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Why do we always fight? Are you sure that you do?
If you are separated or in the process of separation, you might be finding it impossible to agree on anything, ranging from when to see the kids, to legal matters surrounding the separation. Perhaps your partner just ‘refuses to listen’ or is being a ‘typical man’ or ‘typical woman’. These are common problems in relationships, and it is all to do with how you both make sense of the world, your sense of self, and each other. Below are some of the psychological techniques a couples therapist might employ to help you and your partner (or ex-partner) renew a dialogue and improve your relationship if you are considering separation, in the process of separating, or already separated.
Life is like a box of chocolates
We have all seen the movie Forrest Gump, a film in which a man looks back at his life, recounting the extraordinary events that he has experienced. Like Forrest Gump, we all have this ongoing autobiography of our lives, which we organise and shuffle in order to make sense of the life that we have led. Like any good story, yours will include the main actors, support cast, and crucially you, the writer. This, if you think about it, is very empowering: this means you can create the way in which your life appears to you and others, and how you make sense of that life. Sadly, many people focus on the negative or limiting factors, which prevent them from experiencing wellbeing, or from communicating with those important to them. In terms of communicating with your partner (or ex-partner), it usually begins with the exception to the rule.
Finding the exception
For example, Jack and Sue are in the midst of separating. Sue wishes to keep it civil and amicable. After all, he is the father of her children, and she wants them to spend time with him, but also for him to help out with payments, and for her to have a friendship with the man she has lived with for over 10 years. But Jack, exclaims Sue, is “so stubborn, just like a man, afraid to show weakness by conceding”. In listening to both partners talk, it becomes clear that both are focusing on this negative view, not only of each other, but of their relationship. The therapist begins by asking the couple to find a time when they communicated with each other well, when they did not fight. It takes some time, but both finally describe at least four occasions recently where they spoke to each other with a positive outcome for both parties. In highlighting these exceptions, the therapist can help the couple re-write their view of their relationship, showing that it is possible to have a positive dialogue, and to focus on what made these times possible. The therapist might ask them to explain: What did they do different? How did they feel about each other? What was the outcome? Often, this leads to identifying the stereotypes that are influencing their dialogue.
Social cultural issues
In the example, Sue grew up on military bases; her father and brothers were all military men. She described them as “manly men”, unwilling to show emotion, and “strong”. Jack felt he needed to be strong and to keep his emotions to himself to fulfil this role of a man to impress, and later, to please Sue. Yet at the same time, Sue felt that every time they were about to have a conversation, she knew he would just resort to ‘typical man’ behaviour, that is to say, to shut off from emotion, or to be willing to budge one inch. Both people are allowing cultural assumptions to change the way they communicate with each other, often sabotaging efforts before they begin. In this example, the therapist would help the couple see how these views of what it means to be a ‘real man’ was, in fact, harming their ability to communicate. It also uncovered Jack’s desire to show emotion without appearing weak to Sue, whom he felt would judge him and “walk all over him” if he did. Once these problems are identified, the couple can begin to deal with the problem.
Externalising the problem
Usually when couples have difficulty communicating, there are several factors at work, but what a therapist can try to do is highlight one or two of the major problems that they are facing, and externalise these problems. For example, for Jack and Sue, the problem could be considered the ‘male stereotype’. There is nothing inherently wrong with either Jack or Sue, yet both are finding that this ‘male stereotype’ is making it impossible for them to communicate and be civil. In this example, the therapist might suggest that they don’t let this ‘male stereotype’ influence their dialogue, that they look out for signs that they are feeling its influence (such as judging the other, or worrying what the other thinks if they show emotion or don’t act in a typically manly way). With an open and honest dialogue, a couple can help each other avoid the stereotype, which is harming their relationship and any future communications. This externalisation of the problem can often have an enormous benefit to the relationship and to both individuals in the relationship, as it shifts the focus of the problem off of them and what they have built together, and shifts the focus of the problem onto something else. This makes sense intuitively; after all, you don’t blame someone for having cancer, yet cancer is an external problem that manifests and harms the individual internally. Like cancer, the problem can be targeted and removed, and it need not be a part of the person forever.
This information is a message of strength and empowerment for partners or ex-partners seeking to regain control of their relationship and communicate with each other effectively. By focusing on the strengths of the relationship and the times where you as a couple communicated effectively, you can re-write your autobiography in a way that allows you both to feel that there is light at the end of the tunnel. Seeing a counsellor, therapist or psychologist can be incredibly beneficial to opening up means of communication between you and your partner or ex-partner, and bring you both closer to your desired goals. If separation has occurred, attending mediation may also be purposeful in achieving this.
More Information on Counselling & Therapy Relating to Separation & Divorce
- Why have we grown apart? My partner just does not seem to understand what I need from them
- How will my children be affected by our separation? Solutions for children acting out or siding with one parent
- Is your extended family driving a wedge between you and your partner?
- Why do we always fight? Are you sure that you do?
- Separation and communication: Are you growing apart, but afraid to speak out?
- Adapting to children entering and leaving the family
- Can counselling help us move forward post-separation?
- Why does separation hurt so much? Why do I feel differently towards my partner?
- Domestic violence: What is it, what can we do about it, and how to get through it
- Infidelity: Why did my partner cheat? Can our relationship be saved?
- Contemplating separation? Will a trial separation help or hinder?
More Information on Mediation & Family Dispute Resolution
- Family Dispute Resolution
- Parenting Plans
- Financial Agreements
- Child-Inclusive Mediation
- Section 60I Certificates
- Child Support
- Child Support Calculator
- De Facto Relationships & Separation
- Divorce & Mediation
- Grandparents & Mediation for Grandchildren
- Parenting Plan & Draft Consent Orders for Children
- Property Settlement at Mediation
- Mediation & Domestic Violence
- Relocation & Overseas Travel with a Child
- Going to the Family Court versus Mediation
- Family Dispute Resolution & Mediation
- Child Support & Mediation
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DISCLAIMER: The information contained on this website is for general guidance only. No person should act or refrain from acting on the basis of this information. Professional counselling or therapy or psychology advice should be sought based upon your particular circumstances.