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If you polled most couple 鈥檚 therapists chances are that they would say the number one complaint that people have when they seek a couple 鈥 檚 therapist is communication. I would estimate that over 90% of couples who contact me for therapy provide this as the reason they need help. The reasons that couples have difficulty communicating with one another may vary from money to how to raise the kids to sex or, worse yet, an inability to agree on anything. On the surface, most couples will say that if they simply learned how to talk about these issues better then everything in their relationship would improve. As a couples therapist, when I listen very closely and watch the way couples interact with one another it often seems to me that what each partner actually wants for their partner is to agree with him or her than to actually communicate better. And because each partner is so tightly connected to this unspoken belief, a never ending power struggle develops. Why is this? Just why is it so hard to break away from power struggles? More often than not, it all boils down to one simple reason. Every communication consists of three levels, the first two of which are: 1. Concrete Level - What the fight or power struggle appears to be about 鈥?sex, money, time spent at work, how to raise the kids, etc. 2. Emotional Level - How the power struggle makes each partner feel - angry, alone, misunderstood, unloved, etc. Couples remain trapped because they focus on these two levels and never really get to the bottom the issue(s). Successful marriage counseling acknowledges these issues, but doesn't spend a whole lot of time focusing on them because they are manifestations of the third and most important level of communication: 3. Identity Level - If I compromise on this how much of my identity am I giving up? What does that mean to who I am as a person? By its very definition being in a relationship means changing one's identity. But that 鈥檚 a very uncomfortable idea for most of us. If you compromise too much you may end up losing yourself. There is a constant give and take within a relationship between how much you are willing to change for the sake of it vs. how much of your sense of self you need to keep. Power struggles and never ending fights usually arise because compromising on a certain issue means giving up something very basic to your sense of identity. Let 鈥檚 consider a couple that fights about money. For the partner who spends more money this may represent a sense of freedom and to be told that s/he can't spend the way s/he wants represents a loss of that sense of autonomy. For the other, spendthrift ways may represent a threat to his or her sense of security and spending money in certain ways may threaten his or her sense of basic safety. The goal of a good couple 鈥檚 therapist is to help couples recognize and discuss problems on the identity level, oftentimes connecting this to childhood. Once they are able to do this, a sense of understanding and empathy oftentimes naturally develops and they are able to find a peaceful resolution to their problems.
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