You know what I’ve never heard at the beginning of a session with a couple? “We only have one problem.” Never have I ever been tasked with helping a couple navigate one issue. The same is true with family therapy. Relationships don’t contain one problem; they contain endless differences, triggers, and frustrations that can populate the script of an infinite argument.
For countless hours, couples have pleaded with me to understand their point of view. They beg me to knock some sense into their deranged spouse, who seems to be the most ignorant creature to ever walk the face of the earth.
“I have an idea,” I once told a couple who had insisted on paying me to watch them argue for the first three weeks. “You both present your point of view, and I will decide who’s right. Then we’ll move on to the next topic and work our way through all of your concerns.” Needless to say, this suggestion was not one they were excited about. After discussing what was unappealing about my suggestion, the couple realized they were not interested in finding out they were wrong about anything. Shocker!
There are unlimited points of conflict, no one wants to know if they are wrong, and everyone is shouting. Meanwhile, the kids are parenting themselves and no one is feeling fulfilled. One partner will shout to communicate their anguish, while the other withdraws to avoid further rocking an unsteady boat. Both sides continue following their impulses, secretly hoping for amends to be made, all the while feeling hopeless for their future.
The same dynamic exists in a struggling parent-child relationship. Children show no respect, parents struggle to convey unconditional love, and power struggles dominate the limited time together. Stress levels are overwhelmingly high as all parties flail to have their needs met. Parents shout to establish control; children act out to penetrate boundaries.
Albert Einstein famously said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” Aren’t we all guilty of this? We keep shoving a square into a circle across the many relationships in our lives and get angry with the corners of the square for getting in the way.
So, what should we change? It sounds hopeless!
If you are currently experiencing a struggling relationship, be it romantic or with a child, ask yourself the following question: Is there positivity in my relationship?
Dr. John Gottman, arguably the foremost researcher on marriage and relationships in history, found that positive interactions play a massive role in predicting the health of a relationship. His studies discovered the “Magic Relationship Ratio” of 5 to 1. This means that for every negative interaction during conflict, a stable and happy marriage has five (or more) positive interactions. Presumably, a similar concept can be applied to our relationship with children. It is intuitive and supported by Dr. Gottman’s research that a satisfying, enjoyable relationship requires an imbalance in ratio highly favoring positive interactions.
Where can these positive interactions be found? Everywhere: carpool, dinnertime, wake-up, bath-time.
When was the last time you cranked the music in the living room for a family dance party? How about family game night? Late-night ice cream party? “No-bedtime Thursdays”?
When was the last time doing the dishes turned into a water fight with your spouse? How about a late-night slow dance in the kitchen? Playing cards in bed?
Maybe we should start slow. How about making eye contact while talking? Giving compliments? Listening?
How about telling our children how awesome we think they are? Or maybe showing them by listening to their ridiculous stories without correcting them. What if we smiled at them with our eyes as if to say, “How did I get so lucky to have you as my kid”? (If this is difficult, see last week’s article entitled “Do You Like Your Children?”.)
Life provides many obstacles to hurdle, but it’s harder to do so when living in a gloomy environment. By infusing our homes and relationships with positivity, with fun, we create an environment that is primed to effectively navigate differences.
As Gary Chapman tells us in his book The 5 Love Languages, everyone has their own unique emotional love tank. If this love tank is nurtured and kept full, we are empowered with unbelievable resilience and become expert problem solvers.
We must always have our eyes open to find ways to have fun, to connect with our loved ones. This ongoing gesture can provide the adrenaline a relationship needs to sail stormy seas.