Get the FREE e-Book, The Eight Tools of Anger Control from Dr Tony Fiore

Six tools to repair emotional damage in your marriage

Rudy and Marjorie were on the verge of divorce. Married 12 years, they had constant verbal battles ending in what therapists call emotional disengagement— meaning that they simply ignored each other for days on end.

Emotionally, they were simmering inside and also lonely for each other, but were unable to reach out and communicate these feelings. They were in a “cold war” with both waiting for the other to make the first move to melt the icy atmosphere.

This couple suffers a common marital malady—lack of skills to repair emotional damage done to each other.

According to marital research, almost all couples fight; what often separates the “masters” of marriage from the “disasters” of marriage is the ability to repair the subsequent damage.

Acquiring good repair skills gives the couple a way to recover from the mistakes they may have made. These repair skills provide a “fix” for the damage caused in attempting to communicate to each other in a way that caused emotional hurt to one or both of them.

It is common for partners to make relationship mistakes – after all anyone can have a bad day, be under too much stress or just use poor judgment in dealing with a situation.

Rather than emotionally disengaging from each other or staying angry, try to “fix it” if you are the offender.

And if you are the receiver of the damage, your challenge is to find a way to accept your partner’s repair attempt— that is, to see your partner’s repair attempt as an effort to make things better.

Repair Tool #1—Apologize

A simple sincere and heartfelt apology can sometimes do wonders for a relationship, especially if your partner sees you as a person who never admits they are wrong or at fault. Say things like: I’m sorry; I apologize; What I did was really stupid; I don’t know what got into me.

Repair Tool #2—Confide Feelings

Be honest and share the feelings that are underneath the anger such as fear, embarrassment, or insecurity. Your partner may respond to you quite differently if they see those other emotions, instead of just the anger.
Confiding what is in your heart and in your mind can make a huge difference in promoting understanding, closeness, and intimacy.
Say things like: I was really afraid for our daughter when I got so angry; I didn’t want to hurt you; I just lost my cool.

Repair Tool #3—Acknowledge Partner’s Point of View

This doesn’t mean you have to agree with it; just acknowledging it can decrease tension and conflict because it shows your partner you are at least listening to them. It also demonstrates empathy—the ability to see things from their vantage point instead of only yours.
Say things like: I can see what you mean; I never looked at it that way.

Repair tool #4—Accept Some of the Responsibility for the Conflict

Very few conflicts are 100% the fault of either partner. Instead, most conflicts are like a dance with both of you making moves to contribute to the problem. Inability to accept any responsibility is a sign of defensiveness rather than the openness required for good communication. Say things like: I shouldn’t’ have done what I did; I guess we both blew it; I can understand why you reacted to me that way.

Repair tool #5—Find Common Ground

Focus on the issue at hand and what you have in common rather than your differences. For instance, you might both agree that raising healthy children is a common goal even though you differ in parenting styles. Say things like: We seem to both have the same goal here; we don’t agree on methods but we both want the same outcome.

Repair Tool #6—Commit to Improve Behavior

“I’m sorry” doesn’t cut it if you continually repeat the offensive behavior. Backup words with action. Show concrete evidence that you will try to change. Say things like: I promise to get up a half hour earlier from now on; I’ll call if I’m going to be late; I’ll only have two drinks at the party and then stop.

Couples in crisis: How couple therapy mitigates stubborn psychological defenses

Guest article by Dr James Tolbin. Edited slightly and reproduced with permission.

Why does a couple typically seek therapy?

Research indicates that by the time a couple seeks couple therapy and arranges an appointment, the partners have been at war for multiple years on a range of seemingly unresolvable issues.

Often a recent event is characterized as a “crisis” that sent the couple over the edge, finally leading them to pursue therapy. But the couple typically has been in crisis for so long that both partners have grown weary from, and almost immune to, the ongoing conflict and persistent tension between them.

What does the average couple expect will happen in therapy?

For most couples who finally begin therapy, they often anticipate that the therapist will be a kind of mediator and/or judge who will assess the problems at hand and the strengths and weaknesses of each partner. And then, from his or her expert vantage point, the therapist will articulate a solution that involves a critique of what the partners are doing incorrectly in their relationship and what they need to do to “be better.”

In my view, this approach to helping a couple rarely, if ever, works.

