When I was first engaged, my mother gently suggested doing some counseling leading up to the marriage. I wasn’t surprised, just happy to have the affirmation. My mom has been open about counseling and its benefits since I was a child. I’ve been lucky enough to have experienced the benefits of therapy since I was 16 and continue to see a therapist weekly, now solidly in my mid-30s.
My then fiancé (now husband) was totally down. We found a spiritual leader we liked and had some great sessions with him. It was a pleasant experience overall, so I was surprised when I felt afraid to go to couples counseling a few years into our marriage. I was having a really difficult time with my mental health, and my husband needed some support in figuring out how to navigate it from his side. Because this time we were going to get treatment for an actual issue, I think I was scared it was going to prove we shouldn’t be together.
Instead, it was the best gift. I love our therapist. While it was difficult getting in to see her at first, I’m so happy we stuck with it, and we still see her once a month. My husband and I have agreed that therapy will be part of our routine for the foreseeable future. It’s important to us to become better communicators, and every tool she gives us is an opportunity to get closer.
Over the years, I have started to realize that these tools aren’t just for a partner, they’re for anyone you’re in relationship with. Using these skills have made me a better worker, a better family member, and a better friend. Here are some of the tools that have been the most helpful.
1. We are on the same team.
Whenever my husband, Aaron, and I used to argue, I would think: he wants something different from what I want. This kind of framework always put us in opposition and makes it really hard to trust each other, and it also made us weary in conflicts, as if there was no way that we could both come out happy.
Once we recalibrated to understand that we were on the same team, it made everything easier. Instead of one person ending up “winning,” we would work together to create a solution we both could live with. It ended up making our fights less intense and helped us recognize that we could find a solution that made us both happy.
In the same way, in my film work, it’s been really helpful to set that kind of tone as a director. I let my team know that we’re all in it together and striving for the same outcome: a great project. It helps the team understand nothing is personal and we’re all just trying to do right by the project. Because we all know we’re in service of the final product, no one takes any critique as criticism and we can all strive for a show we can be proud of in the end.
2. Always lead with questions.
I used to have a huge tendency to think I understood someone’s motives by their actions. Aaron has the memory of a goldfish and, when we first got together, that used to drive me nuts. On the other hand, I remember everything and took it personally when he couldn’t remember conversations we’d already had. I felt like he didn’t care enough about me to remember.
Over the last decade, I’ve really come to understand that I shouldn’t assume anything when it comes to Aaron. He’s almost never thinking what I think. How could he? We’re two different people with two different life experiences and two different minds. Our therapist helped us realize that instead of assuming things, we can start by asking questions. This stops the asker from going down an assumption rabbit hole and allows the askee to not feel defensive.
I’ve also started extending this to friends and family, and it’s made a huge difference. Instead of getting frustrated when things have to change last minute, it’s helped me to realize that I don’t know the ins and outs of everyone’s lives. They may have a reason for needing things to stay flexible, and it’s not mine to assume. If I need an answer for some reason, I ask. Otherwise, I respect that I don’t know everything and I don’t need to, and I move on.
3. Take a break, as needed.
One of the biggest things I struggled with was needing to finish an argument right when it cropped up. I figured if we didn’t talk about it in the moment, the conversation wouldn’t happen. We’d then end up with a long list of resentments that would make us angry down the line and ruin our marriage. What I didn’t realize is that continuing a fight when both of us were angry or upset was actually the thing that could ruin our marriage.
Anger is an interesting emotion. It’s absolutely necessary, but when it takes over, it can lead us to misread a situation. So Aaron and I ended up just staying in our anger, completely unable to hear each other. Our therapist introduced the idea of timeouts to us, and it changed everything. When we’re in the throes of an argument, if one of us calls a break, we have to walk away from the argument. The rule is that the person who calls the timeout calls the time-in. The other person has a right to request a postponement, but then they need to be the one to call it back in again. This gives us a chance to process and better identify our feelings, and we find we’re be able to speak about it without getting upset again.
Similarly, when it comes to parenting, it’s so important to take a break. If you’re at your limit and you find yourself more ready to yell at your kids than not, take a break. Tag in your partner or call a friend/parent that can give you a breather, or even just let your kids know that you need to walk out of the room and take a lap around your home. Take some deep breaths, and then when you come back to the issue, you’ll have a better chance of being able to communicate clearly and without anger.
Couples counseling is essentially just a tool to help two people communicate with each other. Once I saw that framework, it opened up the whole world to me. I started practicing the same tools out in the real world, and I find my relationships have flourished with this kind of attention. Now I tell everyone about couples counseling and can’t stop recommending it to everyone I know. I hope these skills help you as much as they’ve helped me!