Self-Care for Couples

Lewis and Brandy Engel are clinical psychologists practicing in San Francisco. They are Couples Editors of Medical Self-Care Magazine.

Taking care of the relationships in one’s life is an important—and often undervalued—part of self-care. After twelve years of seeing troubled couples, we’re convinced that having one or more poisonous or destructive—or even merely boring—relationship in your life can make you physically sick. A significant percentage of our clients have exhibited symptoms— ulcers, colitis, depression, insomnia, and migraines seem to be the most common—that seem almost invariably to disappear when the relationship problems are worked out. We have come to see destructive relationships as a health risk factor in the same league as overeating, smoking, lack of exercise, exposure to environmental pollutants, and poor nutrition.

This article focuses on building a strong and satisfying primary couple relationship, and with dealing with problems within that relationship, but the principles of supportive interaction and good communications we will describe can be applied in any relationship.

We’ll begin by describing five common stumbling blocks—attitudes and behaviors that may keep the tools of couple self-care from working. Next we’ll describe the five tools we have found most effective. Finally, we’ll list some preliminary findings from our current research into the attitudes and behavior patterns of couples who have achieved especially enduring, zestful relationships. We hope that these ideas, tools, and resources will be of help to you in your efforts to create that kind of a couple relationship for yourself.

Stumbling Block #1: The Right /Wrong Game

The biggest single barrier to improving one’s couple relationship is a tendency to see our partner as the source of our problems. We think that if we could only get our partner to change his or her behavior or personality, everything would be fine. When there is pain and conflict in the relationship, it’s only natural to assume someone is doing something wrong, and if we feel that we’re doing our best, it’s got to be them.

Difficulties need not be anyone’s fault, and assigning blame is rarely the most effective way of dealing with a problem. The fact is that there is pain and conflict in all relationships. Think of them as growing pains—as opportunities for both partners to learn and grow and change.

The tools we will be describing can all too easily be turned into clubs with which to beat one’s partner over the head—by using them only to point out how he or she is “doing it wrong.” It would be a shame for these excellent tools to be reduced to weapons in the right/wrong game.

Here are some tipoffs that you might be having trouble with this stumbling block:

    1. You feel superior to your partner because he or she is not following the rules of good communication and you are.

    2. You feel that the information you have learned from the new books and articles—including this one proves that you were right all along (and your partner was wrong).

    3. You feel that the fact that your partner doesn’t want to do certain exercises or follow certain rules proves that he/she is wrong and you are right.

Our research shows that couples with the most successful marriages rarely argue about who is right and who is wrong. They are not interested in fixing blame for painful or hurtful happenings. They simply share their feelings and see what they can do about preventing a recurrence.

Stumbling Block #2: Being Careful Not to Go More Than Halfway

Being careful not to go more than halfway is like cutting off your nose to spite your face. You may end up with a relationship that is “fair,” but one in which neither of you gets very much. There will be a climate of scarcity in your relationship, a feeling that there is not enough love, affection, appreciation, forgiveness, and support to go around. You both begin to hoard all your love, appreciation, and support—refusing to give any out unless you get some first. So neither of you get any.

We would suggest that there need be no scarcity of love, affection, and support. Try giving more than your share. Chances are you will get more back. Instead of going just 50 percent of the way, go 60 or 70 or 100 percent—as far as it takes to make things work. After all, you have a vested interest in creating a nurturing, supportive climate for your relationship. So you’re hardly being altruistic.

On the other hand, if you can’t find a way to go the extra distance without feeling resentful, don’t do it. You’ll end up feeling resentful, superior, and ripped off. Such martyrdom will end up lowering, instead of raising, your self-esteem. At the same time, be wary of having your integrity riding on every little issue, or you’ll end up with a relationship of great integrity and very little else.

Stumbling Block #3: My Partner Doesn’t Want to Work on the Relationship

Many people feel that it’s impossible to handle relationship problems unless their partner is willing to cooperate. This isn’t necessarily so. Each partner makes an important contribution to any communications difficulty, so if either partner changes his or her pattern of behavior to a more effective one, the problem may be resolved.

