Do couples not have relationship skills?

Do couples not have relationship skills?

Another couple has just left my office. They say that that they don’t like the fighting, and that their constant battling is affecting their sleep, their health, their work, and their children. They tell me they love each other, and that they want to stay together but not in this way. Both have good jobs and get along well with co-workers, relatives and friends. They also tell me that unless I can do something for them, their relationship will not survive. This scene plays over and over in our practice. 

I am puzzled. Most people seem to know how to solve problems in a reasonable way, and often do it successfully in other areas of their lives. So why is it that couples seem to lose the ability to get along and resolve their differences in a civil way when it comes to their intimate relationships?

Why do reasonable people become unreasonable with the person who matters most to them? And, isn’t it condescending and disrespectful for a couples specialist to say that they “lack the relationship skills” they seem perfectly capable of exhibiting in other relationships?

But strange as it may seem, this is what we see in our office, and we know that this is only a small sample of the innumerable struggling couples who don’t seek counseling. According to experts in the field, here are some of the main reasons couples fight:

1) Not feeling appreciated

Everyone wants to feel understood, valued, loved, and appreciated, and when we don’t, we tend either to withdraw or attack the other person for not meeting our needs.

2) Not making the relationship a priority

Many couples take each other for granted and don’t give their relationship the attention it needs they did when they first met. This lack of closeness and connection can be overwhelming and cause loneliness.

3) Need to be “right”

Some people have their self-esteem tied up in being right, and they don’t know how to save face if they back down or admit a mistake.

4) Need for power and control

This is the need to be right at its most extreme.  To gain power by getting a partner to back down or give in is more important for some people than real equality or intimacy. This is the “win the battle but lose the war” strategy, and is deadly.

5) Differences

When romantic loves fades, the differences that surface between two people are viewed as tragedies and disappointments, rather than reasons for negotiations, compromise and the opportunity to exhibit loving patience.

Taking the time to think about the meaning of conflicts is important. Conflicts are not win-lose propositions, but rather signs that something is wrong, and that each person has to change. Helping couples become aware of what is really behind the fights may help some of them, but let’s not kid ourselves – a couples counselor is not a magician.

We know that couples who learn how to communicate respectfully are far more successful than those who remain mired in all the “reasons” listed above.  And unless partners are interested in devoting time, energy, and resources to figure out what’s underneath their fights and work to change the way they interact with each other, a couples counselor will merely be a referee.

For couples who are just starting their relationship or have not been together for very long, they can nip issues in the bud whether they are a heterosexual couple or a same sex couple.