Last week in our staff meeting we listened to the end of Scott Stanley’s conference presentation on couples communication. You may remember I blogged previously on his funny but too-true analogy of dogs and marriage (We fall in love with the front end of the puppy/marriage, but they both have backs ends that need to be managed).
In this section of the presentation he makes this statement: events trigger issues. Couples tend to fight about events but really most conflicts are about issues that are deeper (e.g., Who gets the say around here, Do I have influence, Do you care, and other expectation clashes). The challenge is to get couples to see past events to the issues.
Problem: most couples only talk about issues during emotionally charged events. Why? It would be easy to say avoidance. But take that a step further. If the couple is no longer in conflict, why bring up something that is likely to trigger it? As Stanley says, “We’re really getting along right now, so I don’t want to screw it up by talking about a problem.” Seems good in the moment, but bad over time.
Stanley’s point is to deal with this problem by (a) handling events well (time out, staying in the moment, etc.), and (b) being proactive by maintaining safe, open communication about issues. This takes sacrifice, he says. Healthy sacrifice (not martyrdom) is pretty powerful and helpful in moving toward the desires of the other.
Here’s a couple of my thoughts:
Stanley has some great techniques and seems to have a good handle on what goes wrong in conflict. I think many couples can benefit from better care of the “back end” and making sure to remember and reinforce the front end as well. He rightly points out that we can easily miss the good sacrifices others do daily and then only recognize the good when it stops for some reason. If we’re not careful we take for granted the sacrifices of others and come to expect and even demand them as rights.
Stanley’s techniques seem not to work with couples where insight is low, trauma or violence has been a part of it, when folks have personality disorders, or when the couple are deeply entrenched in their bitterness towards each other. All events have meaning. The couple that is not willing to reconsider the meanings they apply to events (she is evil, that is why she leaves the kitchen that way), little couple work is possible. In fact, maybe even contraindicated. Techniques that should help become
weapons to hurt and destroy. Couple counseling is based on the capacity to observe self and other and to withhold judgment to see life from another perspective. Without this, it is hard to make much progress outside of painstaking experiential work.