Seems To Be The Issue?
One of the hardest tasks that cause interpersonal suffering is the inability to repair broken relationships.
The failure respond to broken relationships can be between parent and teen, husband to wife, spouse to in-laws, spouse to a family origin, or person to non-family member ( a lady at church, co-worker, friends, neighbor, etc.).
What Went Wrong?
The reason so many people lack these skills is that they never had someone to teach or model these abilities.
We are social beings that learn to operate in the world by observing and being directed by others. Then there’s a process of us practicing these skills until perfection.
I am a very sarcastic person, and my oldest son (who is 9) is beginning to enjoy and understand the art of being witty.
However, he lacks the knowledge of when and when not to engage in being funny.
My job as the parent is to model and teach him how to use his sarcasm in a way that is appropriate for the time and isn’t hurtful to others.
The modeling and teaching of my son are the natural development of learning inner personal skills.
What’s The Solution?
But what if you didn’t have this modeling or teaching?
As a counselor, I place a lot of emphasis on skills training and modeling.
My clients learn how to manage their relationships and as a result their “mental illness symptoms” decrease.
Observing and being taught interpersonal skills is one of the reasons counseling is so effective.
How Brandon Wall, LMFT Can Help
So, if you suffer from some form of mental illness in the Cedar Rapids, Iowa area, it might just be an inability to manage relationships effectively.