couple looking away from each other

By Chael Nel, Clinical Psychologist

In relationships, when couples say they can’t understand why their partners think in a specific way, they often refer to the fact that they disagree with how their partners think.

‘Disagreeing’ and ‘Misunderstanding’ are two fundamentally different concepts and the problem usually starts when a couple is unable to resolve disagreement based on what they think is a lack of understanding. Disagreement may then be seen as a threat to the preservation of the relationship due to the perceived lack of understanding. I have witnessed many couples in Couples Counselling being more concerned about what they disagree on, rather than on the manner in which they disagree. In spite of the fact that every marriage experiences disagreements, some successful couples have learned how to constructively communicate and understand their differences. As a result, successful relationships do not necessarily depend on both partners agreeing on issues, but rather on their ability to understand and respect potential areas of disagreement.

When we are in a relationship, we may feel that some fundamental disagreements are worth a good argument and therefore we spend an enormous amount of time and energy trying to agree on our disagreements. Many couples are left feeling that some disagreements are just not agreeable due to the lack of understanding. Couples then get stuck in a cycle of having the same disagreements over and over again. By the time they enter couples counselling for help, they already know what comes next, and often so do I. Their arguments are likely to follow the exact same pattern regardless of the topics that spark the disagreement. After a short time in counselling I can usually accurately predict how their arguments will unfold. The more the couple attempts to resolve their issues, the more annoyed they get, “he still doesn’t get it!” and “he does not understand me,” by then usually with much more frustration. Repeatedly, some couples stay with the same script and not surprisingly, this ends up with the same dead-end results.

So how do we try and understand something we disagree on? Or how do we agree on something we don’t understand?

I do believe that some arguments are helpful to get stuff of our chests, but some couples need to learn more specific communication skills in order to deal with their disagreements. A form of couples counselling I have found particularly helpful in addressing this is Imago Relationship Therapy techniques. This is a form of marriage counselling founded by Dr. Harville Hendrix, author of Getting the Love You Want: A Guide for Couples, and Keeping the Love You Find: A Single Person’s Guide to Achieving Lasting Love, both New York Times best-sellers. This well-known couples counselling model helps couples to understand the root-cause of the relationship conflict and disagreements. We all know that good communication is the basic foundation for any healthy relationship and the core practice of Imago Therapy is to teach couples how to engage in a structured form of communication and understanding.

The communication skill is referred to as the “Imago Dialogue” and involves three steps: Mirroring, Validation and Empathy. These are taught and facilitated during the Couples Counselling. In Mirroring, one person sends a message to convey thoughts, feelings or experiences to the receiver. In response, the receiver echoes the sender’s message by paraphrasing, using a lead sentence, like, “Let me see if I understand you correctly. You said…” It never fails to amaze me how selective hearing works in couples. Mirroring helps the couple to listen what the other person is actually saying rather than formulating a response or being defensive. Various neuroscience studies on the auditory cortex and the prefrontal lobe of the brain suggest that we use predominantly different parts of the brain to comprehend speech versus cognitive processing in formulating responses. Very few couples have mastered the art of having a good answer ready and to listen at the same time. Validation involves mirroring your partner as well, they will probably already be feeling that you have heard their point of view and seen that for them it is valid. It is vital for yoy to recognise that waht your partner says makes sense to them, and not necessarily to you.

Disgreeing can then be healthy if the couple can accept that they hold different points of view. During the Empathy step, you imagine what your partner might be feeling, answering the question, “How would I feel if this has to happen to me?”

During Imago Therapy, both partners in the relationship contribute to the problem and both are the solution. Each partner is 100% responsible for the issues in the relationship. Conflict for example is seen as existing when one or both partners are feeling misunderstood. Imago Therapy udnerstands that we are wounded in relationships, BUT we can also heal through relationships. That we fall in love with people who may provide us the greatest opportunities to do so.

I have witnessed many couples benefiting from this style of communication. As this style of communicating does not come naturally for most of us, it does involve practising the technique through and outside of counselling to become a natrural process.

I believe if couples refuse to change, grow and learn to disagree agreeably they will go on to recreate the same kind of arguments with their next partner.

So, separation might not be the cure, but agreeing on how to disagree may be part of the antidote.

If you and your partner are experiencing relationship difficulties, or you would like to understand and work through your own internal relational dynamics, book a consult with PsychMatters Family Therapy Centre  reception on 011-450 3576.

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