Articles on Relationships by Ian Jenkins

Don't Be Right, Be Happy!

Usually when clients first enter relationship counselling and psychotherapy the therapist asks: What do want from the therapy?, and What do you want from the relationship? The common answers are; to work things out, to communicate better, to be happy together, to improve the relationship or solve a particular impasse or crisis.

Almost never do clients begin by saying "I want the therapist to prove I am right and my partner is wrong", or "I want you to back me up and tell my partner off!"

However, as soon as any of us begin to explain the relationship issues, we start to try to convince the therapist that we are right and our partner is wrong. This, in fact, mirrors one of the biggest issues in any relationship; that is the myth that we are right! Of course we do often find our partners behaviours unacceptable and we may wish they were different; and in some cases a partners behaviour might be absolutely unacceptable (criminal and abusive behaviours for example), but in most cases the quest to win every argument and be proven right only ever leads to resentment and retribution.

I often say to clients that they have a choice, be right or be happy! The 'best' arguers in any relationship coerce their partners to back down, and usually end up single. Winning arguments in the short-term breeds greater resentment, and resentment destroys the feelings that makes relationships work.

Happy relationships require that we accept differences of opinion, we compromise on each others needs and wants, and we accept that it is enough to be heard without forcing our view on the other.

In order to let go of our need to win arguments we can choose to listen to our partner, respond to what they say with interest and respect, and care about the messages they are sharing. Try to avoid picking up on little errors in what you hear, or responding straight away with a counter argument; as this leaves our partner feeling unheard - and the argument will simply escalate at that time or in the future. Equally when expressing opinions use "I" to express your thoughts and feelings instead of "you" to accuse the other. Be clear, accurate and avoid exaggeration. Accept that your partner may not agree (no one is ever always 100% right!), but reflect on the differences and seek compromises.

Try to find the real message in any argument. For example, if your partner says you never do the washing up, don't argue that you did do it once last week so they are wrong! Instead, listen, hear and reflect - your partner is almost certainly telling you they need more support, they need a fairer relationship, and that they are unhappy. Ignoring this message by arguing about inaccuracy will not make your partner or relationship happier; the argument will repeat and escalate until the relationship ends.

If an argument is important then try to plan it! Book a time and a place. Do it calmly (arguments are rarely positive when done in anger) and aim to listen. A therapist will be helpful; they can teach/coach skills and mediate (but not referee/judge), but the work is the couples.

Changing these dynamics is tough, we learn at a young age how to argue and how to "win". We repeat these patterns over and over again...even if they lead us through a multitude of unhappy relationships. So it is common to need counselling for this, either individual or relationship.

So don't be right, be listening, hearing and reflective. Respond, compromise and change. At least then if the relationship ends you will know it is because you were too far apart, rather than you chose to ignore the real issues.



How To Avoid Relationship Dead Ends: Forget "Shoulds!"

29 Apr 2014

The word should so often dominates relationship conflicts. So often we tell our partners what they should do if they cared or loved us, we often share and validate these 'shoulds' with family and friends. Most corrosively we build resentments out of our partners failures to do all we believe they 'should' do.

The word should should be banned! Relationships are endlessly varied, no two are alike, indeed no one relationship remains constant over time.

The 'shoulds' we hang onto are actually our beliefs about relationships, which we gain through observation, experience and our own family. No two people will share the exact same experiences and so those beliefs matter how certain we are that we are right! So for example I believe in honesty and openness in relationships, I am sure many people do, but not everyone does. I cannot enforce my belief on a partner, and they can not enforce theirs. To be happy in a relationship I must find someone who shares my belief, or at least find a reasonable compromise. If two people want a secretive closed relationship, and are happy in that then could be as happy as I hope to be in mine.

Consequently there are a multitude of happy relationships where two people share beliefs which may be very different from yours or mine. I have known a very happy couple who married but never lived together, another where the partner worked away for most of the year, another where one partner had multiple sexual partners and another where one partner did all the work in the family! They were successful because they shared compatible beliefs, and compromised where they differed...and occasionally one partner was just able to deal with a difference.