It is easy to use an uncooperative partner as an excuse not to work on our own patterns of behavior. It may seem unfair to put forth more time and effort than our partner (Stumbling Block #2). But once we have chosen to stay in a particular relationship, it seems a little silly not to do everything in our power to make it work a swell as we can. Furthermore, whatever we learn about better and more complete communication will help us in other relationships (children, parents, friends, etc.) or with our next partner, should we eventually decide to end our present relationship.

Stumbling Block #4: Focusing on Who and What Your Partner Is Not

Just as the same bottle of wine can be seen as half full or half empty, you can focus either on qualities your partner has or on those he or she lacks. The former leads to satisfaction, the latter to frustration and resentment. If, for example, your husband is quiet, dependable, and hard-working, being dissatisfied that he is not emotional, spontaneous, artistic, and wildly passionate is looking at the half-empty side of the bottle. Being critical of him for those basic qualities and trying to do a major remodeling job will lead to resentment from him and frustration for you. You cannot turn a Chevy pickup into a Porsche. Some changes are possible, but when you get done, although you might have a great pickup, you will still not have a sportscar. If you can keep your partner’s positive qualities in mind, then even while imagining certain changes, you can still experience the relationship as basically satisfying as it is.

Appreciating what your partner does have to offer has another beneficial effect—when people feel loved and appreciated for who they are, they grow and expand and become more open to change. When they feel unappreciated and unaccepted as they are, they become defensive and resistant to new approaches.

All this is not to say you shouldn’t ask your partner to make changes. We’re just suggesting that requests made in a supportive spirit will be most effective. The key here is to make it clear that there is nothing wrong with the other person, in fact quite the contrary, but that you would simply like it better if he or she were to behave in some other way.

Stumbling Block #5: Refusing to Use a Professional Counselor When Self-Care Isn’t Enough

Solving our own problems without outside help is as American as apple pie—but sometimes there’s a limit. Occasionally a couple may find themselves so deeply stuck in a seemingly insoluble problem that they are unable to use self-care methods effectively. We consider it an important part of couple self-care to use a counselor or therapist when appropriate. If you do so, we suggest you ask your counselor to help you work though the exercises described in this article, and perhaps those in one or more of the books we recommend as well.

Tools for Couple Self-Care:

The following tools are designed to help you communicate with your partner and experience satisfaction in your relationship. Feel free to adapt them to your own needs and personal style. And remember, the best technique in the world can have the opposite of its desired effect if used as a weapon in the right/wrong game.

Tool #1: Appointments for Time Together

Couple relationships are like gardens—if you take care of them on a daily basis, it doesn’t take much effort. Spending time in the garden is a real pleasure. If you let them go without time and attention, getting them straightened out can be a huge job and may even require the help of a professional.

One immediate benefit that many couples get from starting couple therapy is that they spend one hour a week focusing on themselves and their life together. Sadly, that is one hour more than they customarily spend. Couples with busy lives—which is most of us—find it easy to give the last priority to scheduling time together. It may seem unspontaneous, but if you do not already do so, you should consider formally setting aside a small amount of time each day plus a more substantial amount of time at least once a week in order to really stay in touch.

A daily sharing time can be twenty to forty minutes, a good time to share events of the day, thoughts, ideas, wins, losses, appreciations, and gripes. (Don’t use this time for gripes too often or your partner will start to avoid it.) A good exercise for this time is called the Ten and Ten. The Ten and Ten Exercise (developed in the Marriage Encounter Movement) consists of taking ten minutes and writing down in a notebook your “reflections”—thoughts and feelings about yourself, your partner. and your relationship. Then you get together at an agreed-upon time, read each other’s notebooks, and talk for ten minutes about your reactions. More information about this exercise is available in How to Have a Happy Marriage.

