Are you feeling stuck in a situation in your life where you haven’t been able to make the changes you want? Do you need some help finding a new perspective? Therapy can help you understand yourself and your current situation more clearly. It can help as you make changes to support the life you want to live. Finding a therapist can be a daunting experience. Research suggests that the relationship you have with your therapist is just as significant as the actual techniques used in therapy. Finding someone you feel comfortable with is important. You can ask friends or family members that you trust for names of therapists that they recommend as a way to start building your list. If you have insurance, you can also ask for a list of names of therapists who are on your plan’s provider list. You can also search online. Once you have some names, start making phone calls to the people on your list. You might need to leave a message, so give some times that are good for calling you back. When you talk to potential therapists on the phone, you can ask about their experience working with your type of problem, their approach, and see how you feel during the conversation. Also ask questions about fees and insurance, and see if their schedule works with yours. When you find someone that feels like a good fit, schedule an appointment. If you meet with someone a few times and feel like you aren’t making progress, bring it up during your appointment. Having a conversation about it can help clarify your goals and help your therapist better understand how to help you. Sometimes, you might need to try someone else until you find the person that you really click with. When I was in graduate school, I worked with a therapist for a period of time. She was wonderful. She was also the third person I saw, after meeting with two other therapists for a few sessions each. So, don’t give up. Finding the right person might take some effort, but it can make a big difference in how you feel about therapy.
“How did that make you feel?” Even if you have never been in therapy before, you probably associate that phrase with therapy. If we look a little more closely, we will see that there is an assumption in that phrase that something (or someone) external to you can “make” you feel a certain way.
Before I go on, I want to pause and have you think about what feelings are, and how they are related to emotions. Feelings are sensory experiences in the body, while emotions are a complex interplay between your environment, physiological sensory inputs from your body, and your perceptions of those sensory inputs, which are influenced by learning, culture, language, and individual differences. At a very basic level, we experience sensory states of arousal or calmness, pleasure or pain. But our minds add an additional layer of interpretation to these states to arrive at joy, sadness, anger, fear, etc. Emotions are not universal across every culture. Some cultures have emotional states, described with language, that don’t exist in other cultures. And, some cultures pay more attention to certain emotions than others.
The takeaway is that emotions are constructed, and they are individual as well as shared. You may experience an emotional state that your partner doesn’t, or you may both experience what you label as the same emotion, but maybe you each experience it a little differently based on physiological, cultural, or learning differences. So, going back to therapy, when a person says to their partner, “You made me feel this way,” part of their emotional construction puts the power over their emotions with their partner. I’m not going to argue that feelings or emotions don’t arise from encounters you have with other people or with other stimuli in your environment. But I am arguing that maintaining responsibility for your feelings is better than allowing someone else that control. When you make the shift to thinking about your emotions as your own experience and your own responsibility, you get better at knowing yourself and what you need. You get better at reading your feelings and emotions as data that inform your choices, what you choose to reveal to your partner about yourself, and what you ask for in your relationships. You get better at taking a break when you feel emotionally flooded, and knowing how to get yourself into a calmer state. You also get better at not assuming you know how someone else feels just because you feel a certain way, and so you learn to listen with openness.
When I hear a person say, “You made me feel this way,” I usually encourage them to drop the “you made me” part of the statement, and just focus on articulating how they feel. The feeling matters, and when we can identify what triggered the unique emotional process that came up around the feeling, and anchor it in the context of the person’s experiences, learning, and perception, we can move toward identifying what the person needs. And when a person’s partner feels unhooked from the responsibility of taking care of the other person’s feelings and emotions, it allows them to listen, learn, and respond without defensiveness. This fosters emotional safety and intimacy, which supports stronger relationships–and stronger individuals–and that’s why therapists are asking about your feelings in the first place.
If you want to explore this topic further, check out the Invisibilia podcast “Emotions” episode that originally aired on June 1, 2017.
WHY, ALWAYS, NEVER, SHOULD. Those four words are especially inflammatory. They immediately put your partner on the defensive. “Why do you always leave your dirty dishes in the sink? You should know how disrespectful that is to me!” A statement like that won’t persuade you partner to change. It might get some short-term, resentful change, but you will pay for it when your partner hurls an accusation back your way, and you find yourself in an escalating game of “Which One of Us is the Worst?” Instead, try this: “Hey, could you put your dirty dishes in the dishwasher instead of leaving them in the sink? I know it’s probably not a big deal to you, but I really appreciate being able to use the sink without having to move the dishes out of it. Thanks for understanding!”
Maybe you’ve made the request like that numerous times, and you haven’t gotten lasting change. If so, the answer isn’t to escalate to the other version. In that case, you need to pivot slightly and say something like, “you know, it seems like we’ve had this exchange several times, where I ask you if you could move your dishes to the dishwasher, and you do it a couple of times but then stop, and then I find the dishes in the sink again, and I feel annoyed when I have to move them out of the way. Is there some reason that you don’t want to move the dishes to the dishwasher, or do you just forget, or is there something else going on? I want to be able to find a compromise that works for both of us, so we both feel comfortable sharing space in the kitchen.”
