Ellyn Bader

This month we thought we'd do something a little bit different. We thought we'd share some of the most commonly asked questions by couples we see for therapy. In this way we can cover a wide range of topics and give you a peek into other couples' concerns.

Q. What is the most common complaint you hear from other couples?
A. “We can't communicate.”

Q. Why is communication so difficult? We talk all day long, it should be easy. What's the big deal?
A. Effective communication with your partner is a series of unnatural responses. It is rare for two people to want the same thing at the same time. That means that to communicate effectively you have to be a good advocate for yourself and still be responsive to your partner. It also means handling disappointment without exploding. Very few people will ask for more information when their partner complains, “You never listen to me.” Asking for more information when you hear a criticism is quite effective but very unnatural.

Q. So what's the solution?
A. That's as difficult as answering the question, “How do you cure poverty?” But here is a suggestion: when you feel like an argument is starting, ask your partner two or three questions before starting to defend yourself.

Q. When we learn to communicate better, will things improve?
A. Sometimes. Other times you might feel worse. When you are asking good questions, you might hear some disturbing responses. You might even hear things you didn't want to hear in the first place. And it's no fun to listen without interrupting or defending yourself. Like exercise, it often hurts at the beginning.

Q. It's often said that marriage is full of compromises. Are there any limits to compromises?
A. Yes. You can compromise on day in and day out decisions like what movie to see, where to go for dinner or who will do what chores. However, do not compromise on your core values. This may mean some tension-filled discussions with your partner until you arrive at solutions that incorporate both people's values. Compromising on your core values is a sure road to depression.

Q. Many couples think their partner has most of the power. How do you see power in relationships?
A. Power is the ability to get something done or have the influence to get what you want. This is why in many marriages both people can feel helpless – they can't influence the other in directions they want. Because they don't believe they have much influence, they think the other one has most of the power.
Here's an example. Pat feels like Terry makes all the major decisions. Because Pat feels like a victim in the marriage, Pat ends up withholding sex, affection, and appreciation, and refuses to cooperate with Terry's decisions. Terry wants sex and appreciation for all the contributions that are made. Who has the power?

Q. How do I know if I am over compromising or being co-dependant?
A. If you frequently feel depressed and as if you are losing much of your identity, you are probably over-accommodating. If you do things that maintain or increase your self esteem and are aligned with your higher values and integrity, you are probably on the right path.

Q. I have done everything possible to fix a problem and my partner still won't change, now what?
A. I don't think anyone literally does everything possible, but people often do all they are interested in doing. You may need to spell it out. Write a letter. Writing is good because you can say everything that needs to be said without being interrupted. Nobody puts a letter down in the middle to challenge what is being said. They read it all the way through first.
In your letter discuss the situation and your reaction to it (what you think, feel and do when the situation shows up). Discuss what you want and why it's important to you. Include what the consequences are if you get or don't get the problem solved. Include in the letter why you think it may be difficult for your partner to be responsive. If appropriate, say what you can do to make it easier for your partner to be more responsive. Think about the situation from a team perspective instead of just “getting your own needs met.”

Q. Do other couples struggle as much as we do?
A. Every couple has their own struggles. But the amount of struggle is not the issue. It is whether you learn from your struggles. You can use them to pinpoint new skills that will help you move forward. Struggling does not make you or your relationship bad.

Q. What do effective couples do?
A. #1. These partners don't get caught up in each others' negative feelings.
#2. They can apologize or say they are sorry when things go off track.
#3. Each partner takes initiative: initiative to give positive strokes, initiative to complete family and household responsibilities, and initiative to repair hurt or angry feelings.

Our question to you…Can you use some of this information to make your relationship better this month? We hope so. If you'd like to see a more thorough discussion of couples therapy, you might be interested in the video, “Couples Therapy: An Introduction,” with Ellyn Bader. Call us toll free at 1-877-327-5915 for more information on this encouraging, informative videotape.

Until next month,
Ellyn Bader, Ph.D. and Peter Pearson, Ph.D.

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About 

Ellyn Bader, Ph.D., is Co-Founder & Director of The Couples Institute and creator of The Developmental Model of Couples Therapy. Ellyn is widely recognized as an expert in couples therapy, and since 2006 she has led innovative online training programs for therapists. Professionals from around the world connect with her through internet, conference calls and blog discussions to study couples therapy.

Ellyn’s first book, "In Quest of the Mythical Mate," won the Clark Vincent Award by the California Association of Marriage & Family Therapists for its outstanding contribution to the field of marital therapy and is now in its 18th printing. She has been featured on over 50 radio and television programs including "The Today Show" and "CBS Early Morning News," and she has been quoted in many publications including "The New York Times," "The Oprah Magazine" and "Cosmopolitan."

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