As the recession bites, and debts increase, relationships inevitably suffer. Financial tension has destroyed many marriages, so we should prepare to see the divorce rate rise with its accompanying depression and anger. With this in mind I thought I would present some information that frequently gets aired in relationship therapy.
When working with a couple, I consider three parties, him, her, and them (using the heterosexual pattern as a model for today). Very importantly, I stress before we begin, and with regularity – I do not take sides, I do not judge or blame. I am to be forgiven my generalisations here, chiefly because I am not writing with any particular couple in mind.
An equal relationship is difficult to achieve, even with the best will in the world, by two people who have different roles within a relationship. Generally speaking, when a woman loves a man she cares how he feels. Generally speaking, when a man loves a woman, he cares how he feels about her. In all the years that I have quoted the last two sentences in couples therapy, nobody has ever disputed these assertions.
Resented roles play a damaging role in relationships. A frequent example is the person sick of performing the same thankless tasks over and over. In this case, we’ll pick tidying. The place gets messy quickly, only one of the couple (this example works in shared communities too) seems to pick up & clean up – often. Nobody else sees the mess, so the pick-up-person feels lumbered with a task they increasingly resent, and the resentment builds. By the time I see the couple, this has been a long term topic of argument, they have tried to look at taking turns, but it doesn’t work. Here is why: Pick-up-person has more awareness of and discomfort with mess and untidiness. If by some miracle, other partner did pick up, it would likely be not to pick-up-person’s standards. The solution is that Pick-up-person continues to pick up, but others in the house acknowledge and show appreciation when this is being performed around them. Pick-up-person feels appreciated, and no longers resents picking up. This applies to cooking and other tasks, and comes under the subject of strokes. Strokes are a Transactional Analysis term for appreciation, it can be verbal acknowledgement, or a hand on a shoulder, it is a demonstration of personal appreciation.
Strokes happen all around us, and I’ll take my example from Eric Berne’s original book on Transactional Analysis: Games People Play. Two neighbours pass each other by on the way to work in the morning. Every morning they say “Good Morning” to each other, only this and nothing more, they do not know each others’ names. Suddenly, one of them isn’t there in the morning, and is absent for a few weeks. When he reappears, instead of Good Morning, the other will greet him and mention he hadn’t seen him for awhile. The first will mention his illness or holiday etc and some details are finally exchanged. The following morning the two return to the basic greetings of before. Breaking this down, the basic acknowledgement stroke was like currency, the two exchanged the same greeting, so all felt stable. When one disappeared, the other noticed & felt cheated of the basic strokes, but not enough to go looking for explanations. When he reappeared, the other felt owed a two week supply of strokes, resulting in a longer exchange. Once done, with debts paid, they return to the basic acknowledgement, quite happily. If a couple have a long history of working hours, they are settled into a certain pattern of hours together which contain numerous routine behaviours. Should one of them lose a job or go to shorter working hours, stroke psychology enters the equation. One may feel aggrieved and guilty they are not able to pull their weight financially, guilty at imposing a belt-tightening regime, but angry at having working hours and pride torn from them. They may be more underfoot, depressed, avoiding giving an account of feelings of failure. It is important to communicate not just the facts of what has changed, but the feelings also, allowing both parties to adequately adjust. In such, and other exchanges, be careful not to push opinions that may seem judgemental. Discuss feelings with “I feel” statements, rather than “I think” statements. “I think we need to get more money in” can convey guilt and pressure, “I think…” sounds judgemental. “I feel stressed by our finances” is hard to dispute, you own your feelings, others do not feel judged by them.
Every relationship is organic, you have not arrived, the relationship needs feeding and tending to and requires tender loving care by both parties.
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