April 17, 2020
In March 2020, Dan Wile, Ph.D., passed away. Dr. Wile was a thoughtful and gentle psychologist. Yet, he developed a brilliantly clear and innovative model for working with couples to improve their communication, their relationships, and their level of intimacy.
Over the past 20 years, I have attended a number of Dan’s seminars and I have read his books and blog posts. In this Counseling Newsletter I will highlight and summarize some of Dr. Wile’s most wise and incisive comments on the causes of marital tension and how you might use his approach to improve, strengthen, and deepen your marriage.
What Seemed Cute
The behavior (routines, habits, tendencies) that once seemed cute have now become annoying. Does she really have to smile that way all the time? The differences that once seemed minor now appear glaring. Doesn’t he ever want to go out? Habits that were once irritating now have become infuriating. Does she have to turn on the radio every time she comes into the room? The negative side of what originally attracted us now slides into view. I love her energy, but can’t she ever sit down for a second?! His steadiness is calming, but doesn’t he get excited about anything? I love her honesty, but does she have to speak so brutally about me?
Forming and building a new relationship is like entering a new culture. And if it’s broadening to travel to another country and to another culture, then it’s broadening to form a new relationship. Entering a new culture or relationship produces problems, however. The goal is to obtain the benefits of this new culture and, at the same time, to be able to deal with it’s problems. That’s what a marriage is like.
Over time, the issues and problems that partners handle well become taken for granted. But, the ones they can’t handle well—the sticking points in the relationship—move into the foreground. Soon it is only these sticking points that the partners are aware of. This newsletter is about creating a non-accusing vantage point above the marital fray. Ideally this shared relational vantage point will serve as a platform from which we can talk about our relationship without getting into fights. This relational platform, or communicative perch, can provide a way to recover from those fights that we do get into. Operating from such a platform, we will be able to commiserate with our spouses about these fights and turn them into occasions for intimacy. Much of this approach is about viewing our partners emphatically. It’s about counteracting our usual tendency which is to view our partners and ourselves accusingly.
Finding the Hidden Reasonableness
A key life assumption of mine is that there is no random or chance behavior—even in marriage relationships. Everything we do, even our foolish and poorly considered words and speech, are intended to do something “that works.” All of our behavior is intended to solve a problem. Admittedly, often times our behavior is immature and selfish—and such behaviors and words don’t actually serve to solve the relational problem. Often times they do the opposite.
A primary goal in this marital therapy model is to develop a platform, a non-blaming vantage point, from which couples can recognize the ways in which their partners (as well as their own) behavior makes sense. Even though the behavior does not seem sensical.
Behavior that appears on the surface to be inappropriate, irrational, childish, or pathological always has a hidden rationality in terms of the present and not just the past. Part of the process of marital therapy is to open our eyes and hearts to this disguised or hidden “reasonableness.”
Certain Problems are Unsolvable
Each marriage relationship has its own particular set of inescapable recurring problems. Each marriage has its own set of challenges and redundant issues that remain throughout the length of the relationship. We don’t grow out of these patterns. In fact, in many cases, these unsolvable problems seem to become more unsolvable as the years pass.
So, there is value, when choosing a long-term partner, to realize that you will be choosing, along with that person, a particular set of irresolvable problems, that you’ll be grappling with for the next 10, 20 or even 50 years. (If you get divorced and remarry, you are in essence exchanging one set of irresolvable problem for another. Your hope is that the new set may be easier to deal with than the old.)
Another way to phrase this notion of unsolvability is that what people don’t like about their partners, may be the other side of what they do like. In fact, a relationship is, in some sense, the attempt to work out the negative side effects of what attracted you to your partner in the first place. Certain problems are unsolvable, at least for the moment.
I am not saying that marriage relationships are futile and forever fraught with chronic upset and tension. But, it is important to acknowledge that there is a degree of unsolvability in all marriages. A key component in building a stable, solid, and loving marriage is to develop a way of working with, around, and through these unsolvable domains.
Talking About the Problem
In all marriages there are two problems.
- The problem itself.
- The way partners talk (or don’t talk) about the problem.
The goal is to be able to talk about the problem, not just once, but in an ongoing way.
Practically every technique and approach used in marital therapy reduces to one thing: finding a way to talk with your partner that works out. At any moment, there is a conversation you and your partner could have that would help the two of you deal with what is happening in the relationship at the moment. As you are able to clearly express your heart and mind—and as you are able to deeply listen to your spouse’s heart and mind, you are developing a platform on which to commiserate, to build a shared understanding, and to take actions which you both support and are invested in.
It is not surprising that the heart of a marriage relationship is commonly described as sharing common interests, companionship, doing things together, raising children, trust, loyalty, commitment, sexual closeness, and love. I agree that these are a big part of being a couple and sharing our lives.
But, I also disagree. In a different way, the heart of a couple’s relationship is saying what you need to say with the sense that it has gotten across: feeling that you’ve been heard and understood, believing that your spouse will take your words to heart and that this conversation will change how you live as a couple, believing and knowing that they have heard you and given your words weight in a way that will change their words and behavior. Having such conversations is at the heart of couple relationship that works out.
