Counsel from an old law dog who now practices couples therapy
Bay Area lawyers and other professionals have to move fast. Pursuing demanding, stressful careers, we often add to our long working hours child rearing, dealing with parents and in-laws, cultivating friendships, overcoming intercultural issues, not to mention fending off the constant, time-sucking pinging of our electronic communication devices. With all these competing demands, opportunities for actually relating to our intimate partners are rare and precious. And what a shame it is that we would spend any of these moments in the doghouse, a place where we feel shamed, punished, and pitifully alone.
As a former member of the canine clubhouse myself, I can attest to the misery of membership and the difficulty of escape. Such challenges have motivated my own liberation and my helping others to avoid my former fate. What follows are some key basics I’ve picked up through the practice of couples therapy and the practice of life. I know this knowledge is tried and true because no less an authority than my wife says I’ve become a better husband since becoming a therapist.
What gets us in the doghouse?
Chances are, most of us don’t start out in the doghouse. In the beginning, our partners will typically ask small things of us. “Will you remember to rinse your dishes and put them in the washer?” “I so love it when you bring me flowers.” “Will you put the toilet seat down?” “Will you make the bed on Tuesdays?” “Will you make time for love making on Sunday?” If we do our best within reason to honor these requests, things will normally be cool. However, if we ignore the requests or treat them as invalid or unjustified without resolution, what started out as simple requests will, over time, become demands and criticisms – and if we do not obey or even if we do with attitude, we end up in the doghouse.
Yet when our partner opens with criticism or blame, our natural reaction is to defend ourselves. Paradoxically, doing this guarantees ourselves a trip to poodle purgatory, notwithstanding our cogent defenses such as, “You drove me to that affair with your incessant emasculating criticism,” or, “You say I never do this or that when I do it 99% of the time,” or “I missed washing one fork in my haste to get the kids to school on time and now all of a sudden it’s a federal crime!”
When the conversation begins with a complaint or criticism, followed by defensive justifications, a negative cycle will invariably ensue, guaranteed to land one partner you know where. Here’s an example cycle, a composite of personal and client conversations. We’ll call our couple Harry and Winnie.1
H: Honey, I’m home!
W: You were supposed to be here an hour ago. You know how much I count on your help during this bewitching hour. I could have used your help when our little creature threw a two-year-old fit and flung his mac ’n’ cheese all over the kitchen while filling up his diaper which then leaked all over his high chair and onto the floor while he was whining and screaming bloody murder. Where the hell were you? Why can’t I ever count on you to be here when you say you will?
H: I’m almost always here when I say I’m gonna be. I couldn’t get out of my deposition – the other lawyer wouldn’t quit! What was I supposed to do, abandon my client?
W: You know those depositions can go over; you could have scheduled it earlier or left with your client. Why do you always get defensive and argue with me? I’m the aggrieved party here. Do you think I’m just having a picnic all day?
H: I don’t always argue with you. Besides, I work, hard, too. Do you think it’s easy dealing with hostile lawyers who are trying to pick my pocket? I don’t need this nagging and aggravation when I come home. I’m not doing this anymore I’m going into the den and having a beer.
W: Yeah, sure. Just walk away. Drown your sorrows. You don’t care about me. That’s what you always do.
Here, both partners respond to the situation and to each other out of frustration, and ultimately anger. She begins with a complaint, using blaming language and he responds by defending himself and being critical of her and the fight escalates from there. He flees the fight leaving her feeling disconnected and alone. Similarly, he feels rejected, disconnected and alone – in the doghouse.
Sadly, this pattern of complaint/criticism/blame followed by defend/criticize is eminently human, and not only perfectly normal, but also normally gets us in the doghouse. But this pattern, or negative cycle, is only the tip of the iceberg. In addition to the blaming and defensive behavior, each partner has more tender underlying thoughts and feelings as well as some deep “attachment” yearnings that are driving the surface communication. Understanding these underlying thoughts, feelings, and yearnings is the first step to breaking the negative cycle.
Plumb the depths of the cycle
Plumb the depths of the cycle, learn to see it as the enemy and begin to have compassion for yourself and your partner. Let’s start with Harry. Beneath his anger and defensiveness, he may be feeling stung by the criticism, thinking he’s been unjustly accused of not stepping up, that no matter what he does, it’s not good enough, that he wants to be enough for her but wonders if he ever can. He may be walking on egg shells, cowering in fear that one false step is going to trigger painful criticism. He comes to expect every communication to be a demand or complaint. When he does things she asks, it’s often out of fear of the consequences of not doing it rather than out of the love for her he felt during their courtship. He may have no clue how to fix the problem, like a dog who’s desperate to assuage his master’s anger and hears something but has no idea what the sounds mean.
He may experience a cold, stony silence that feels dead and disconnected. Being put in the doghouse may be experienced as emasculating punishment. He may long for her to see him as she did when they first met and be despairing that she ever will. Ultimately, feeling deeply sad and discouraged, he may think it’s hopeless, that his partner will reject him, and he will lose her forever.
