Arguing gets a lot of attention in therapy - another busy year has slipped by, and 2018 has now crept in to place, and I'm looking forward to a further year of working with more couples and families. And I'm guessing that arguments will again play a central role in bringing people to my office.
Over the last year, I've found myself increasingly focusing on arguing - and what I'm referring to there, is what it means, why people do it, and how productive or not it really is. And I'm talking about a specific type of argument here - that is the type that we have with our partners, and family members. Arguments exist in other settings, such as the courts, or parliament - but it's the more domesticated variety that I'm referring to here, because that's the type that we all have some familiarity with.
I get to witness a lot of arguments - I guess it's one of the perks of my job! Couples and families will come in to my office, and many are OK to really let rip on who ever else is attending with them, once a contentious issue has been raised. Often they will hope I will take sides - which I try to avoid doing. And sometimes it can be useful for me to be able to observe how couples or family members might relate to each other, and what their conflict management skills are like, but otherwise it's probably a big waste of their time - they can (and do) do this at home, (without having to pay for it). Coming to therapy is ideally about getting some tools or strategies for doing things differently, so they don't flip yet again into that same old unhelpful pattern that they have engaged in a thousand times before.
When arguments go bad, they usually include the following ingredients: voices become raised/participants begin to feel worked up and agitated/participants stop listening to each other, and wait for a pause so they can put out more ideas of their own/there is no productive outcome/it gets suspended when one or the other partners walk away or withdraw/there is no productive outcome.
This is not to say that arguing is a bad thing. But if it's happening all the time, (say, daily, or even several times a week), and there is no productive outcome, other than each party feeling distressed yet again, then that's a concern. Maybe it's unrealistic to think we will never argue with those close to us. But as a therapist, I'm likely to be also concerned about couples or families who say they never argue. If they don't argue, then what do they do with their differing ideas and opinions? Does that mean it's not OK to have a voice? Or do they simply have really excellent communication skills?
So if you are going to argue, it's really important to have it work for you - otherwise it's a waste of time. And to increase the chances of it working for you, consider how it works for the other party too, by including the following ingredients:
1) Avoid arguments - (a logical first step!). This happens if you communicate with each other respectfully and calmly at all times. But, if you do wind up there yet again...
2) Stay on the topic - it's not the time to drag out the list of unresolved issues from last month, or last year. And if there is a steadily growing list, that is also telling you something significant about how futile your arguments are turning out to be.
3) Watch your own delivery - if you are angry/loud/sarcastic/use personal criticisms/not listening, within minutes you will be getting some or all of these back in return. You each wind up defending yourselves, and the issue that had been important just five minutes ago is now swamped and has zero chance of being resolved. One more issue to add to that list...
4) Be able to hear the other person's perspective. Aside from your own very compelling perspective, there is another person whose view is just as valid as yours. Let them know you are hearing them.
5) Allow for different processing speeds. Some people can work through a conflict quite quickly and move right along. Whereas others might need to spend some time unpacking the issue, and coming up with a response. So how can these differing (yet equally valid) needs be taken in to account?
6) Understand when we are done. It's quite an aggressive thing to do, if one of the parties walks off in a huff, because it is not going their way, (or going anywhere). Check in with each other once it starts to feel circular and pointless: "are we getting anywhere with this?" Or "Should we have a break and check in again in an hour?"
All of these are important ways for managing conflict when it erupts, and the reality is that conflict can never be completely avoided. But if couples and families focus in on quality communication, and can sit with varying ideas, and can value different opinions, the arguments are going to be far less frequent and will cause less distress to the players involved.
I'm always available to work with families and couples who want to zero in on improving their communication so that arguments can have less impact on their lives. Feel free to contact me if you have questions about this or want to make an appointment.
Is it OK to be in a relationship that is just "good enough?"
Most of us want to have the best relationships that we can - be those with our partners, or within families, with our kids, parents and siblings. And certainly a big chunk of my working week consists of sitting and talking with people who want to make their relationships better than they might currently be.
