couple walking on a beach

We Love People Who Make Us Feel Good About Ourselves

I think that this simple statement expresses much of what couples therapy is about. Generally, couples are often so mired in their frustrations that they no longer give one another the good feedback that came naturally earlier in their relationship. Very often people get recognition and admiration everywhere but at home. This is not necessarily because the spouse just doesn’t see anything positive anymore. Couples who are coming to therapy because they want to see if they can repair their relationship often do still see some or even many positive qualities in their partner. But by the time the couple seeks couple therapy, hurt, disappointment, and criticism have usually come to dominate their relationship. They are in no frame of mind to express admiration or to make the other feel good.

One of the challenges that I find with couples therapy is addressing dissatisfactions while simultaneously helping each person feel valued. If the relationship has some chance of being repaired, I try to facilitate the expression of positive perceptions of one another. In doing this, I find that it is helpful to point out that we don’t have to be completely pleased with our partner to be able to give compliments. I use the example that most people continue to affirm their children’s good traits even when they are less delighted with certain aspects of their behavior or sometimes even their personality.

Many people feel that giving good feedback about some things undermines how seriously the complaints they do have will be taken. Saying something complimentary to their partner can feel like minimizing legitimate concerns, and furthermore that doing so will decrease their partner’s motivation to change. Paradoxically, just the opposite is true. The person who feels valued and loved is much more likely to respond in a non-defense way to the other’s concerns and expressions of unhappiness. My belief in this principle affects my work in many ways. Couples are often quite taken aback by the statement, “We love those who make us feel good about ourselves.” The startling obviousness of this comment can jolt the couple into seeing the ultimate destructiveness of the path they are on. I have found that saying this is more powerful than stating the truth that criticism erodes love, which though equally true requires more explanation and frequently sparks a debate.

Feeling constantly criticized is one of the most frequent complaints couples make about their spouse. Some people internalize their partner’s criticisms and feel inadequate and incompetent. Others are more likely to feel angry. But in either case, a fundamental bond in a relationship is damaged when one no longer believes that they make the other feel happy. Frequently, a vicious circle can occur in which the criticized person withdraws, leading the other to be hurt and still more likely to point out the other’s faults, and so on. Or the criticized person, out of anger, may intentionally ignore their partner’s complaints.

One of the most important things I learned early on in my work is that asking people to stop doing something is much more effective when it occurs in conjunction with focusing on and engaging some alternative behavior. It is much easier to do something different than to just stop habitual behavior. So, an important part of breaking the vicious circle of criticism and withdrawal is to heighten each person’s awareness of the aspects of their spouse’ personalities that they feel positively about and to help them find comfortable ways to express whatever positives they find.