And what about Winnie? To get a little practice of what it’s like to understand another’s thoughts and emotions, choose from this list (see page 14) possible feelings Winnie might be experiencing.
Beneath her obvious frustration, among other thoughts and feelings, Winnie may feel like she’s crying for help but there’s no one there. She’s alone, overwhelmed, maybe desperate, feeling unloved, worried, even panicked. Over time she’ll possibly feel a deep sadness, even hopelessness, and a yearning for attachment to her partner, reassurance that she matters to him, that he cares about her emotional well-being and that he’ll have her back. She wants him to be on the same team as she is but may wonder if he’ll ever step up and take responsibility.
Once we take in our partners’ tender emotions and attachment yearnings, change begins to happen. First, our brains shift from a fight/flight mode – seeing our partner’s behavior as a threat and either fleeing it or fighting it – into a care-giving mode from which we can respond warmly and supportively.
Second, when our partners show us that we matter to them, and accept and love us, we realize that we both have the same underlying yearnings for connection and fears of losing each other. These shared yearnings enable us to find compassion for ourselves and our partners. Once we flesh out the cycle, we’re ready to apply that comprehension in real time to change the cycle.
Resist knee-jerk defensiveness
It’s only possible to actually change our negative cycle by detaching from it and looking at it from that perspective before reacting unproductively. This is the hardest and yet most important step. It is particularly difficult when our partners begin with a tone or language that can be heard as saying we’ve done something wrong – blaming, criticizing, accusing. Defending or explaining ourselves in such circumstances is likely a continuation of a habitual childhood strategy to avoid punishment. And while we may think these explanations might help us avoid “punishment” in the form of angry outbursts of our partners or worse, we’ve seen that while this behavior may have been useful in the past, now, it has just the opposite effect.
Our defensiveness shifts the focus on us and prevents us from addressing our partners’ underlying tender feelings and attachment yearnings, leaving them with the disappointment of not having some sorely neglected needs even heard, much less addressed. But once we’ve hit the emotional pause button, we can tune into our partner’s needs.
Lead with empathy and tune into your partner’s yearnings
Beginning by showing empathy – i.e., feeling what they feel or at least showing that we understand what they feel – sounds simple enough but for many, it’s not that easy. It’s not saying, “yeah, I hear ya” or asking questions. Rather, it’s responding in a way that shows their plight has had an emotional impact on us and that they matter to us. Here’s what that might look like, starting from . . . .
W: Why can’t I ever count on you to be here when you say you will?”
H: [With feeling2] Oh, sweetheart, what a nightmare! You must be at your wit’s end. I can barely imagine how frustrated and overwhelmed you’re feeling. I hate it that you’ve been put through this misery . . . .
H: The thought that you had to suffer through all that alone just makes me feel so bad . . .
Showing such empathy immediately let’s Winnie know she matters to Harry, even that he hurts because she hurts. From the outset, he addresses this all important attachment need for her to know he genuinely cares about her rather than just trying to placate her out of fear. More importantly, Harry doesn’t get distracted by Winnie’s irritation and blaming language.3
After showing empathy, the next step would be to fully address her tender emotions and yearning. This doesn’t have to be done all at once nor does it mean either that Harry is at fault or that he will necessarily have to change his behavior. But it is important to be clear that Harry cares enough about Winnie to take her concerns seriously even though they might not be of concern to him, were he in her shoes.
Here is how the rest of the conversation might have gone:
H: I hate it that you’ve been put through all this. My day sucked, too, and I‘m so sorry I’m late, but more about that later. How can I help you now? How ’bout I start cleaning up the caked-on crap from the floor? What can I do to make your life a little better right now?
W: You’re already doing it. It’s why I love you so much.
Here, Harry notes that he might need to be cared for, too. After all, his needs are no less important or compelling than hers. But Harry recognizes that conversation is best delayed because Winnie’s need is more immediate. He also notes that he intends to work with her on a more permanent solution to timely home arrival. This does not mean that he’s done anything “wrong” – only that he wants to be on the same team with her in finding a solution to meet both of their needs. Moreover, he shows just how much he cares for her by continuing to address her aloneness and being overwhelmed, literally getting in the “shit” with her.
With these responses to Winnie’s underlying tender feelings and yearnings, the couple is connected, feeling on the same team, she, supported and cared for and he, appreciated and valued. What’s more, there will be space later to discuss the rest of the day for both partners and problem solve return-home timing issues. What’s more, these conversations can now take place from a foundation of connection and generosity of spirit. Not to mention that chances for physical intimacy have also just greatly improved!
A former Texas trial lawyer, “Superlawyer” and “legal innovator,” Mark Perlmutter, MA, JD, now helps individuals and couples to have extraordinary relationships with intimate partners and audiences. He is also an Adjunct Professor of Law at UC Hastings and the University of Texas School of Law. He has counseled law students at Golden Gate University and serves as a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, focusing on couples therapy and public speaking anxiety. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
2017 by the author.
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