Practice makes perfect

Practice makes perfect

Some helpful techniques to draw couples closer

By Patti Carmalt-Vener 06/20/2013

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Dear Patti,
My wife and I have been in marital counseling for three months and so far have found it very helpful. We sometimes have minimum to moderate conflict, but we both agree that neither of us want to end our marriage. Nor do we believe that could ever be a future possibility. 
 
Our therapist is good at handling problems as they arise in our sessions and is also teaching us communication skills that have been particularly useful. Whenever I’ve requested homework for either myself or both of us, however, it’s been miniscule. I realize that may not be her focus, but we do like working with her and were wondering whether you could recommend exercises or homework to supplement our sessions. 
 
I’m the type of guy who, when seriously focused on something, gives it his all. Due to putting two kids through college, we can’t afford therapy as often as we’d like; having assignments between sessions would be helpful. 
(I enjoy your weekly articles.)

— Sam

Dear Sam,
In couples therapy, it’s necessary and effective to not only bring up issues and problem behaviors that respectively impact both parties, but also to understand how those behaviors are destructive to the relationship. One of the major challenges in marital therapy is teaching both partners how to improve their own ability to support and emotionally soothe the relationship when in conflict.
 
It has been observed that couples with successful relationships often make “repair attempts” — efforts by a partner to deescalate negative situations — and, in turn, they respond positively when their partner engages in similar efforts. Examples of repair attempts might be “I’m beginning to understand your point about this,” or “Wait, I just interrupted you and I want to hear you first.” Successful spouses do this in a genuine and natural way that feels comfortable to both themselves and their partners. Your homework would be to write a list of repair attempts that seem sincere to you and practice using them throughout the week whenever a disagreement occurs. Make a list of your wife’s repair attempts, such as being particularly gentle, kind, loving, complimentary or apologetic during clashing moments, or attempting to use the communication techniques you’ve both learned, such as listening without interrupting. Practice recognizing your wife’s positive attempts and responding positively in the moment.
 
Successful couples also tend to avoid polarized thinking and labeling, such as calling a partner lazy rather than pointing out that more help is needed in parenting or domestic chores. It’s equally important to bring up exceptions when true, such as, “While I need more help with parenting, you do help with homework beautifully,” or “I need much more help domestically, but I want you to know that I love your handmade pillows.” Observe your own language when in conflict with your wife and notice how often you use polarized thinking such as labeling or omit positive exceptions. 
 
Another example is saying, “You never …,” or “You always …” Practice replacing such vocabulary. This skill can help immensely in reducing defensiveness in your partner and, thus, encourage her to be more open to your concerns.
Examine your own behavior in the last conflict you’ve had with your wife and write down examples of what you could’ve done differently that might have been more constructive. Then make a serious attempt to responsibly change your behavior accordingly in the next conflict. Hopefully, this will encourage her to do the same. 
Write down all of the positives she does throughout the week, not just during conflict. If appropriate — and if there’s time — share your list in the next therapy session.
 
Work on increasing positive verbal and nonverbal soothing and encouraging expressions when not in conflict. Examples: “We’re getting better at listening to each other. It’s clear we love each other and I think we’re arguing less.” Incorporate nonverbal expressions such as speaking in a calm and loving manner, using more eye contact and smiling with your eyes. Again, it’s important these expressions are truthful and not disingenuous.
 
All these tasks are unreasonable to inaugurate in the middle of a heated fight. Instead, start exploring and developing these skills when you’re in a calm mood. Creating a way of honestly expressing your feelings when things are tranquil will lead to them being effective when times are tense.
 
Lastly, write down a list of pleasurable and caring activities that you could do with your wife. If she writes a list, too, exchange these, participate in each other’s ideas and practice enjoying each other.

Patti Carmalt-Vener, a faculty member with the Southern California Society for Intensive Short Term Psychotherapy, has been a psychotherapist in private practice for 23 years and has offices in Pasadena, Santa Monica and Canoga Park. Contact her at (626) 584-8582 or email pcarmalt@aol.com. Visit her Web site, patticarmalt-vener.com.

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