We Are Told
Mental health professionals and relationship experts offer advice on how to communicate. They offer quippy one-liners that are supposed to help us get along. Although these suggestions can prove to be helpful, they are not as wise as they may seem to be. Here are some thoughts influenced by Dr. Wile.
- We are told that when voicing a complaint we should make “I statements.” Yet, it is also true that “you” statements already have within them hidden “I” statements. We are told that beginning a confronting sentence with “you” is aggressive and blaming. But, it is also true that “you” statements signal that something needs to be talked about; “I” statements provide the starting point to do that.
- “You statements” (accusations) are not all bad. In fact, in a surprising way they can be useful. They are rough approximations of “I” statements with a little heat added. The you statement, “You are completely selfish and irresponsible,” can be thought of as a rough first approximation of the “I statement,” “I felt taken for granted when you came home late last night.” To start with a “you” statement along the way to an “I” statement can be a good start.
- We are told not to say never or always. But it’s also true that people says always and never when they feel they aren’t getting their point across. It’s a means of emphasis and an expression of frustration.
- We are told to listen to our partners and not interrupt—to wait our turn. But, it’s also true that we have a hard time listening to them when, as often happens, we feel un-listened-to by our partner. We are left with a difficult choice: to interrupt, which squelches the other person, or not to interrupt, which squelches us.
- We are told not to speculate about our partners’ feelings, but to talk only about our own feelings. But mind reading, attempting to read our partner’s mind, might reveal what’s on our mind and, as such, might provide a helpful clue to what we are feeling. It turns out that mind reading is often an expression (projection) of our own feelings, particularly worry and fear, put in the form of assertions about our partner’s feelings. (On the other hand, mind reading is telling people what they are thinking, feeling, rather than asking them or waiting until they tell you.)
A Marital Fight
We may not like to admit it, but all couples have conflict—and sometimes the tension, distance, and conflict becomes intense and protracted. Dan Wile offered some wise and unconventional perspectives on marital conflict and working them out.
In its essence, what is a marital fight? It’s an exchange in which two people become increasingly frustrated because neither is able to have his or her say. Whenever I see a fight (or find myself in one), I immediately assume that this is what’s happening. People are unable to make their points because:
- They aren’t stating them clearly.
- They don’t know what their points are (and thus they have no chance at all of getting them across).
- Their partners aren’t listening.
And, of course, their partners aren’t listening. A fight is going on, and the point in a fight is to refute what the other says rather than to listen to it. In a fight neither participant has any interest in hearing what the other has to say until the other hears what he or she has to say.
If a fight is created by each partner feeling un-listened-to, then the way out of it is for one of the partners to begin to listen.
Very often, accusing turns your spouse into someone who can’t listen. Yet, listening to your partner can turn him/her into someone who might listen.
Taking a different approach, your partner is more likely to listen to you if you report the hurt and disappointment that underlies your anger.
For starters, one way to get your partner to listen to you and to be more open to your perspective is to express the ways in which you agree with what he/she just said and go from there to make your point.
The belief that you are having a discussion when you are really having an argument has given talking a bad name. Thinking they’re only talking when they’re actually fighting, people come away all the more convinced that talking just makes matters worse.
It’s difficult to have a fight and a conversation at the same time—and often it’s necessary to have the fight first. Fights are, thus, both pathways and obstacles to conversations.
Other Marital Communication Truths From Dr. Wile
- Fantasies are seen, on the one hand, as something that you shouldn’t be having and, on the other hand, as something that your partner should be fulfilling.
- Rather than telling people not to violate communication rules, I would want them to expect to violate them, recover and apologize, and then to use their violations as clues.
- Become an expert in the art of interrupting without interrupting, that is, finding ways of expressing your objection that don’t completely cut off your partner.
- “I want my chance, because you’re saying a lot of unfair things. But go on.”
- “It’s taking all of my effort to keep from interrupting you.”
- “You may be making some good points, but I’m too upset by your tone to be able to listen.”
- When a person says, “You don’t like any of my friends,” what he or she might really mean is, “I’m worried that you don’t like me.” That’s what mind reading often is. It’s a worry put in the form of an assertion. It’s a fear stated as a fact.
- We all store up complaints. We do it all the time. And we often do it without knowing it.
We are told to be polite, respectful, and tactful. In fact, being polite, respectful, and tactful is one of the rules that communication skills trainers tell us to follow. But being polite, respectful, and tactful requires suppressing complaints. And suppressing complaints means storing them up. And storing them up leads to dumping them out. So here’s my suggestion. Instead of telling someone that they shouldn’t dump out stored-up complaints—I recommend that they use these “dumped out” complaints as clues.
- In “prefacing” the person shifts to the overview level before the conversation: describing feelings, fears, hopes and reservations about what they are about to say.
- In “recovering” they shift to the overview level after the conversation. They step back from the argument and try to figure out what happened.