You may have noticed by now that this book has avoided “the seven secrets” formula frequently adopted in self-help literature. A quick perusal of self-help titles gives the impression that truth always comes bundled in batches of five, seven, and ten. If it were only that simple. A less cartoonish view acknowledges that relationships are far more complex. I’ve never seen a book titled Jet Engines for Dummies. The human mind is infinitely more complex than a jet engine. The real truth of intimate relationships is messy. Good couple therapy often resembles detective work as the therapist works through a maze of interlocking dynamics. So how are average people supposed to make sense of all this confusion and improve their relationship?
The current chapter lists some recommended strategies for several common relationship problems. The list isn’t all-inclusive and it can’t solve the most difficult problems. After all, the title of this book refers to a first-aid kit and not deep surgery or intensive care. Simple remedies are suggested for the more simple problems. It also offers initial direction for more complex problems and that’s worth a lot.
It’s particularly helpful to conceptualize relationship problems as occurring on three levels of difficulty. They involve deficits in knowledge, skill, or capacity. These categories aren’t necessarily exclusive, but let’s not overly confound the subject. A knowledge deficit is when a person lacks the information about how the problem can be solved. They can easily learn it. Then they can voluntarily and relatively quickly change their behavior. For example, knowing that your partner needs regular nurturance can inspire you to immediately change your routine. Many couples have found that such a simple intervention can increase their affection and reduce fighting. The information allows a change in their voluntary behavior. This is the level at which most self-help books are written. “Follow these steps. Do this and do that.” It’s a strategy that works for some problems but not for others.
Skill deficits involve a greater level of difficulty. A skill involves a learned behavior shaped by training. You can’t get the desired effect on your first try. You have to repeatedly practice the behavior in order to perform it correctly. Using stick shift on a car becomes easy only after a lot of practice. Implementing “The When and Where Rule” during a toxic conflict also requires practice. Most people can’t remember the rule just from verbal instruction. When their adrenalin flows, their good judgment and memory both take a hike. However, they can train themselves to remember it if they repetitively use the rule in practice drills. Then the skills will be available to conscious memory when they need them.
Capacity deficits cause the greatest difficulty in a relationship. By referring to capacity deficits, I mean limitations that are basic and involuntary. Any improvements require much time and effort if they can be changed at all. Cognitive recovery after a stroke is one example. The stroke victim’s memory may gradually improve but will still probably show residual deficits. Low intelligence, a low level of consciousness, and poor emotional regulation are all types of capacity deficits. The integrity foundation in a relationship is the capacity issue we’ve been discussing throughout this book.
Increasing your capacity is extremely difficult because you have to fundamentally change your brain. It’s true that instructional learning and skill learning both involve new brain growth. However, that type of growth is highly specific to either verbal information or a particular behavior. Changing capacity requires pervasive changes in your brain, most of which are unconscious. For this reason, it’s more accurate to say that you might be able to slowly grow your capacity but you can’t rapidly change it to your liking. Certain kinds of experience can catalyze faster growth in capacity by accelerating the brain’s ability to grow new connections.
There’s no way that I can assign a simple prescription for every problem behavior that occurs in relationships. The biggest reason involves a psychological phenomenon known as “equifinality.” Equifinality means that different combinations of history and emotional dynamics can produce the same behavioral outcomes. For example, lying comes very naturally to a sociopath. But lying is also a common defense for someone who has conflict phobia. The psychopath is undersocialized, while the person with conflict phobia may have been trained by his parents to surrender all boundaries. The underlying emotional dynamics are different. Another example of equifinality involves women who show no sexual interest after they’ve married. For some women who have poor autonomy and fear conflict, normal marital friction can gradually turn them numb. Other women who never developed their sexuality before marriage might later revert to their usual non-sexuality once they feel safe in motherhood. Different pathways of personal history and emotion can lead to the same end point. This is why effective planning for change has to consider a person’s context in the form of personality and social history. Their context gives important clues about which emotional dynamics need to be targeted. The problem is that there are too many contexts to put into any all-inclusive list.
In the following scenarios, some of the more common problems are described in various contexts. Where the proposed strategy involves readings, I highly recommend that both you and your partner read each section and discuss it together. The proposed strategy usually won’t work if only one of you does the reading and has the responsibility to explain it to the other. Don’t do that! It’s a set-up for failure. You both need to take full responsibility for your strategy.
It’s a good idea to plan a weekly meeting with your partner outside of the home. You can both relax in a coffee shop with a copy of this book, as well as two pads of paper. You can then take each relevant chapter from the book and discuss it section by section. Plan how you will implement any of the recommended exercises. You can also use these meetings to review your progress and make changes if your strategy needs tinkering. The trick is to be methodical and consistent. It’s the biggest determinant of success. Some effective strategies require months to produce the desired outcome. Changing your capacity requires even longer, sometimes years.