Stirring the Mystery- Advice for Couples

When someone comes in for couples counseling with me, I will likely ask what their goals are and what they’ve tried to achieve those goals. Often I learn that people have committed themselves to certain solutions that make really good sense, but have just failed to work. They assume if they just keep doing the same thing long enough and work hard enough at it, it will eventually pay off. It’s easy for a couple to get into autopilot mode where they both just keep repeating the same old patterns without giving them any fresh thought. And if they keep doing this for very long, they’re naturally going to get frustrated, upset and perhaps feel somewhat hopeless that things can improve. Sometimes couples come in on the verge of divorce, claiming they’ve already tried “everything” to make it better and nothing has worked. But in reality they keep repeating more of the same and getting the same result.

Albert Einstein is often credited as making the statement, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.” So one technique I sometimes suggest is to try doing something different. You can try changing the what, the where, the when, the how, or the who. Sometimes doing anything at all different is enough to get you moving toward your goal. You don’t need to over think this. There need not even be any direct cause and effect relationship for this to work. Relationship expert Michele Weiner-Davis tells the story of a couple that decided to argue only after they stripped naked. And it helped! It apparently added humor to the situation and whatever they were arguing about became less contentious. One variation of the “do anything different” technique is doing the exact opposite of what you would normally do. And sometimes the better part of valor is choosing to do nothing at all for a change. This technique is so simple and such common sense and yet the results can be powerful. The hardest part is simply letting go of what we already know doesn’t work.

If you often ask for more time together and your partner resists, then try being more independent instead. It’s quite possible your partner will begin asking you for more togetherness. There’s no guarantee, but it works frequently enough to perhaps warrant an experiment. If you are the independent one and your partner seems to smother you, try taking the initiative and pursuing them for a change. Your spouse may respond by relaxing and giving you some time and space apart. If you talk frequently about your feelings and your partner doesn’t seem to listen, then try keeping your feelings to yourself for a change–your partner might just begin asking. If you normally have arguments right after getting home from work, agree to discuss the conflicted topic later and try relaxing together instead. You might enjoy yourselves enough that the subsequent discussion goes smoother than normal. To stoke up the passion try suggesting a different time of day or location or style. If asking your spouse whether they’re in the mood often yields a negative, you might try actions instead of words. If you frequently offer “suggestions” about how your partner might improve and they tend to resist, try substituting compliments about even the smallest things you appreciate–your partner might begin to change on their own accord. If you’re having a standoff over money, you might try changing who is responsible for finances and budgeting–the spendthrift may just become more conservative. If difficult conversations tend to escalate in the home, try having that conversation over coffee at Starbucks, or when taking a walk. If you are a skilled debater but the two of you keep revisiting the same old discussions over and over, then try just listening to your partner to really understand their point of view. Feeling heard might be all they really needed from you and enough to finally put that topic to rest.

To get your partner to react differently, try doing something totally out of character. A good friend of mine calls this “stirring the mystery.” Surprise and unpredictability force us out of our patterns and that can be a good thing.

© 2011 David Bentley, MA, NCC