Most couples who come into my office have a general sense that sharing their true feelings will soften the edges of their conflicts and improve their connection. They’ve seen the therapy sessions on TV, where the husband admits that he’s not actually angry, he’s terrified. Terrified that he’s not good enough. There’s a touching speech. There’s music. There’s tears. And, then the scene ends….
To be fair, this idea is not just a fairy tale; I love watching couples uncover the root of their disconnect. Identifying the vulnerability and longing underneath the argument is an essential step in the therapy.
But, if you’ve ever tried to pause in the middle of an argument and identify your emotions, you know that it’s way easier said than done – and you also know it’s even more difficult when your partner is the one you’re arguing with in front of a total stranger… i.e., me, the therapist.
The [in-session] argument continues, and I (the therapist) try to offer tools and tips as I can to help each partner understand what is going on… But, sometimes it can be a lot of information to take in at once – and instead of making things clearer – sharing emotions can bring up a new challenge for the couple….
“What if I tell you how I feel, and things still don’t change?”
In a sense, this is the relationship version of a question we all ask ourselves constantly: “When do I accept the things I cannot change, and when do I advocate for my external world to change?”
Accepting What We Cannot Change
You’ve heard the serenity prayer, I’m sure. Truly, the hardest work in any relationship is not accepting the things we [think we] cannot change. It’s having the knowledge and wisdom to know which things should be changed and which things should not be changed.
Just to use a classic example, imagine your partner leaves their laundry all over the floor – you then feel unimportant and stressed when they do it. Once you notice these feelings, there are a two options:
1. The “accept the things I cannot change” track might mean that you work on your own response to the laundry on the floor.
For example, you could:
- use coping skills like mindfulness or distraction to manage your feelings on your own.
- acknowledge the things that have happened in your life that have led to your unique blend of feelings.
Or, maybe you aren’t so easy to accept things. I like to tell clients that acceptance doesn’t mean that we like something or that we are resigned to it forever. It just means we’ve decided not to spend energy on trying to change it in the moment.
2. The “change the things I can” track might look like you doing what you find necessary to solve the laundry problem.
For example, you could:
- try talking to your partner.
- pick up the laundry yourself.
- work on changing your feelings and/or changing external circumstances.
This track can prove to be both simpler and more complicated than acceptance alone. On the one hand, solving the problem on the surface level appears to “solve” the emotions underneath.
On the other hand, this solution can serve as a bandaid when we confuse responsibility with blame. It sometimes leads to new emotions and tough conversations around collaboration, resentment, and other dynamics of the relationship.
The Argument is Beyond Dirty Laundry
In fact, this is where I sometimes see couples getting stuck and confused. How did a conversation about unfolded socks bring up ten years of unresolved issues? And, how can we lean into these conversations in a way that leaves both partners responsible for their own part, while also caring about the other’s preferences?
I’m so glad you asked! There’s a surprising way to build insight about what to accept and what to change, and this can be an important tool for couples facing power struggles and conflict.
Know the Difference with the No-Check Challenge
Have you ever put your phone in a drawer while you worked on an important project? If so, you might relate to the idea that deciding not to check something can be a fascinating portal to understanding your mind.
If you were to get curious about these moments, and look at them almost like a journalist, you might notice that underneath your impulse to checkcheckCHECK (hey, I’ve been there too!) are some illuminating, deeper questions.
Take a moment to think about your phone habits….
When are the times you most want to look at your phone? Is it when you’re frustrated? Bored? Lonely?
It is crucial that you notice your behaviors without judgment! We often give something external the power to save us from our own discomfort. The first step in releasing the grip of that power is knowing when we’re most vulnerable to it.
The next step is to notice what you imagine will happen when you get the information you’re pulled toward. What would your phone provide for you, and what does that tell you about your needs in the moment? Maybe you want to check Facebook because you’re feeling alone and unstimulated.
Here’s the magic part, once you identify that feeling, you allow a nanosecond of pause between your emotions and the impulse to “fix” them.
Taking responsibility in this way expands your options because now, you’re not depending on this one invisible Deus ex Machina to save you from discomfort.
This is part of the core of the No-Check Challenge. You can check Facebook, but you can also put on some music, go to a coffee shop to work, or even just use positive self-talk to reassure yourself that you can tolerate this uncomfortable sensation.
Much the same as with our phones, what seems like a simple exercise in willpower can actually be boot camp for effective communication in relationships.
So, I Didn’t Check Facebook Once. You’re Saying My Relationship Is Saved?
Look, here’s the thing, just like daily meditation, this is a practice. In fact, No-Check Challenges are similar to meditation, because they’re also based on mindfulness and non-judgmental curiosity about what’s happening inside our head.
Honestly, that’s kind of the point. I see enough couples to know that in today’s world, it’s hard enough to make the time to attend therapy once a week, let alone to meditate every day. So, I’m all about tools that won’t take more time from the day – ones that will actually save time.
This is a game changer for couples, because it trains us in a way of thinking that allows for new possibilities. We’re basically building the equivalent of muscle memory in our brains. With practice, we get better and better at noticing the impulse to change something about our partner. We can then pause and look within to get a better sense of our own power to manage the situation. And, even if they do change after talking it through, it’s just icing on the cake!
Choose Your Challenge
So, what will your first No-Check Challenge be? Maybe there’s something that came to mind as you read this post that you’re realizing you don’t need to look at as often as you do. I’ve tried this technique with everything from resisting the urge to check the time on a long run to actually just trusting that my Amazon order will get here when it’s supposed to get here, whether I track the package or not… I know, I’m basically a Buddhist monk at this point.
Whatever you choose, lead with curiosity, be kind to yourself, and have fun!