People should always have high standards for their relationships. No-one should settle and accept a second-rate relationship, simply for the sake of being in a relationship, and this is especially so for couple relationships. And people who have visited these pages before will know that I'm always banging on about the importance of working at our relationships - that remains true. We work to get into them, (yes, it was work, even though it might not have appeared so at the time) and we always need to work at them to keep them going, so that they meet our needs, and the needs pf our partners.
So we need to accept that our relationships will never be perfect - that we can get to a point and realise we are content most of the time, also happy a lot of the time, and think, yes this is good enough. We know though, that striving for perfection in a relationship seems an admirable thing to do - the internet is flooded with thousands of websites telling us we should go after the shiniest relationships possible. And so I'd agree that there's a huge raft of experts out there, who would disagree with me, and would say that we should never settle for Good Enough.
Maybe they are right - my concern is though, that by continually striving for the perfect relationship, we will always be disappointed - that this striving stops us from actually enjoying the relationship in the moment, as we are distracted from it by continually evaluating it.
For someone who might not be in a couple relationship, but is still hoping to be, settling for a Good Enough relationship does not mean that they should just "get with someone/anyone/so I don't wind up alone". It's more about knowing that "I will potentially drive myself psychotic if I don't stop until I find someone who ticks at least 99 of my 100 boxes." And if I expect them to be so damned good, it's only fair that I should also be close to perfect, right?
So maybe it's important to remind ourselves that relationship perfection is probably impossible. While we will always need to work at the relationship, we should also remember that in the end all relationships contain flawed human beings, just like ourselves.
So the good enough relationship is just good - it's not always amazing, but very occasionally it is. Mostly its' warm, it's comfortable and it's secure, even though it's settled by people who will sometimes bring baggage with them. The good enough relationship will contains flaws, gnarly bits, and mistakes. Its inhabitants are imperfect people who will sometimes mess up. They are also people who occasionally annoy the crap out of each other, but also have each other's backs. And most importantly of all, unlike it's smug big brother (the perfect relationship), the good enough relationship is big enough for people to muck up, step up, and grow up together.
Here's to Good Enough!
I've talked with quite a few families lately who for one reason or another have got distracted from their home-based routines. Common hot-spots for them have been the mornings, when parents are trying to get themselves and kids out the door, or at the other end of the day when it's time for everyone to get fed, do homework, answer emails, hang out together, and then finally get some sleep of half reasonable quality. When those harder parts of the day don't run well, there can then be some unsettling for people in other parts of their day.
Parents of these families, notice that they all function better when they can maintain some kind of routine or structure. Yet, not be rigid with it, either. Because if for some reason, they don't keep a routine going, then things can get pretty chaotic pretty quickly. There's a simple reason for this - even though we frequently push up against routines and structure, and complain about them (like I do...) we need them, and so long as we have all walked the earth together, we have had them. And routines (or structure, which I'm also lumping in with routine here) tell us what to do - which sounds simple and obvious, I know, yet it's so important.
So it's useful to think about it like this - routine makes our lives more manageable, in that we feel more in charge of ourselves and our immediate environments. An example of how this works is when we find ourselves in strange environments - such as a new country. It feels a bit weird to start with, in part because we don't quite know how things work around here - though sure, the cultural difference will be a likely be a factor. But an equally important factor will be that we don't yet know what the routine is. It's kind of similar in the case of major events like floods and earthquakes - those things are pretty scary, but aside from the intensity of the event itself, a lot of the scariness comes from our sudden loss of structure or routine, and therefore not knowing what will happen next. And we always want to know what happens next, because there's comfort and security in knowing that - humans have always needed to know what will happen next.
There's good evidence that kids function better with routine. Recent research has shown that those kids (and they researched this with 8500 of them, so it's a sizeable study) whose lives are based around regular routines, with these including regular bed-times, plus set times for reading, and eating etc, have higher levels of emotional health and are set up better to become contented adults.
But it's not just the kids. Similar research has shown that adults who have quite set routines and structure in their lives, including a set sleeping time, and are attending to other things consistently will be considerably better with time management - which I guess is an obvious outcome. But it also means these people will also have higher levels of contentment with their lives.