The second category of time together can be used as an opportunity to go out together, to do something fun and special that you don’t ordinarily do or haven’t done in a long time. It can also be the time to work on a major problem in your relationship, such as working out a budget. This larger chunk of time, two to six hours, should be scheduled as faithfully as the daily sharing time, and not be sacrificed to demands of family, work, or other obligations. A Couple’s Guide to Communication has a great list of fun things to do—in case you need to be reminded.

Tool #2: Listening Standing in Your Partner’s Shoes

This is a big one. If you don’t allow yourself to really listen, none of the other tools on this list are going to do you much good.

Good listening requires a willingness on your part to get a sense of what it’s like for your partner—to stand in his or her shoes for a few moments. What makes this difficult is that most of the time we are judging and evaluating what our partner is saying, trying to decide if they are right or wrong. This makes it impossible to get a really clear sense of where they are coming from, what it is like for them. In addition, some things they say make us angry and that makes it difficult to keep listening.

Most of us have had the experience of really listening to someone and of really being heard. The experience can range from thrilling to deeply satisfying, and it is unfortunate that these moments are so rare for most of us. When someone really hears us, there is a sense of relief and movement. This is the experience that we have when someone really listens to a problem that we have, and, without any suggestions, we suddenly see how to handle the problem. The book P.E.T.: Parent Effectiveness Training is one of the best resources for learning to really listen. The material is readily adaptable to listening to your partner.

Here are some concrete steps you can take to learn to listen:

    1. Really focus on what it’s like to be in your partner’s shoes; don’t allow yourself to be distracted.

    2. Listen without interrupting except to check your understanding of what has been said so far.

    3. Repeat what you have heard in your own words so that your partner can let you know if you heard accurately. (If this doesn’t work very well, start by simply repeating a close facsimile of his/her own words.)

    4. Don’t assume you should do something about it unless they directly ask you to. Instead of acknowledging that we really hear our partners, we usually offer suggestions, criticize, interpret, threaten, analyze, and so forth.

Tool #3: Letting Your Spouse Know What You Like and What You Don’t Like

Sharing a free flow of resentments and appreciations is essential for openness and intimacy in a relationship. When we withhold telling our partners about the things we like and appreciate about them, we begin to create a taken-for-granted feeling that is extremely destructive to intimacy. When we withhold our resentments and irritations, we are no longer fully available to our partners. We have to use energy to avoid letting these critical feelings slip out, and there is a constant feeling of discomfort, the feeling that something is not quite right. On the other hand, when we are freely sharing our resentments and appreciations, we are not keeping up a front. There is a feeling of release and relief, and communication on all levels improves.

Of course, the reason that we often don’t share our little irritations is that little irritations can cause big hassles. The suggestions below will certainly not eliminate all anger and hurt feelings due to the sharing of resentments, but they should help minimize them.

    1 . Keep current. If you are sharing your resentments and appreciations on a regular basis, your partner has clear and current information from which to understand you and to modify his/her behavior. Since what you like and don’t like changes over time, this is crucial to keeping your relationship from getting stuck in a rut. It also avoids “gunnysacking,” the storing up of a big gunnysack full of complaints which may be dumped on your unsuspecting partner when you get mad enough.

    2. Avoid blaming, putting down, proving your partner wrong. These activities simply lower your partner’s self-esteem and create defensiveness and resentment. Then you get to hang out with a resentful, depressed person.

    3. Use I-messages instead of you-messages. When we begin our statements of irritations with the word “you” instead of “I,” the result tends to come out as a blame or put down. For example, “You don’t care for me or you’d come home on time,” is a you-message. “I feel uncared for when you don’t come home on time,” is an I-message.

    4. Don’t overload. Limit yourself to sharing one or at most two gripes per day. In addition, try to share appreciations along with your resentments. Remember, all of our egos are tender and if you can avoid lowering your partner’s sense of self-esteem or making him/her defensive, it is to both of your advantages.

