Thursday, September 20, 2007

Couples, Part 2, Inside Look at the Way a Top Couples Therapist Works

In Part I of this post, I looked last time briefly at the work of couples counselor Dan Wile, whom John Gottman has said he believes is the most effective marital therapist on the planet. What I want to do in Part II of this post here is to get across the essence of the statements that Wile uses in his work..

Wiles statements on behalf of his clients tend to communicate two pieces. The first is describing something with positive intent. It could be what you would like to do, or what you hope for that would support your partner or that would show that your connection with them is important to you.

I really wish we did more things together like we did before the kids were born. We used to go for walks, get coffee together, go to movies. I miss that...

The second part is about why it is that you feel stuck, what your worry is about how things will go if you make yourself vulnerable and go for what you identified in the first part of the statement.

...and I'm reluctant to bring up that I want to, because when I do it seems that you experience it like I'm nagging you or blaming you that we don't do it more often.

Again, the first part (positive intent):

I have something that is bothering me, and I want to talk about it, because I want us to enjoy the time we spend together, and instead I'm tense and probably not much fun to be around...

And the second part (the worry):

... but I feel like if I do bring it up, we're just going to get into a fight, which feels even worse than feeling annoyed at what I want to talk with you about.

In describing his method, Wile says that he tries to say something on behalf of one member of the couple (at a time) that gets everyone in the room empathizing.

From looking at the examples above it is probably easy to see how just altering them a little can throw change their character altogether. The second part of the statement (the worry) can easily shift into blaming the other. "But I feel like if I do bring it up, we're just going to get into a fight," can easily shift into, "But I know you're not going to listen. You always just get defensive," which is unlikely to get anyone empathizing and more likely to backfire.

Wile's strategy is to get your partner to see your positive intention, and put into words how despite your intention for things to go well for you as a couple, you're in an uncomfortable position. He tries to do this in such a way that your partner can picture what it is like for you, to get them empathizing. And then, of course, he moves to the other side and tries to do the same on behalf of your partner.

It is worth pointing out that Wile is the first to say and understand that most of the time, as a member of a couple, we're not going to come up with this sort of statement in the heat of the moment, and he's right. We're not, which is why he does this in therapy sessions. On the other hand, there are times when we've got something on our mind that we'd like to get across and we give it thought before we raise it. It is at these times that I'm proposing that thinking about how you could form your concern in the manner described in this article that might make the difference between just another evening of mutual irritation (or worse) and getting your partner to see what it is that you are getting at that is important to you.

Also note that Wile's work is not the common version of "teaching communication skills". It involves communication skills, but is more subtle than simply teaching "I messages" for instance. So next time you find that you've got something that is bothering you about your spouse, boyfriend, etc., instead of swallowing it, which usually ends up coming out in some other manner anyway, give one of Wile's statements a try. You might be pleasantly surprised by how your partner responds differently.