Like anything though, it does not help to become a slave to our routine - that's just as much a trap, as having no routine at all. Routine and structure definitely have a place in our lives, by giving us an important map. But being able to occasionally throw it all out the window is also an important indicator of our ability to be spontaneous and adaptable.
Talk soon - I'm off to have another go at getting some routine happening...
Seasons Greetings! - So where did that year go?? I'm not quite ready for December. But I wasn't ready for November or October either...
Thinking about the rapidly declining year got me also thinking about the many couples and families I've worked with this year. And there has been quite a number of them, that's for sure. The good thing is that most of them had some success in therapy (or outside of therapy, which is where the real work happens), one way or another - enough anyway that they could pick things up and get on with their lives. Mostly they did not require a huge number of meetings with me to get some positive changes happening.
Looking back now at the couples I've been priviledged to work, it's important to remember that they clearly had issues and challenges that were unique to them and for some, there were real crises. So that meant working with them to find ways forward that would work especially for their situation. But there were also some things that many of these couples attempted in common. Sure, maybe they were not all useful for all couples - but certainly most people found at least a few of these to be useful.
So what did work? As mentioned, many of them needed to address Bigger Picture stuff regarding aspects of their relationship like connectedness, communication, and the role of conflict, to name three. But in amongst all of that, there was the discovery from many of these couples, that although the following strategies did not resolve their issues as such, they never the less contributed to increased positivity and enhanced feelings of well being between them as partners - important stuff, for sure. And a better 'relationship climate' somehow made those bigger crises and challenges a bit more manageable, and a bit less overwhelming. But before we get to them - apologies if you have read some of these here (and elsewhere) before. Well - actually, there's no apology...the reason that I'm banging on about these strategies yet again, is because they work (people who make a living research couple functioning can verify they work), and it's not just me that is saying this.
So if you are likely to be having some extended time together as a couple over the summer holidays, (or even if you just want to be a bit more focused on your relationship) please feel free to give these a test drive, if you haven't already. You might be surprised: simple yet useful.
1) Checking the 'temperature' of your relationship.... Simply put, this is just checking in with your partner, along the lines of one asking the other "how are we doing today?" It puts the relation under focus - and invites each partner, however briefly, to think about how things are between them. Couples who did this noticed that it often led to a bigger conversation, though this wasn't always a necessity.
2) Watch your delivery. Couples noticed that there was more scope for a useful conversation regarding issues that were bugging them, if they raised these in measured, non-confrontational ways, rather than going in with guns blazing, and their partner then getting defensive and angry in return, and the issue then not being addressed, or turning instead into a bigger conflict.
3) Compliment your partner when they do something that helps the relationship. Couples who got in to the habit of doing this regularly noticed that it helped them feel closer overall. Also it seemed to help the relationship become a bit more resilient, in that the relationship could stand a bit of negativity, if this was balanced with praise and compliments, remembering it's people of all ages that need praise, compliments and encouragement, not just kids.
4) See your couple relationship as a priority. In amongst the busy-ness of lives, and the need to attend to kids/careers/running a home/supporting wider family/studying, those couples who prioritised their couple relationship (which, afterall, is a foundation to so many of those other parts of their lives, in that those parts would probably would not otherwise be there) noticed they felt more connected overall. Couples who were in strife when they first attended therapy, often noticed that their own couple relationship has slipped down the list - sometimes to the point that it was at the bottom. All those other demands are more manageable when the couple relationship is looked after - almost like it was an entity in its own right. Plus it's important role-modeling for kids, when they see their parents giving their own relationship the time and energy that it deserves, as parents are always the biggest teachers in this regard.
There we have it - four simple things that began to turn many relationships around. Sure, there were more specific areas that couples needed to address, and many of them also did well with those - but those who started using all, or even a couple of the above strategies started to notice a difference.
I'm looking forward to the opportunity of working with more couples and families in 2017. Seeing the changes that are possible is always rewarding, both for them and for me - so please try to enjoy the holiday season over the coming weeks, but also feel free to contact me after January 9th if you are needing some assistance.
Talk soon - and feel free to visit me over at Facebook!
"Some occasional thoughts about families, relationships, and other things that distract us...."