Tool #4: Hostility Rituals (Handling Anger)

We all get angry and resentful in the context of our relationships. People who don’t express these feelings may end up with relationships with little or no life or fire left in them. The emotional demise of these relationships is often due to suppression of and not dealing with the anger and hostility that come up naturally in intimate relating. Careful use of all the good communication tools listed here and in all the many books about couples and communication will not eliminate hurt, anger, and resentment from your relationship. We must learn to accept these feelings and learn from them.

Psychologist George Bach has made enormous contributions in this area. Bach reasoned that since anger and hostility are here to stay, why not harness these emotions to clear the air, make impact, and retain aliveness and vitality in our relationships. Since these emotions are scary, tricky stuff for most of us, he designed rituals to help us learn to express our anger safely and constructively. The rules of the rituals are like the rules of safety around fire. Fire correctly handled can heat our house and cook our food. Handled carelessly, it can burn down the whole place.

Anger, like sex, has been rather a taboo subject in spite of the fact that there has always been quite a lot of both going on. As a consequence, we really need some guidelines to help us use it productively. Here are a few:

    1. Don’t ambush your partner with anger or resentment. Let them know you are going to be expressing your resentment and get their agreement to listen.

    2. Respect your partner’s limitations. Bach suggests time limits so that your partner does not get overloaded. Also try to avoid hitting below the belt in areas in which you know your partner to be sensitive. Do not seek to lower your partner’s self-esteem. You will both be sorry.

    3. Express your anger only in a context that is supportive of your partnership and only for the purpose of clearing the air, getting your resentment off your chest, and creating space for a renewal of closeness. Avoid trying to hurt, belittle, or prove to the other that you are right and they are wrong. Dr. Bach’s books, The Intimate Enemy, Pairing, and Creative Aggression provide a treasure house of effective ways to deal openly with anger.

Tool #5: Working it Out: Negotiating Changes

You know those little or not-so-little irritating things that your partner does over and over again. Even if you express your resentment about them and clear the air, it’s hard to really let go of them because you know that it’s just going to happen again. For things like that, it is important to be able to negotiate agreements that end these sources of discontent and unhappiness. I’m talking about things like leaving underpants on the floor, not cleaning up after eating, being late, or charging up large bills at the department store that one partner feels can’t be afforded.

It probably wouldn’t be all that difficult to work out many of these sorts of difficulties if we didn’t run into underlying issues like who is right (and who is wrong), who will win (and who will lose), and You can’t tell me what to do. However, these things do tend to come up. One of the most valuable things you can do to make your negotiations with your partner work out really well is to notice when the above sorts of attitudes come up for you, acknowledge them internally, and let go of them as quickly as you can. In addition, we have included some suggestions that can help you avoid these pitfalls.

1. Make an appointment to work on any issue which you seem to have difficulty resolving. Make sure you have enough time, no distractions, and are reasonably fresh before you tackle it. Deal with only one issue at a time. If you want to talk about doing dishes and your partner wants to talk about charge accounts, we need to flip a coin or whatever, but we may only talk about one of these issues at a time. Otherwise, we guarantee you will not get anywhere.

2. Give your partner clear information about what bugs you. Keep these communications free from judgment, blame, and insult. Consider the following two statements:

“When you don’t clean up after you eat, I gel resentful and feel like you expect me to be your maid!”

“You lazy, inconsiderate slob—you act like a big baby!”

The first statement contains useful information expressed as an I-message. The second statement contains no information about exactly what it is that bugs you—and does contain blame, judgment, and insult.

3. Be sure you listen carefully and be sure your partner has heard you at each step of the negotiation.

4. Make a clear and specific proposal about the new behavior you want from your partner, free from judgment, blame, and insult.

5. When agreement is reached, be scrupulous about keeping it. If your partner only keeps part of the agreement, praise him or her for what they did do and check to see if they want to renegotiate the agreement or if they want some help in sticking to the original deal. These agreements should be renegotiated when they no longer fit the needs of both you and your partner.

