How do you foster intimacy, even when you’re fighting? The recipe for a successful relationship involves learning how to collaborate even when things aren’t going well. And once you learn how to do that, you’ll find that opportunities to create intimacy are abundant in your relationship. It’s the magic that happens when you’re willing to work together no matter what’s going on. In today’s episode, we’re talking to Dan Wile, the creator of Collaborative Couples Therapy. Along with seeing clients and conducting intensives for couples, Dan Wile trains therapists in Collaborative Couples Therapy, and his work is recommended by John Gottman as an embodiment of the principles recommended through his research and practice.
Here are the details on what we cover:
Create a loving conversation: Many couples struggle to communicate their way through conflict- so often resorting to withdrawing or fighting. Collaborative couple’s therapy helps couples learn to reach out to one another in difficult moments and around difficult topics so that they may create a loving conversation out of whatever it is they are going through. Through collaboration conflict can become intimate exchange.
Adversarial: Speaking from anger often begins a vicious cycle. When we speak from a charged place we often have a threatening tone, and we enter into either attack mode or defense mode. Biochemicals are released, and the sympathetic nervous system is leading the way, thus making us speak before we think. We make accusations that put our partner on the defensive and vice-versa, therefore reinforcing the intensity and increasing escalation.
Withdrawn cycle: Another common reaction to conflict is the withdrawal cycle. This is when one partner, or both, use extreme cautiousness and avoid saying anything evocative. While this may seem like a safer strategy at first it is dangerous as it leads to mutual withdrawal, intense distancing, and a devitalization of the relationship.
Empathic Cycle: Both the adversarial and withdrawal cycles can be shifted to a loving cycle through empathy. One partner must take a step out of their “i’m right, you are wrong” stance, and step towards their partner. When one partner acknowledges the otherness, or speaks for the ‘we’, they offer a moment of reconnection and an opportunity for repair. This can sound and look a lot of ways, for example “Wow- you seem to have a point, even if I do not agree I want to understand you more”, or “you know, I think I am saying a lot of things that I do not really mean right now because I am very angry”, or “even though this is really messy I am proud of us for trying to work through this difficult conversation because the topic is so important to us both”, or “I’m getting really upset because this is something I really care about, and I know you do too- I’m feeling like things are at stake and I’m feeling vulnerable”. Confessions such as these often helps the other partner acknowledge what is happening for them as well, and thus the couple finds themselves talking about the angry/frustration/sadness, rather than from it.
- Anticipate the struggle of your partner: Initiate difficult conversations by preemptively voicing the concern that often lead to the fight, such as “I want to talk about something difficult, and it might make you feel defensive, but I want to find a way for us to have this conversation that allows me to share in a way that you can hear and we can work through this together”. Or, “I want to talk about (the state of things in our kitchen) and I already know (that you might feel overwhelmed by this) and I totally understand and yet, we need to figure out how to solve this somehow”.
- Turn your complaint into a wish or a fear: Learn to express what your concern is by sharing the underside of the issue and making it more about you than about them- they will be much more receptive and able to stay present for solutions!
- Practice: Play with taking on your partner’s side and pretending to voice their side of the fight. This kind of role play can help increase understanding and empathy.
- Turn our feelings and struggles into something our partner is doing wrong. Such as if you are feeling unlovable you may believe or accuse your partner that they don’t love you.
- Get quiet. Sometimes if we cannot figure out how we are feeling or don’t know how to speak for it we either blank out or say nothing at all.
- Other times we try to resolve the gap through actions. For example, if you are feeling uninteresting you might try to talk more and more. Or you turn to substances (food, drugs, alcohol) to try to self-soothe the inner struggle.
None of these strategies end up helping us get to the core of the issue. Instead they distract us into a further place of disconnection not only from ourselves, but from our partner. If finding empathy with yourself is very difficult, you can try to imagine looking at your own struggle as if it was your friend’s- what would you say to that friend? Find resources and ways that help you come back to a centered place of compassion for yourself so that you can re-find your voice and speak for your vulnerabilities.