This is so because, underlying the expressed problems the couple faces, is a firmly organized set of psychological defenses  each partner has developed to cope with the issues of the relationship.

What is a better way to conceptualize marital troubles?

A physical metaphor for how defensive processes in couples work is the way the human back responds to the trauma of a car accident, for example. Impacted by the force of the collision, the general alignment and expansive musculature of the spinal cord shift and lock into a new position designed to protect the vertebrae, tendons, and ligaments that were stressed or damaged in the accident. The shifting and locking into place of the spinal cord and its musculature is a defensive process that protects underlying anatomical structures from further injury.

And it is usually the case, medically speaking, that what the body does to protect itself from further injury results in symptomatic pain, chronic inflammation, and reduced flexibility which, taken together over time, actually prevent healing! Autoimmune diseases provide another example of how the body may inadvertently hurt itself in an effort to protect itself.

The defensive processes that have evolved in a relationship work in a similar fashion.

A husband, for example, who has been hurt by his wife’s ongoing ambivalence about having a child, may unconsciously respond to this injury through the protective strategy of, say, over-working, i.e., becoming overly ambitious or taking on too much responsibility in his professional life.

This defense, in turn, gradually becomes injurious to his wife; she responds to her hurt by becoming self-destructive in some way, an idiosyncratic defensive style that she unintentionally and unconsciously employs to find relief and buffer her from further anticipated disappointments with her husband.

And, as you might imagine, her self-destruction further intensifies her husband’s need to protect himself, thus reinforcing his prioritizing of his workOn and one these insidious, mutually reinforcing dynamics evolve, tangling the partners in a web of toxic psychological tendencies that only strengthen their grip as the couple struggles against them.

What is needed for positive change to occur?

For positive change to even become a possibility for this couple, the defensive processes employed by each partner must be identified and reduced or entirely supplanted. The couple therapist functions not as a mediator or judge but more like a chiropractor, strategically intervening to unlock each partner from his or her chosen defensive style.

As this begins to occur, each partner can think and feel in ways that are more flexible and less oriented solely toward protection. Once partners feel less vulnerable, less gripped by the need and compulsion to defend, there is real potential for the achievement of enhanced levels of communication, mutual respect and understanding, and new pathways for attaining the kind of love each partner desires.

Download a FREE Worksheet PDF file called “Areas of Change” that will help you develop the techniques discussed in this article.

James Tobin, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist based in Newport Beach, CA.

Needing to be Right- A Sure-Fire Losing Strategy for Partner Communication

When I was a young psychologist, I recall a young woman in my practice who was very upset because men simply didn’t see her as very feminine and treated her like “one of the guys,” instead of like a “girl” as she deeply desired. I asked for an example of what she meant.”The other night we were having drinks in a bar and one of the guys said that I wasn’t very feminine,” she said.

“How did you react?“I asked her.

With a serious face she said, “I stood up, took a swing and knocked them all to the floor.”

Psychologists call this self-defeating behavior. In over 15 years of conducting anger management classes in southern California, and hearing hundreds of stories of relationship conflict, I have seen this pattern repeated over and over again. Partners need, want and deserve different things in a relationship, but go about getting it in the wrong way due to poor marital communication.

It’s like looking for a herd of buffaloes  in New York City, or convincing people who live in Antarctica to purchase air conditioners. It ain’t going to work.

Think in terms of Losing vs Winning Strategies
Married people often don’t step back, take a look at themselves, and ask if they are going about it the right way to have a loving and devoted partner, to feel deeply connected to their spouse, to reduce conflict, or to have a peaceful home with happy successful children. But, for good marital communication, having strategies to achieve marital harmony often separates successful couples from others. Successful couples regularly employ what we call “Winning Strategies,” while other couples unfortunately use “Losing strategies”, (which they often learned as children) yet expect good results.

To improve  marital communication, we begin a series of blogs on losing strategies regularly employed by couples in trouble, in the hope that you can improve your marriage by not using them in the future. Then, of course, a series of blogs will follow of winning strategies- those ways of communicating that are used by black-belts of relationship success. Full disclosure- This material is based  on the writings of famed therapist Terry Real in his book “The New Rules of Marriage”. I would highly encourage you to download his book and read it as soon as you can.

Losing Strategy 1- Needing to always be  Right. 

