New Homework Assignment

I am often asked the questions, “How do I assign relevant homework to couples that I am seeing? Do you have suggestions for fine tuning homework uniquely to each couple?”

This month I thought I would share an easy to use, yet highly productive homework assignment.

This assignment deepens each partner's understanding of how the other thinks about a particularly charged topic. Let's say that a couple is fighting about how they each discipline their kids. One says, “you are too strict.” The other retorts “you are too loose.” The more lenient partner wants support from the other, and you know that any superficial agreement they make will fall apart quickly.

In the session, ask each partner to describe their own viewpoint about structure and discipline. You then ask the partners to draw each other out by taking turns asking questions about how they think and react to different events requiring discipline or limit setting. You can use generic examples like, your 16 year old son has a new driver's license and comes home half an hour late without calling, or your kids have specific chores but routinely forget or fail to follow through on them. Or, it's even more effective to work with a specific example that is presented by the couple.

In the office, you might structure their interaction by saying, “Will you take turns and ask each other about your view of discipline?” Ask them why they hold their beliefs and ask them about specific experiences they had in their family of origin that were effective and ineffective. Facilitate a productive discussion that allows each partner's thinking to be revealed. At this stage, there is no right and wrong, no problem solving and no negotiation.

Then, give the following homework assignment: When you go home, please write down what you believe to be central to your partner's thinking. Write at least 3 statements that summarize what you heard your partner describe. Focus specifically on how your partner thinks and what goes into their decision-making process.

When the couple returns to the next session, ask each of them to read what they have written. The listening partner then responds with either:
1. Yes, you got it. That is correct.
2. No, that is an overstatement.
3. That is directionally correct, but misses the essence of what I was trying to communicate.
4. Not correct. Here is how I would modify what you wrote.

Joe and Ann were often in conflict about disciplining their 12 year old twins with Joe being the loose partner and Ann wanting more structure.

I gave them this assignment, and they returned with the following statements:

Ann: You believe it is ok to be loose because when kids mature they naturally structure themselves. (Correct)

Ann: You believe it is ok to be loose because it preserves the emotional bond and doesn't make our kids mad at us. (Directionally correct, but misses the essence)

Ann: You believe it is ok for our kids to resist and say “no” to doing chores, because it is important for them to assert their independence. (Directionally correct, but misses the essence)

Joe: You believe in providing effective structure because you see yourself as an effective leader and you want our kids to develop leadership skills. (Correct)

Joe: You believe our kids are part of the tribe and that they should not take advantage of us by leaving their stuff around for us to pick up. (Correct)

Joe: You believe that our kids will be deficient and lazy if they don't do chores. (No, that is an overstatement)

Each partner is then asked to correct the statements before any problem solving takes place.

One of Joe's observations was an overstatement that needed correction. It was, “You believe that our kids will be deficient and lazy if they don't do chores.” Ann corrected this by saying, “I want them to learn to put themselves out for others even when it is not convenient.”

Ann had been directionally correct, but missed the essence when she summarized, “You believe it is ok to be loose because it preserves the emotional bond and doesn't make our kids mad at us.” Joe corrected this by saying, “I don't like rigid structures that are annoying. I like to ask them to pitch in when it is obvious that some chore needs doing.”

Ann had a second sentence, too, that was close, but not quite accurate. She'd said, “You believe it is ok for our kids to resist and say no to doing chores, because it is important for them to assert their independence.” Joe corrected this by saying, “I think there is a lot of learning in the back and forth discussion of ‘will you help, why or why not'? I like engaging them in those discussions rather than routine expectations of following a structure.”

After all corrections are made, each partner is asked to go home and think of one or two solutions that will work for both partners' belief systems.

The following week Joe returned proposing one solution that Ann especially liked. He suggested that he would initiate requests for the boys to go out of their way to do chores that would help Ann. He asked her to hold back and said he would engage the boys in ongoing dialogue about why they should extend themselves to help their mother. He wanted three weeks to try this approach and then the couple would evaluate the results.

A homework assignment like this one can be fine-tuned to any couple's needs. The content of their struggle is not significant. It asks each partner to understand the other's motives in a more complete way and then to develop solutions that fit with the motivation instead of using rote behavioral agreements that are likely to fall apart.

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Dr. Ellyn Bader

Dr. Ellyn Bader 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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