Thursday, April 23, 2009

What if Your Partner is a Jerk? (part 3 of 3)

In a previous post I described levels of "jerkiness" in the well partner -- from unaware to indifferent to downright mean. Of course, the ill partner can act like a jerk too, but that's a topic for another post.

The first suggestion I offered (in part 1) for dealing with a well partner who is acting like a jerk is to try empathic communication. The second suggestion (in part 2) was to turn away from your partner's darkness towards the sources of light and support in your life. In this post I will offer the third suggestion -- couples therapy.

When your interactions with your partner are filled with more acrimony than sweetness, when even seemingly benign requests - like please take out the garbage or can you drive the kids to school this morning -- feel like they carry implied criticisms, when you say more to your pillow than to your partner -- it is time to consider couples therapy.

When silence stretches for days and is used as punishment, when you lose interest in doing the activities that used to be mutually enjoyable, when you exhaust your precious energy on pleading, cajoling, and berating, when there's been an affair -- it is time for couples therapy.

Why am I suggesting couples rather than individual therapy? Because if there is hope that the relationship can be renovated, it lies in working together, not apart. The problems manifest in the couple relationship, and it will take the will and insight of both partners to resolve them. Individual treatment may be a useful accompaniment to couples work at some point, but not at the start.

What happens in couples therapy? Both partners get to tell their stories, uninterrupted. But perhaps, more importantly, both partners learn to listen to each other. And with guidance, they learn how to communicate the often painful truths in ways that the other partner can hear. So instead of firing random shots about peripheral matters because of deeply held anger -- anger that's really about the illness, about unfairness, about the past -- partners learn how to address feelings and issues directly. They learn how to love and how to fight.

One of the greatest gifts Richard and I received from couples therapy we did decades ago was to learn how to "speak the unspeakable," to always talk with honesty and as much empathy as we can muster about our disappointments and heartaches with each other. We learned that it was the unspoken that caused damage, not the spoken.

How do you find a couple's therapist? Ask people you know for recommendations. Ask friends, doctors, nurses, physical therapists, clergy. Don't rely on advertisements or lists of approved providers. Dig deeper. The most important factor is that the therapist has indeed worked with lots of couples. Interview the therapist over the phone. Ask questions like -
  • how long have you been in practice?
  • how many couples have you worked with?
  • have you ever worked with couples and illness?
  • how would you describe your approach or style with couples?
  • how much do you charge?
  • what insurance do you take?
  • do you have any questions for me?
As you talk to the therapist, pay attention to your own inner intuition and feelings. If you get a sense that the person is "right" for you and your partner, set up an appointment for an initial meeting.

Couple's therapy may or may not help your situation. There's no guarantee. But if you both still want to try to make your relationship better, it's worth a shot.


Kerry said...

What a great post series. Reading this latest reminds me to be grateful for having an extremely non jerkish partner. Kerry

Joanna said...

I am on this step right now... I wouldn't use the word "jerk" in my situation, but a lot of silence/ unexpressed frustration/ etc...
A great series for everyone, no matter where they are!

Health Advocate said...

LOL.. really great article of yours.. Jerk is jerk still.. :)
ask a nurse

Dr. Deb said...

Great post. And I love the t-shirt.