An Important Couple Question
Couple Question – What Went Well Last Week?
Tim and Julie were attending a marriage small group in our home. They were not doing very well. They seemed to be stuck in some behaviors that were destroying their relationship. It had gotten to the point that they avoided talking to each other.
Julie would demand that Tim change. When Tim felt criticized, he would get defensive. That only escalated the argument. So, Tim decided a better reaction would be to shut down and not reply. So, Julie became more upset. Tim withdrew even further.
We ask at the beginning of each small group time, “What went well this week?”
For the first few weeks, Tim and Julie didn’t have much to say. They seemed stuck.
Our curriculum asks every couple to start to recognize their conflict patterns. Are there patterns that happen over and over again? Julie recognized that she was very critical. Tim recognized that he became defensive and then stonewalled. Both of them felt that they had good reasons for their actions.
We explained that the first step to resolving these issues is to recognize your pattern. You can’t make steps to change unless you know what’s going on.
Julie and Tim were recognizing their negative interactions. That’s real progress! I don’t think they felt that they were improving, but awareness is the first step.
After several weeks, they came in and told us that they had had a great week.
This was an excellent opportunity to recognize their positive interactions. Here’s three tips for you:
Tip 1: Create Hope
A common issue is that people lose hope that their relationship will improve. When the negative patterns continue over and over again, it feels like nothing will change. One or both people lose hope.
We use their successes to help to restore hope in change. So, we spend time asking about what happened that created such a great week.
First, we celebrate with them. We say, “That’s fantastic! We are happy for you!”
We explain that we want them to be aware of what is working. When something goes well, what did you do that helped to build the relationship?
Can you do more of what works?
Tip 2: Breakdown the Interaction
We want the couple to understand the specific actions that worked for them. We break it down in very detailed steps.
It looks something like this:
When my spouse ________, I felt __________. I thought ___________. I reacted by ___________
We ask these as questions. How did you feel when your spouse…? What did you think? How did you react?
Then, we ask the same questions to their partner.
We asked Tim and Julie what happened.
Tim explained that Julie came to him one evening and she wanted to talk.
We asked, “What were you feeling at that moment?”
Tim replied, “I was nervous. I didn’t want this to escalate, but Julie started out by saying the same thing. She said she wanted to try to work some things out and she didn’t want to argue. That made me feel a little better.”
Michelle, my wife, pointed out, “So, Julie came to you with a soft start? She expressed a desire for a good relationship. Is that right?
Tim replied, “Yes, it helped me not to get immediately defensive. It helped me to listen to her.
I asked, “Julie, how did you feel when Tim didn’t immediately become defensive?”
Julie said, “It helped me to not attack and to open up about my feelings. I didn’t become sarcastic.”
Tim said, “I know that she doesn’t like my work schedule and that she feels alone as a parent. She told me that again and I guess I let her know that I heard her.”
Michelle observed, “So, you validated her concerns?”
Tim explained that Julie was more open and less attacking. So, it helped him to listen.
Julie explained that when she was listened to, it helped her to feel like she mattered to Tim. She felt he cared.
The couple went on to explain that they had a great conversation. Tim was able to set some limits on his work schedule and Julie was able to reduce her attacks and sarcasm.
Tip 3: Create Awareness of the Positive Impact
We always ask the couple detailed questions about what worked.
The important part is that we want them to get the specific behaviors that worked. For Tim and Julie it was:
- Express desire for a good relationship
- Start softly
- Validate thoughts and feelings
We weren’t done yet. I asked, “What would happen to your relationship bond if you did this more often?”
Both Tim and Julie agreed that it would help them. They both felt particularly close after their conversation.
Next I asked, “If you are in the middle of an argument and it starts to escalate, what could you do?”
Tim said, “I think that if we would take a short time out and start again with a soft start that would help.”
We spend a great deal of time with couples recognizing what works because we want them to recognize their positive behaviors and do more of those.
Tips for Marriage Mentors:
- Create hope – Help the couple to recognize that they are making progress. They aren’t stuck!
- Breakdown the Interaction – Go beyond celebrating with them and help them to see the specific actions that are helping.
- Create Awareness of the Positive Impact – The couple gains by understanding how these specific actions help to build their connection.