I was raised by the philosophy that there is a right way to do things, and a wrong way. This way of looking at the world certainly ensured a shared vision of things (it encouraged all family member to see things the same way) but it also stifled creativity and individuality. Instead of teaching us to consider “options” in how to deal with a problem or issue, we were taught that if “A” happens, then you handle it by doing “B.” If somebody tried a “C’, they were told they were wrong because, again, there is only one “right” to a problem or situation.

Of course, sometimes this IS true. The ‘right” solution to prevent tooth decay is to brush daily; the “right” way to have money in the future is to save it or invest it. The “right” way to stay healthy is to eat your fruits and vegetables, exercise, and don’t smoke.

But, other times it decidedly is NOT true. Or, in many cases there can be multiple truths – not “the” truth. People can have long lives eating meat or not. Heavy drinkers are not necessarily alcoholics. People who don’t go to college can still become  millionaires. Dishes can get clean in the dishwasher without pre-washing them. There are multiple ways to get to a destination in your car. Different people feel loved differently. Some people can change bad habits easier than others. Some children respond to tight discipline and tight structure much more than other children.

Children who are raised to believe in the right or wrong philosophy eventually marry other children who also believe this. So, why is this a problem?  They clash because they were taught different ‘rights’ and “wrongs” – and they were not taught to be tolerant of those differences – and they often certainly were not taught to embrace individual differences, nuances, and variety in our world.

Some partners go so far as to feel “disrespected” if their spouse does things their own way. For example, what sane person puts the glasses in the cupboard upside down to prevent dust from accumulating in them? Everybody know glasses go right side up but CUPS go upside down, Right? Or did I get that wrong?

Learn to disagree without being disagreeable
Successful relationships depend on developing successful strategies to deal with disagreements and conflicts without destroying each other in the process. You can disagree without being disagreeable.

The trick is to focus not only on the argument but on HOW you argue and communicate- in other words, focus on the process as well as the issue. Very hard to do in the heat of battle but this skill separates beginners from black belts in marital communication. It helps to remember that (1) subjective reality cam be different from objective reality, that (2) Words spoken can have different meanings for each partner, and that (3) Body Language conveys tons of information, regardless of the words you use.

Subjective vs. Objective Reality
What is the difference? Let me explain it this way: You and your partner are sitting in the therapist office and your partner says “It is cold in here.” You say,  “there you go–always complaining. Actually it is NOT cold in here- the temperature is 72 degrees.” Who is “right”?
Objective cold is not the same as subjectively “felt” temperature.If your partner feels cold, the reality for him or her is that it is cold in the office , regardless of the actual (objective) temperature. Would you argue like Perry Mason to prove your case that your partner is crazy and that it is NOT cold in the office? I grew up in a home where that is exactly what happened – which typically then caused a major argument.

The truth is, most of the time nobody cares if you are factually (objectivity) right or not!

I recall the case of  Mike and Ann who fought about everything. Mike was incapable of understanding this idea that partners can perceive things quite differently. To test him, we did the following dialogue:

Therapist: “Mike, what is the color of that lampshade over there?”

Mike: It is beige.

Therapist: “Ann, what color do you think it is?”

Ann: “It is Brown.”

Therapist to Mike: “Mike, why do you think Ann sees it as Brown and you see it as Beige?”

Mike: “Because she is lying.”

What are you going to do with a person who thinks that way?

Often words spoken can have different meanings to each partner:
A second reason that partners argue over things is because spoken words can have different meanings to each partner even though the same word is used to describe something. To remedy this,try to remember the famous words of Robert McCloskey:

“I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.”

? Robert McCloskeyThe remedy here is to be sure to clarify what you mean by the words you use.Example:

45 year old Sam to Therapist: “We only have sex  once a month. Last time was 4 weeks ago- on a Saturday night.”

Sam’s Wife to therapist: “That is simply not true. We had sex just 3 days ago. Tell the therapist the truth.”

Sam to wife and therapist:” That wasn’t REAL sex – that was only Clinton sex.”

Finally, remember that your body language conveys more meaning than do your words: What does your voice tone communicate? Your voice volume? Your facial features? Your general tension level? All these forms of communication are being “picked up” by your partner regardless of what your words say. Monitor yourself when you are talking to your partner for an appreciation of what you may be communicating to them with your body language.