The spirit in which these negotiations is carried out is crucial. Remember, the goal is to make an agreement which will support the relationship. It is easy in a negotiating situation to get into bargaining—getting the most and trying to give the least. Avoid this. Make any concessions you comfortably can, without trying to get something in return for each concession. What you get from successful negotiation is a partner who feels loved and supported and a relationship that works. Finally, do not make any agreements that you will not keep, or that you will feel resentful about later.

You may have thought of problems that would come up in trying to negotiate with your partner that have not been dealt with in this brief discussion. Much more detailed information is available in The Intimate Enemy and A Couple’s Guide to Communication.

Climate of Abundance

In our research on long-term, zestful marriages, the hallmark of those couples with enduring, exciting, and satisfying relationships turned out to be a particular emotional and attitudinal state that we have come to call a climate of abundance. These couples assumed that their partners loved and supported them, even when they were fighting or depressed or otherwise not seeming to be loving. At these difficult times, they assumed that their partners still loved them, even though they were having trouble showing it. More important, they did not withhold their own love, kindness, and support, because they did not feel as if they needed to conserve it. They did not feel they could only be loving if their partners were being loving in return. For these couples, love and support were like muscles, the more they were exercised the stronger they got.

For couples who do not share a climate of abundance, love and support are like bread and cheese in a starving land. There is never enough, and if you have some, you only give it out if you can be absolutely sure to get an equal or greater amount in return. Both partners may feel starved for a crumb of love or affection, but each feels that he or she has already given more than has been received—and therefore will not give one crumb more until the other does something loving and supportive first.

The problem is that, underneath, each partner feels that there is a basic shortage of love and affection in the world. Therefore, when things are going well, for example at the beginning of a relationship, and they feel generous and are getting a lot of love and support, they think to themselves, “Maybe I was wrong, maybe there will be enough love and support for me.” But then, for one reason or another, things get tough (e.g., their partner is withdrawn or angry), and they think, “I knew it, there is never going to be enough love and support for me.” Then they begin withholding and wait for their partner to give them enough to justify the expenditure of some loving and supportive behavior on their own part. As their partner is usually feeling pretty much the same way, they end up stuck in a vicious cycle, each waiting for the other to make the first move. Even though they may be materially well off, they are living in an emotional climate of scarcity and deprivation. The belief that there is a scarcity of love and support has become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

How can you extricate yourself? Here are a couple of suggestions:

    1. Cultivate an attitude of abundance. Begin to notice and question the feelings and assumptions of scarcity that surface for you in your daily interaction with your partner. Remind yourself that there is a shortage of love and support in your relationship primarily because your thinking that there is creates the self-fulfilling prophecy described above.

    2. Break the cycle. To break the vicious cycle described above, consider that if your partner is withholding, he or she is probably under a good deal of stress and is probably feeling deprived. In some cases, he/she might even blame you. The trick is to support your partner. Stumbling Blocks #3 and #4 may tend to get in your way at this point. It will seem as though you are going more than halfway, as though your partner does not want to help improve your relationship. Don’t let your partner’s behavior determine yours. The most effective, self-serving thing to do is to continue to express love and support even when your partner is not in a place to reciprocate. We should add that this will not work if it is done in a spirit of martyrdom. It will only work if it is done out of your own desire to have your relationship be the way that you want it to be.

Support can take a number of forms. It can involve listening, leaving alone, taking over chores for, giving massages to, confronting, holding, and a host of other things. It mostly involves the spirit in which whatever you do is done. Effective support assures your partner that even though things may be tough for a while, your love and support for them is constant.

In relationships based on a climate of scarcity, the tools we have described will be of some use, but it is only in relationships based on a climate of abundance that they will be able to attain their full potential.

The couples we studied who had the most outstanding relationships were the ones in which both partners had given up worrying about getting their “fair share.” Both had come to focus on ways that they could give love and support to their partner.

When we asked these pairs to think back over their expectations of their partners early in the relationship and to decide if they’d gotten what they bargained for, all the members of this group answered in almost exactly the same way: “No, I didn’t get what I expected. I got much more.” Now that’s abundance.

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Written by Tom Ferguson MD

Explore Wellness in 2021