You might have noticed that both of my examples of proactive communication are longer and more complex than the first example of what to avoid. You might even be thinking that it will feel weird to talk like this. Yes, it might feel weird, and you might really struggle with it. You are learning to talk like a diplomat. You are looking for a peaceful resolution to a problem. You are assuming that the other person has their own agenda that is different from yours, and you are choosing to try and get your way through persuasion, not punishment, for the sake of protecting the relationship. With practice it will feel more comfortable, and you will be able to find the words that work best in you relationship. In essence, you are building a new language with your partner–a language that supports collaboration instead of conflict.
Don’t take things personally. One of the hardest things to do in a relationship is to cultivate grace. When you know someone really well, you know their strengths as well as their weaknesses. And sometimes that knowledge will hurt. Try not to take it personally when your partner doesn’t think like you do, or want what you want. The job of building a life together means figuring out how both of you can help each other grow, and how you can create a vision for your life together.
Give the other person the benefit of the doubt. Let them make mistakes and give them some room to rephrase something if their words initially come across too harshly. Don’t hold your partner to every word they ever spoke. Life moves forward—give yourselves room to state and restate until you both understand each other. Of course, if your partner is routinely critical, contemptuous, blaming, and just plain mean, you have to consider whether you are in a relationship that can support trust and growth. If your partner routinely discounts your feelings and doesn’t care about your emotional wellbeing this is a problem that grace and flexibility won’t fix. In this case, it is necessary to know your limits and hold to them. Even so, try not to take this type of behavior personally either. A person who is routinely critical, blaming, and hurtful is telling you more about their own limitations that about yours.
When you are with someone for a long time, you will have an ongoing, unfolding conversation. And, you will each change and grow. Sometimes you will pull in different directions. Sometimes you will step on each others’ toes. Don’t take it personally. Let the conversation be fluid enough to acknowledge your differences, incorporate your changes, and keep searching for connections and common ground.
Tell your partner what you want—they can’t read your mind. It’s a common misconception that if your partner really loved you, they would just know that X is hurtful, that Y is what you really want, and that Z is why you are so mad at them. The reality is that even when we speak the same language, we all have very complex meanings that we ascribe to different words, actions, and sequences of behavior. We also have different temperaments, and need different things in a relationship. We often forget that the only way for someone to know something about us is for us to share it, sometimes multiple times. This doesn’t mean that your partner doesn’t care.
Have you ever made plans with a friend? Chances are, you talked about the details of what you were going to do together. You probably set a date and a time, and arranged a location to meet. What if your friend told you that if you really cared about the friendship, you would just know when and where to meet? This would probably strike you as unreasonable unless you had already established a consistent routine of meeting up at a regular time and place.
Now, think about your partner. Have you given your partner clear, specific messages about what you want? Many people think that if they have to be this specific, it won’t feel sincere when their partner follows through. But consider that your partner’s effort to meet you where you are at is a good indication of their sincere desire to connect with you. And, the clearer you are about who you are and what you want, the better you will be able to discern if you are with a partner who is responsive to your needs.
Do you think your partner is a good person? Do you think they have your best interest at heart? Do you think they want to make things better in your relationship but just don’t know how? Can you think of at least five things you like about your partner for every one thing you complain about? If not, the first thing you need to do is evaluate how accurate your thoughts are about your partner. If you really think that your partner is mediocre to bad and they are not invested in the relationship, therapy won’t fix that. If you have actually just gotten into a negative pattern of thinking about your partner, the best thing you can do is be aware of it and make your first goal to change your own thinking. Try making a mental (or actual) note of things you like about your partner, and remind yourself of the list regularly. When you are thinking of something that bothers you about your partner, make a conscious effort to reframe their behavior in terms that focus on the circumstances of the problem, not their character or motivations. Try to give them the benefit of the doubt whenever possible, and assume that they want a better relationship with you, too. Give yourself a limit on complaints, and make sure you balance out complaints with focus on the things you like and love about your partner. If there is nothing you like or love about your partner, consider individual counseling before you jump into couples counseling. This can help you sort through your thoughts and feelings and decide what your goals are for yourself in the relationship.
Remember that no one can make another person change. It is normal to come to therapy hoping that you can get your partner to change, and hoping that if you can tell your side of things in a persuasive enough way, your therapist will see who is at fault, and agree that the best way to solve the problem is to get your partner to change. Unfortunately, if both of you are coming to therapy with this mindset, there is only one winner—the one the therapist sides with. As you can imagine, this means there is also a loser, the person the therapist doesn’t side with.
If couples therapy is focused on getting one person to change, that person will likely either disengage from therapy, or make a superficial change that doesn’t last. When that happens, you both lose. That’s why it’s not in your best interest for your therapist to take sides.
How Does Change Happen? Change happens when a person decides a change is necessary in order to reach a goal they want to achieve, uphold a personal value, or make their life better in some way. In short, change happens when a person wants to make a change for their own personal reasons. Making changes in your relationship will require you to identify what you want to change about yourself in order to improve your relationship. If both of you do this concurrently, and it’s based on values or goals that you share as a couple as to what you both want in your relationship, then you will likely have the most successful outcome. Sometimes, only one person wants to participate in therapy. If one of you changes, this can also sometimes change the system enough that the relationship improves. But if change in one person doesn’t trigger enough change in the relationship, it is also possible that the person who is doing the work to change will decide that the relationship doesn’t support their goals and values. So, the takeaway here is to approach couples therapy thinking about how you want to change yourself, not how you want to change your partner.