How I Help Couples Improve their Intimate Relationships

When I am working with couples I find that partners hear the words each other says but they do not hear the messages sent by the words. They interrupt each other. Some talk over each other. Some feel attacked and defend their positions. Others defend themselves by attacking and accusing the other. The talker talks more and often louder. The quiet one talks less and withdraws even further. The fixer tries to fix. Neither seems to be willing to listen to the other’s point of view until they have had their point of view heard. Often each is caught up in the need to be right or the partner who hates confrontation often caves in in the face of heated emotion.

To help couples change how they interact I facilitate a dialogue between the partners by using myself as a filter. If a couple tells me about an argument or fight they had outside the therapy office I do not know what went on. I did not hear the words. I did not see the body language or the behaviors. In my office, I can see and hear what is going on. I hear the words. I see the body language. I can see what is working well in the relationship and I can build on that. I also can see what is getting in the way. I can intervene and address the problematic interactions right then.

I ask one partner to start to talk to the other about a contentious issue but to do it through me. I listen very carefully to what is said and then I take what is said and reflect it to his or her partner. Sometimes I use the same words and sometimes I say the same thing only using different words. Then I ask their partner to respond to what was said. I do the same thing; I listen carefully, then I take what was said and reflect it back to their partner.

I block interruptions. This forces them to sit and listen to their partner twice, once when their partner is talking and once while I am talking. This forces them to truly listen instead of thinking of their rebuttal while their partner is still talking. Then they get to respond and say whatever they want.

I discourage solutions at this point because the real problem has not been identified. It is counter productive to try to solve a problem when you don’t know if there is a problem or what the problem really is.

The dialogue continues back and forth. Through this process things start to shift. Partners begin to hear the messages the other is sending. They start to understand their partner’s point of view. They learn new things about their partners. Misunderstandings get clarified.

Through this process we are able to discover what the real problem is. Once identified we can explore what changes are possible.

I ask each partner to stop trying to change other. I tell them that the one person you can change is yourself. If you change, your partner will usually respond to your change with change. Of course there is no guarantee that your partner will change or even change in a positive way, but most of the time partners do respond to change with change. Change is what is needed.

I work with each partner right there and then to find changes they can make and are willing to make. I check with their spouse to see that he or she will respond positively to those changes.

Each one is to be responsible for his or her own changes. Each one is to work on their own changes regardless of whether their partner does or not. If their partner does not work on their changes they are to bring that complaint to the next session.

Now something different can happen between the couple. They are to come back next session and report what worked well and what was problematic. We build on what went well and address what is still not working.

With care and concern.

Dr. Bea Mackay

Do it Yourself Relationship Help at

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