Tuesday Tip: Instead of Pointing Fingers, Join Hands

An astute reader (a.k.a., my wife) pointed out that the Tuesday Tip would be more helpful if it followed from the associated post, rather than anticipating it. And I agree. So, this Tuesday Tip refers to last Friday’s post, Marriage Is The Real Problem. And it can be read in conjunction with last week’s Tuesday Tip.

Have you ever felt like your marital conflict doesn’t go anywhere? Have you ever felt like you and your spouse were arguing in circles? 

Oftentimes, the lack of progress is the result of spouses focusing on the wrong problem. We  think the problem is in our spouse, when actually the problem is between us. That is, the “problems” are simply the normal incompatibilities that happen when two entirely different people try to live the rest of their lives together.

But these incompatibilities get blamed on each other, and the battle ensues.

In Integrative Behavioral Couples Therapy (IBCT), the strategy of “empathic joining” refers to “the process by which partners cease to blame one another for their emotional suffering and instead develop empathy for each other’s experience.”*

In my opinion, the best way to do this is to tell our stories to each other in a meaningful way, giving our partner a better chance at understanding our responses. I might recommend the following process when a spouse is angry and blaming.

  1. Identify the “soft” feeling underneath the anger. Feelings like hurt, loneliness, abandonment, shame, embarrassment, humiliation, fear, anxiety, etc.
  2. Identify the trigger for this feeling in the marital interaction.
  3. Identify at least one time in life before the marriage that this feeling was triggered and experienced. Preferably, choose the earliest memory of a similar kind of experience. Remember, pain and suffering did not begin with the marriage!
  4. Write down this scene from earlier in your story. Focus on your soft emotions, trying to make your internal experience as detailed as possible.
  5. Read your story to your spouse.

This exercise accomplishes several important goals. First, for the angry spouse, it changes the interaction from an opportunity to attack to an opportunity to be vulnerable. Second, the blaming spouse is reminded that their partner is not completely responsible for the pain. They may trigger it, but it didn’t originate with them. Third, the spouse who was being blamed is given the space to quit being defensive and given important information that will allow him or her to have more empathy for their frustrated partner.

Spouses can become a team, learning each other’s stories, rather than blaming each other for all the problems in the relationship.

Tuesday Tip Disclaimer: The Tuesday Tip is not professional advice. It should be read as you would read a “self-help” book. For professional and customized advice, you should seek the services of a counselor, who can become more intimately familiar with your specific situation. Counselors can be located through your insurance network or through your state psychological association website.

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Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.