Couples therapy. Probably the most dreaded set of words after “you’re fired”, but unlike unemployment, couples therapy can actually be very good for your relationship, while unemployment tends to only create more conflict. Conflict. The true meaning of life. One thing that anyone who has ever been in a relationship has been in. It’s as unavoidable as breathing because when you unite two people in matrimony, they are still two people, with their own motivations, dreams, goals, and personalities which will not always align. When this happens, friction ensues and sometimes this friction might turn into the fire of an argument. Arguing, of course, is normal. Everyone argues with another person from time to time, but within the unique relationship of a marriage, regular arguments may be a sign that the couple is going through a hard time.
Which begs the question, what could anyone have to fight about so often? Probably nothing…yet somehow, everything. How does that even make sense? I’ll tell you. Let’s all recall those days when we’ve lived with roommates, parents, siblings, maybe you’ve already got a spouse. Living in such close quarters with other people is difficult for a reason. Seeing these people every day, sharing space, chores, groceries, hot water, televisions, pets, children. There’s a long list of things that must be done to maintain everyday life, but what happens when things aren’t running so smoothly? What happens, say, when your boyfriend goes to the grocery store and gets the wrong brand of cream cheese? Lord forbid, what if he always gets the wrong brand of cream cheese and you have been softly reminding him for weeks and weeks that you prefer Philadelphia, but he always brings you Kroger brand? You might just blow up one day! Pitch a fit, yelling about how he doesn’t care about you! How could he? He can’t even remember which brand of cream cheese you want for your bagels.
Let’s pause for a second. Are we really going to fight about cream cheese? Sure, maybe you’re really annoyed about the cream cheese, or maybe the cream cheese is just the scapegoat for other tension you’ve been feeling in the relationship. Maybe the cream cheese represents something else. Or maybe that cream cheese is just one of your triggers. Something that annoys you when it’s not done right and every time he brings home the wrong cream cheese, it really ruins your day, doesn’t it? Maybe, puts you in a mood because you’ve told him over and over again that you want the Philadelphia, now, any time he even mentions the words “cream” or “cheese”, you want to bop in the forehead.
Some topics are triggering. That’s true for everyone so couples are no exception. Do you think this imaginary woman is really this angry about the cream cheese? Highly doubtful. It’s really about what the cream cheese represents to her. Forgotten cream cheese may become “you don’t care what I want”, so, every time someone brings up cream cheese, those negative feelings that have been associated with the cream cheese will surface.
How does one fix this? Well, you can start by not yelling, “You forgot my goddamn cream cheese again, you asshole!” at your partner, because, I promise you, that will lead to an argument if you weren’t already fighting, or throw fuel on one, if you’re in the midst of an argument. I know, I know. I really hate when people bring me horrible cream cheese too, but if I can learn to “charge it to their heads, not their hearts” as the African-American proverb says, then so can you. This simple thought, call it a mantra if you will, is one way that you can calm yourself when someone has tapped one of your sore spots and you need to re-find your inner zen. Why would you even want to calm down? Because you love your partner. You may not be feeling very lovey dovey after he’s brought you the wrong cream cheese for the 13th time in as many weeks, but, you have to remember the things that you do love about them, in order to reestablish the connection to your partner, and remind yourself that you are partners, on the same side of the war, and not adversaries. That means, no name-calling, watering down any harsh tones, learning to recognize when you are angry, and learning to control or reroute that negative energy so that it can be used for personal and romantic growth.
You may have heard it before, and that’s because it is psychologically proven to reduce hostility or defensiveness in your mate, but “I” messages have a way of retargeting negative vibes and reduce tension. When we rid the room of tension, we create a safe space where both partners can speak and be heard.
Arguing is a natural part of life, but a predictor of a good relationship is being able to repair conflicts. By calming yourself with your own mantra, charging faults to the head and not the heart, and recognizing that your partner is doing their best at that time, you will be well on the way to having positive, productive arguments that enlighten both partners to any underlying issues in the relationship, while also building valuable communication skills that will reduce tension in all aspects of the relationship.
But what happens when you can’t see the problems in your own relationship? If you can’t see that, even though you might be mad about the cream cheese, it’s not what’s really irking you down to your soul? That’s what a third party is for. Sometimes you need to just put a wall between the two of you, or maybe even a double-sided mirror, so you can see yourself the way your partner sees you, flaws and beauty, strengths and weaknesses. Sometimes, we can’t see these things by ourselves and need a little help with learning how to successfully navigate conflicts within our own marriages and partnerships, and that’s okay. Sometimes all it takes is a safe space to air out those feelings to reestablish security and a feeling of deep caring in your relationship, and maybe then, you will finally get that cream cheese you’ve been wanting all along.
Post inspired by relationship counselor Dr. Anne Goshen, who will be launching a podcast called The Couple’s ToolBox in September of 2017. She can also be found on Facebook where she also talks about counseling for couples.