So to be happy in a relationship is not to follow one prescribed lifestyle, but rather it is to understand each others beliefs, to understand how these translate into wants and needs and to share or accommodate as many as possible. Couples therapy is fundamentally a space to share needs and wants, to resolve the differences and deal with the incompatibilities. In some cases this does mean the relationship could never truly work, as one partners strong need is wholly rejected by the other...but at least further pain can be averted by this understanding.

Usually difference scan be resolved, and the build up of resentments ceased. Developing a shared vision for the relationship, which respects each others needs is key. This can only begin when we let go of the 'shoulds' and communicate the wants and needs, remembering that our partners are always as valid as ours. Of course whether or not we want to live with the differences is our choice!


How To Avoid Relationship Dead Ends: No. 3: Remember everyone is as complex as YOU!

1 May 2014

How To Avoid Relationship Dead Ends: No. 3: Remember everyone is as complex as YOU!

You are complex and full of contradictions. You have thoughts and feelings that change from moment to moment and situation to situation.You behave inconsistently and sometimes without reason. I can assert this so strongly because in many ways we are all the same, we all change our minds, we all have many contradictory thoughts and feelings that fluctuate with our mood and circumstances, and we all behave in ways that we wish we hadn't.

However, many of us make the mistake of assuming others are much more straightforward. We think we can understand others, we think we can define them; their motives, their beliefs and their feelings. So often in relationships we ask friends and therapists to help us work out what our partner really thinks, what they really want and what they really feel. This is particularly true when relationships reach a crisis point and we seek some 'truth' to comfort us with a predictable outcome.

A good example is when one partner forces a separation on the other. The other partner who may feel rejected so often tries to find snippets of 'evidence' to reassure them that the relationship will survive. They may ask their friends to review this evidence and explain what their estranged partner 'really thinks'. Unfortunately this is nearly always a fruitless task as their partner may still show evidence of feelings and thoughts which suggest false hope; a partner may still love you, and want to end the relationship, they may say reassuring things but still hold resentments and anger.

The truth is that ultimately it is peoples actions and words over a long period that define 'what they really want', however confused or unclear they may be in the short-term. I remember a conversation I had with a driving instructor many years ago; when I complained that drivers signals on roundabouts were frequently wrong and confusing he answered that the only signal I should always believe is the direction of the bonnet! In other words wait to see where they intend to go, never assume a signal is going to be trustworthy. In relationships people are what they do, and the signals that come out of their mouths are only a guide, because we are all confused, contradictory and very very complex!


How To Avoid Relationship Dead Ends: No. 4: Listen And Be Seen To Listen!

In relationships we all know communication is important, and hopefully most of us know that the most important part of this communication is listening! However, the bit we often forget is to let our partner know we have truly heard.

Of course in relationships it is hard to always be perfect, to always be on our game; but when we forget to acknowledge our partner, we tell them we have not heard, or do not care. Our partners may not ask for a response, but if we do not make clear we have understood resentment builds and arguments follow.

The more serious pattern occurs when our partners tell us how they feel and we respond with our own feelings, and even our own counter-argument! A pattern develops where each partner expresses their feelings, and the other apparently discounts them and focuses only on their own feelings. This can lead to an often repeated argument, which escalates each time until the relationship ends.

The only way to communicate effectively is to ensure our partner knows we have heard them. When feelings are expressed paraphrase them and respond to them respectfully. Do not argue against them, acknowledge them. You may not agree with all that has been said, but that can be dealt with another time, what matters is that each persons feelings are seen to be heard.

In couples counselling each partner is usually given time and space to talk without interruption, their partner listens and paraphrases and responds, and then only when they have clearly heard do they then get a turn. This ensures we know we have been heard, we might not get agreement but at least we start to work towards that!

This reminds me of my driving instructor who told me to move my rear facing mirror for my driving test, to ensure I had to move my head to look into it... so that the driving tester could be sure I was using it. He was very clear, it did not matter so much whether I was using the mirror, only that I was seen to be using it. Similarly, listening to your partner is important, but not as important as them knowing you are listening!

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