Although couples counseling is often seen as a last-ditch effort to stave off a pending divorce, the real purpose of couples counseling is to improve interpersonal relationships through open and honest communication before minor problems can devolve into irreconcilable differences. There may be a triggering event that leads to communication issues within a relationship, such as a death in the family, or perhaps the relationship has fallen into a comfortable rut and the partners have started to take each other for granted.
Whatever reason you have for seeking couples counseling, there are certain common phrases to avoid when speaking to your partner in a couples counseling session, as they may cause further issues rather than resolve the current problems that led you into counseling. These phrases are:
“You Never Help Me”
Variants on “You never do this” or “You always do that” are problematic for two reasons. First, by starting the conversation by focusing on your partner, they may feel put on the spot and become defensive. Second, by going to the extremes of “always” or “never” you may be opening yourself up to an argument where your partner focuses on counteracting the “always” or “never” by giving examples. If you start a counseling session with “You never help me with the dishes,” your partner may respond with “I did the dishes just last week.” The problem is not that your partner never does the dishes, the problem is that you are unhappy with the frequency with which your partner does dishes.
Temper your language by focusing on your own feelings first using “I” statements and then bringing in the problem your partner can help remedy. Continuing with our dishes example, you could say something like, “It makes me feel unappreciated when I have to do the dishes five nights a week.” This gives your partner insight into why you are frustrated, and what they can do to help you feel better.
As anyone who has been told to “calm down” knows, this phrase often has the opposite effect. Being told to calm down when you are expressing your feelings, whether positive or negative, can feel condescending and dismissive. Avoid telling your partner to calm down and think about what they are expressing to you. Try to stay understanding of their feelings—but if you do need them to calm down, consider saying something “It’s hard for me to talk to you in this situation” and then suggest either a short breather (so that the situation can actually calm down) or ask if there is anything you can do to help your partner. Taking a few minutes to breathe and reflect on a problem can help defuse a tense situation.
The ultimate in dismissing phrases, telling your partner “whatever” is an almost surefire way to spark an argument. Usually, “whatever” is used as a way to shut down a conversation that one partner is uninterested in having—whether at this moment in time or ever. Rather than shutting down completely, think about why you aren’t interested in having this specific conversation and use the “I” statements to convey your feelings to your partner.
These tips are designed to get you started in counseling. Whatever your particular concerns are for your relationship, the first step is acknowledging that your relationship is worth continuing, and that couples counseling can get you and your partner back on track.