Ok, ok. So maybe the “deadly sins” in the title was a little overboard. But “Seven ways to cause your couples therapist to abruptly raise one open palm and close her exasperated eyes, her chin dramatically tilted downward in feigned-prayer-position” seemed a little long.
I often find myself correcting a certain cluster of unhelpful thinking and communication habits when working with couples in therapy. (And also with my kids, because homeboys are going to grow up and be real-live husbands someday! *gasp!*)
So I thought I’d summarize these habits, for the benefit of all you interwebbers who want to improve your relationships and may or may not have such a such a strict, no-tolerance, palm-lifting therapist.
Behold; Here are some of the most common “deadly sins,” that I witness, helpfully accompanied by their simple, constructive alternatives:
1) Making assumptions. No, Alfred, you don’t know that Karen didn’t want to go camping with you because she’s punishing you for staying out with your friends last Friday. Perhaps you should ask her instead of expressing your assumption as fact. Yes, go ahead, Al. Ask her with me: “What was the reason you didn’t want to go camping, Karen?” There. That’s so much better than putting Karen on the defensive and thereby risking your own sleeping-on-the-couch-by-my-lonesome extended-camp-extravaganza. Nice job, Al!
2) Leading with “You always” or You never.” No, Veronica, it is not true that David has NEVER supported your art endeavors, simply because he raised doubts about your Pinata-in-the-likeness-of-the-birthday-boy Etsy shop. And since “criticism” is one of marriage guru John Gottman’s “Four Horsemen of the Relationship Apocalypse,” let’s change that accusation to something more constructive: An “I-statement” (I feel lonely and misunderstood) and a “direct request” (“could you come to my next art show and give me feedback on my new website?”) are definitely in order.
3) Not taking ownership (deflecting “blame”) Roger, we are talking about your porn habit, and how habituation to masterbation has made sex with Maria feel less pleasurable and more cumbersome. We need to talk about some behavioral strategies for reducing pornography use for the benefit of your mutual sex life and intimacy, NOT start talking about Maria’s habit of biting your head off when she catches you in a lie. There will be time to address that since that doesn’t sound helpful at all, but as long as you justify your decisions to turn to porn on the basis of someone else’s behavior, you will never reach your goal. Mmmkay, Roger? Mkay.
4) Getting stuck on details that don’t matter (usually to prove you are “right.”) Marsha, do we really need to spend 8 precious minutes of a 45 minute session explaining that you asked Nick to get the vanilla soymilk, not the regular cow milk, and you know you did because you have the text to prove it?? Put away your phone, Marsha. It would be infinitely more helpful to point out the broader feeling behind the scenario and address THAT. Oh, you don’t feel like Nick is team-player who is cued-into the fact that your kid is lactose intolerant? Now THAT, unlike the war about the grocery communication details, we can work with.
5) Maintaining entitlement to be stuck (usually due to resentment). I knooooow you are flaming angry at Lisa for all those times she publicly pointed out that her paycheck is larger than yours, and also all those Thanksgivings she drank too much and flirted with your brother while gauging your reaction from the corner of her eye. You have a right to be angry, because Lisa did NOT handle her insecurity and loneliness well at all. But as long as you say to yourself, “I shouldn’t have to try, because she is the bad guy here,” you guys aren’t going to make improvements. Instead, scrap the pride and entitlement in favor of empathy and radical acceptance. (Or, as someone once told me, “radical kindness,” or “being kind regardless of deservedness.”)
6) Judging a simple difference as “bad” or “wrong.” No, Mary, Cleatus is not necessarily devoid of character simply because his idea of enjoying his grandchild is waching a ballgame on TV rather than engaging in deep and meaningful dialogue. If you find that a simple difference is bothering you, Mary, I might challenge your perceived need for control and also whether or not your criticism is a misguided quest for validation for the way YOU do things. You don’t need to tell Cleatus he’s a shallow baseball loving bastard in order for YOU to be appreciated for your gift of meaningful verbal communication with your grandchildren. I promise.
7) The notion of “my happiness depends on another person” (lack of differentiation/lacking boundaries.) Micky, as long as you keep insisting that you’re doomed to despair because Darla won’t take line dancing classes with you and sometimes she rudely tells you to shut-up-about-the-damn-World-Series of poker-you-annoying-oaf, you’re going to be hopeless. Go take that line dancing class yourself; And shrug and cheerfully exclaim to Darla that you suppose she’ll just have to miss out on the genius of hidden-wolf’s five-card-draw strategy. With a little barrier between Darla’s rude eye-rolls and your own well-being, you suddenly become empowered, and the pressure (and possible caretaker/smothering resentment) is alleviated from Darla’s shoulders. Bonus: if Darla remains unwilling to adjust her detached and biting ways, a person who knows how to manage his own well-being at times when necessary, feels equipped with options instead of tethered to misery.
Ok, that’s all for now on the topic of overt sins of monogamous people; From the therapist that is actually trying to come across as silly, not superior and annoyed, and who also doesn’t actually think in terms of “sin,” but rather thinks in terms of behavioral reinforcement, and is therefore contemplating investing in an adult therapy prize box. (Piñata in the likeness of your spouse, anyone?)😜
Ps: I love how Gottman’s research concretely showed that criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling are all no-no’s, but in this post, I tried to show the specific WAyS that contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling emerge within our important conversations, especially in therapy!