Naked Truth: Do Both Partners Have to Work on the Relationship Together?
I recently started coaching a couple I’ll call Jake and Ashley. Jake can sometimes be a bit aggressive in the way he gives Ashley feedback. When he does this, Ashley gets reactive because she feels she’s being attacked and blamed for something she did wrong. On numerous occasions in our sessions Jake has sworn this isn’t the case. He isn’t “mad” at her. It’s just that he often doesn’t always have the wherewithal to approach her in a gentle way. He’s working on it, but he admits that he can come across somewhat anxious and abrasive at times.
Recently, Ashley came to see me for a private session. She had a list of incidents where Jake had “attacked” her and set her off. She was also hurt because she felt that this was Jake’s issue. He was the one who was abrasive. So, why did she have to be the one to stop reacting? Shouldn’t he be coming to coaching to work on himself?
Here’s what I told her:
- This isn’t an either or situation. Jake should work on his delivery just as much as she needs to work on her reactivity. Both are true.
- Usually in a couple, there is one person with a higher level of emotional intelligence. Often that person is the woman. Women are more naturally inclined to focus on their personal and emotional growth. This doesn’t mean the other partner should get a hall pass and not have to work on himself, it just means that one partner is able to grasp issues in the relationship faster and that partner is more likely to be the one to make the changes that are needed to balance out the emotional dynamics in the couple. In this case, Ashley is that person.
- It’s not true that two people have to work on a relationship together. When one partner makes changes, the other partner is also forced to change. So, just because one partner doesn’t like going to coaching, it doesn’t mean that the relationship is doomed. Each partner in a relationship has different strengths. You want to leverage those strengths. If one person is the primary breadwinner, the other person can focus more on maintaining the emotional stability in the relationship. Susan Page, one of my favorite authors, wrote a book on this very subject: How One of You Can Bring the Two of You Together.
- Finally, I offered Ashley this solution drawn from my own rather peaceful marriage. Whenever my husband is giving me feedback and I start to feel defensive, I calm myself by reminding myself of the following:
He chose me out of all the women in the world to be his partner, he loves me dearly, and I need to trust that his intentions are good and that any feedback he’s giving me is for the betterment of us and our relationship.
One of the many things I admire most about Ashley is how open and coachable she is. She agreed that she has more of bandwidth for personal growth than Jake. She was also willing to let go of the idea that they both had to be working on the relationship. They still come in for joint sessions, but she is also coming in once a week to do some additional work on her own. In our last joint sessions, when I filled Jake in on what Ashley and I had talked about, he said, “I really liked that part about what you said say to yourself when you start to feel defensive with your husband. When Ashley starts to get upset with me, I am going to remind myself that she loves me, that she chose me out of all the men in the world to be her partner, and that she means well.” When I looked over at Ashley, she was beaming.
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