The couple sitting in my office were clearly in no mood for social niceties. It was strictly down to business with these two.
There seemed to be nothing they agreed on.
She insisted he marry her as a sign of his seriousness. He wanted to wait until she stopped verbally attacking him.
He hated her family and had a special loathing for her brother. She said it was unfair for him to split her from those closest to her, and that she hated being forced to be the go-between in these situations.
She attacked him for not taking his career seriously enough or earning enough money. He said that was unfair, since he’d had to work part-time for the past year while he cared for his dying mother.
It seemed like this might be a long evening.
During initial appointments like this one, a couples counselor has a variety of options for how to proceed.
One general rule, especially when things look dire, is to remind the couple that my goal isn’t to keep them together – it’s to create a greater awareness of where they are. So I did that – reminded them. And they shrugged. Staying together wasn’t looking likely. These two weren’t expecting miracles.
Next, I tried to establish the parameters of their issues with one another, and prioritize those issues. I did some sentence completion exercises, in which they finished the phrase “this relationship would be more successful if…” But this couple wasn’t having much trouble with that. They knew their issues backwards and forwards.
I worked to get them to hear one another. I had them repeat back a paraphrase of what the other had just said. But they were hearing one another – they just weren’t agreeing.
I instructed them to to lead with their feelings when they addressed one another, employing “I-statements” in which they described their own feelings in response to the behavior of their partner – e.g., “I feel sad and hurt when you…” They had no trouble detailing their unhappiness with one another.
I investigated how they were relating outside of my office, specifically how they were experiencing the partnership. I asked them both to estimate what percentage of the time they spent together was “fun” for each of them. They agreed it was fun about 60% of the time. Not inspiring, but not hopeless.
Finally – in desperation – I used my secret weapon. I asked them how they first met.
“Well,” said the guy, who was suddenly wearing a shy smile – the first hint of a smile I’d seen all night, “we’re both Puerto Rican. And we were at a Puerto Rican club in Queens – someone’s birthday party. And there was this beautiful girl across the room….”
She giggled. “You were staring at me for about an hour. I had to say something. There was no way to avoid it.”
The secret weapon had worked. In an instant, the mood had shifted. From two people who looked like they wanted to kill each other emerged two people back on their first date, remembering what it was that brought them together in the first place.
A partnership is not intended to feel like a chamber of horrors. It’s supposed to be fun. There’s really no other reason to bother attaching your life to someone else’s. You do it because you want to.
The first time you met your partner, you probably got together because you wanted to.
Later, if you hit rocky times, one good trick is returning to that first date and trying to figure out what happened to make things go wrong.
Generally speaking, problems arise when a couple switches from alliance – working together towards a shared purpose – to opposition – battling over everything.
These two in my office were like the US Senate: nothing could progress because all they did was argue.
Now that I had them at least smiling, I asked what their shared purpose was, the mutual goal that – back in those early days – originally brought them together in alliance.
They both grew silent. It seemed a struggle just to admit that things had once worked.
He finally began to speak. “Well, we were both Puerto Rican,” he said. “And that meant a lot to us both. We wanted to raise a traditional family. We wanted to get a house together, with enough space to have lots of people over and cook a mess of food and have fun, the way we grew up – the way our parents would bring the whole family together for good times.”
“And we were both serious people,” She added. “I take my job seriously as a nurse, and he was in law school, and he knew from day one that he wanted his own law firm. We were both ambitious, but we shared the same values around work and family.”
So what happened?
The more we talked, the more reflective, and the less combative, they grew. There had been a plan – a project – a sort of shining city on a hill in the distance, and they were walking towards it together hand in hand…until they lost their way.
That’s when the focus on where they were going disappeared, and they turned to battling one another.
A couple is drawn together for a reason. They want to chase a dream. If you lose that dream, you can end up enemies instead of friends.
Reject opposition. Embrace alliance.
That person you’re living with is not your enemy – he’s your ally. If he isn’t – you shouldn’t be living with him.
Maybe it’s time to renew your purpose, and make sure you’re both in it together. It’s a lot more fun that way.
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